Would Obama, Dems Kill 401(k) Plans?

Fears about the stock market may prompt rash government action.

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I hate to use the "S" word, but the American government would never do something as, well, socialist as seize private pension funds, right? This is exactly what cash-strapped Argentina just did in the name of protecting workers' retirement accounts (Efharisto, Fausta's Blog). Now, even Uncle Sam isn't that stupid, but some Democrats might try something almost as loopy: kill 401(k) plans.

House Democrats recently invited Teresa Ghilarducci, a professor at the New School of Social Research, to testify before a subcommittee on her idea to eliminate the preferential tax treatment of the popular retirement plans. In place of 401(k) plans, she would have workers transfer their dough into government-created "guaranteed retirement accounts" for every worker. The government would deposit $600 (inflation indexed) every year into the GRAs. Each worker would also have to save 5 percent of pay into the accounts, to which the government would pay a measly 3 percent return. Rep. Jim McDermott, a Democrat from Washington and chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee's Subcommittee on Income Security and Family Support, said that since "the savings rate isn't going up for the investment of $80 billion [in 401(k) tax breaks], we have to start to think about whether or not we want to continue to invest that $80 billion for a policy that's not generating what we now say it should."

A few respectful observations:

1) McDermott is right when he says the savings rate isn't going up. But the savings rate doesn't include gains to money you invest in the stock market. It ignores the buildup of net worth. (If you bought a share of XYZ Corp. in January at $100, for instance, and its value doubled by December, the savings rate measure would still value that investment at $100. In short, the savings rate is a phony number.)

2) So based partly on the above faulty logic, the $4.5 trillion, as of the start of the year, invested in 401(k) plans doesn't count as savings.

3) Ghilarducci would have workers abandon the stock market right at the bottom of the market. A stupid idea, according to Warren Buffett: "I don't like to opine on the stock market, and again I emphasize that I have no idea what the market will do in the short term. Nevertheless, I'll follow the lead of a restaurant that opened in an empty bank building and then advertised: 'Put your mouth where your money was.' Today my money and my mouth both say equities."

4) Ghilarducci would offer a lousy 3 percent return. The long-run return of the stock market, adjusted for inflation, is more like 7 percent. Look at it this way: Ten thousand dollars growing at 3 percent a year for 40 years leaves you with roughly $22,000. But $10,000 growing at 7 percent a year for 40 years leaves you with $150,000. That is a high price to pay for what Ghilarducci describes as the removal of "a source of financial anxiety and...fruitless discussions with brokers and financial sales agents, who are also desperate for more fees and are often wrong about markets." Please, I'll take a bit of worry for an additional $128,000.

5) What effect would this plan have on an already battered stock market? Well, I would imagine it would send it even lower, sticking a shiv into the portfolios of everyone who didn't jump aboard. But I am sure the Chinese would love to jump in and buy all our cheap stocks to fund the retirement of their citizens.

My bottom line: If you believe in the long-run dynamism of the American economy, then you have to believe in the stock market. Listen to superinvestor Buffett, not the prof from the New School.