Right about the time last summer when stores were discounting their beach umbrellas to make room for back-to-school stuff, Congress heaved a fat slab of legislation at the feet of the retirement industry. It was the biggest piece of legislation to hit the pension world since Gerald Ford was president.
It will take years to know for sure what effect the 900-plus-page Pension Protection Act of 2006 will have on Americans' ability to retire with dignity, but some things are already known.
To their credit, the creators of this retirement grab bag recognized that Americans routinely make a hash of their 401(k) choices and desperately need help. The 401(k) legislative changes that have received the most attention are aimed at helping workplace sloths.
To its credit, the act encourages companies to automatically sign up employees who never get around to completing their enrollment paperwork. Just as importantly, the government permits a broader range of so-called default investments for these unwitting enrollees.
In the past, companies that automatically enrolled the slackers were usually timid. They'd direct the money from these workers into something supersafe - such as a money market fund - because they feared these investors would run to trial lawyers if the markets couldn't steer out of a nasty U-turn. Thanks to the act, companies can be more emboldened to direct the money to investments that will generate higher returns.
Of course, these provisions are going to benefit only the kind of people who would never spend a Sunday morning reading a financial column. But what about all the conscientious workers out there? These are the folks who already contribute to their workplace plans, but they worry that their investment strategy is as intelligible as the pasta letters floating in a bowl of soup.
I can relate to this fear because that's how I felt as a young reporter when I enrolled in a 401(k) plan at the Los Angeles Times. When faced with a mere four investment choices back then, I toyed with using the eeny, meeny, miny, moe approach but settled on something equally boneheaded. I spread the money equally over the four choices because there was nobody there who could stop me. While no one expects workers to conduct their own angioplasty or mammogram, they are routinely expected to know enough about investing to keep their workplace cache of money not only healthy but also growing nicely. Obviously, this is horribly unfair.