Wednesday, January 30, 2008

401(k) Freak Outs

The L.A. Times highlights a problem that 401(k) Administrators (including us) see all across the fruited plain: The stock-market has gotten real roller-coastery of late, and participants are understandably nervous ...

As Americans increasingly link their well-being to financial markets, the possibility of recession and a slump on Wall Street has taken on new meaning for the middle class, including baby boomers who are approaching retirement age.

Some 50 million workers now participate in 401(k)-type savings plans, a number that has shot up since 2000 as employers increasingly stop offering traditional pensions.

Similarly, 46 million households hold a stake in the tax-advantaged savings plans known as individual retirement accounts, according to the Investment Company Institute.

The result is a historic linkage between the fortunes of the public and Wall Street, just as older baby boomers -- now past 60 -- focus more seriously on the living standards that await in their post-work years.

We've gotten calls here at the office from a few TAG 401(k) participants who are angry they can't pull their money out of 401(k) accounts because they're still working (Reality: most 401(k) Plans don't allow participants to remove account funds while they remain employed.)

But this shouldn't be a problem if the goal is to preserve capital. All that needs to be done is shift the bulk of invested money into bond and stable-interest accounts. You won't lose any big bucks. (You also won't make big gains, but that's another story.)

The Times points out another reality that smacks an increasing number of Americans in the face:

... for millions of workers in medium and large companies, the reality is that retirement benefits increasingly are skewed toward personal investments. That shift puts added pressure on individuals to try to take care of themselves, rather than rely on a traditional pension, and it raises the stakes of wrong decisions.

What I tell people over and over is, diversify. You need to have domestic stocks, foreign stocks, and bonds in your investment mix. You have to resist the urge to load up on stocks in the "hot" corner of the market, because by the time you've caught on that it's going like gangbusters, it's most likely slowing down already. The diversification thing -- sometimes known as finding the "efficient frontier" (most gain for the least risk) boils down to knowing investment returns over time:

100% Bonds

Historic Risk/Return (1926-2006) Average Return: 5.5%

Best Year: 32.6% (1982)

Worst Year -8.1% (1969)

Years with losses: 13 of 81 (16%)

50%/50% Stocks and Bonds

Average Return: 8.5%

Best Year: 32.3% (1933)

Worst Year: -22.5% (1931)

Years with loss: 16 of 81 (19.8%)

100% Stocks

Average Return: 10.5%

Best Year: 54.2% (1933)

Worst Year: 43.1% (1931)

Years with a loss: 24 of 81 (29.6%)

Happily, for most longer-term unionized entertainment workers -- and I'm here referring to people laboring under IA, WGA, SAG, or DGA contracts -- they end up getting the best of multiple worlds. They'll collect monthly pension checks, they'll collect Social Security, and they'll have IRAs, Roth IRAS, and whatever 401(k) Plans they've participated in over the years.

As more than one financial advisor has told me: You have annuities working for you on top of personal savings accounts, you've got it licked ..."

Addendum: TAG's end-of-month 401(k) enrollment deadline looms up. You miss it, you'll have to wait until March 1st to hop aboard. (And sure, the way the market is bouncing around, you might be saying: "Who the hell wants to do this?!" But if you've got a long time horizon -- twenty-five or thirty-five years -- volatility works in your favor. You're buying low ... buying lower ... buying higher.)


Anonymous said...

I'd be really careful about annuities.. Most are 'loaded' to the gills with fees.
I'd be curious as to whether the advisor you spoke with is attached to a company selling the product..
Variable annuities are the worst re: taxes..fixed, not soo bad. I know,as I bought a variable one, stupidly, years ago.Also bought a fixed, which is, I guess doing okay.
Now that they've past the surrender fee time bracket,I'm planning on getting both into(much less costly) Vanguard.
Found this info in variable annuities online at 'Yahoo Answers':
The supposed advantage of these is that taxes are deferred until the money is removed. But what is never mentioned is that the money earned in a variable annuity is taxed at the full tax rate even though it is the result of capital gains, hence the name variable annuity. Now, it can get even worse than that. Suppose you have a variable annuity and have had it for a long time--10 years. Then you want to cash it in. The resulting tax bill can be really steep, so steep that it kicks you into a higher tax bracket and the alternate minimum tax.

Steve Hulett said...

Oops, my mistake because I didn't make my meaning clear.

What I mean by that last, is that most entertainment workers inside unions have annuity-style pensions. That is, they get a monthly check for one thousand, two thousand, three thousand dollars ... whatever they've earned from being in the union pension plan.

And many financial advisors think that when you have a monthly check coming in, that gives you more flexibility with your personal accounts.

I'm not advocating running out and purchasing an annuity. Might be okay for some retirees in some situations, but -- as you say -- it's an expensive proposition.

Anonymous said...

...if you've got a long time horizon -- twenty-five or thirty-five years -- volatility works in your favor. You're buying low ... buying lower ... buying higher

Yup. William Bernstein wrote that young folks should get down on their knees and pray for a stock market crash, so that they can purchase their nest egg at firesale prices.


For those interested in what's causing the stock market to freak out, 60 Minutes gave a nice overview last Sunday:

House of Cards


Folks looking for the safest haven might consider Treasuries. I suggest this because toxic SIVs infect some money market funds and some bond funds right now. A money market or bond fund that invests 100% in Treasuries should carry no credit risk. The returns might not be as high as a regular money market or bond fund, though.


I'm not trading in my stocks for fixed-income just yet, though. My current asset allocation in my Vanguard Roth IRA remains 1/3rd each Total Stock Market (VTSMX), FTSE All-World Ex-US (VFWIX), and Treasury Inflation-Protected Securities (VIPSX). VFWIX carries a slightly higher expense ratio than Vanguard's Total International fund, but I wanted to include Canada in my international investments.

Anonymous said...

Anyone who's freaking out that their 401k has dropped some in the last few months doesn't really understand what their goals are (or should be). Nothing goes up forever, and corrections occur. I just saw my financial guy a couple of weeks ago, and was thrilled that he's managed my money so that it's dropped less than the overall market. Since I won't need it for 20 years or so, why get worked up over a small short-term loss?

Pick an investment strategy that you're comfortable with, risk-wise, put your money in, make sure it stays balanced the way you want it, and let the market do it's thing. After all, this is how rich guys get richer...

Kiersten said...

If you're not going to retire for another 20-30 years now is the perfect time to buy stocks! Prices are the lowest they've been in the last year which means you're getting the best deal. Likewise now is the worst time to sell your stocks because you're getting the worst deal. Buy low, sell high, not the other way around.

Anonymous said...

In these times of volatile stock markets where you never know if the Dow Jones is going to plunge 300 points today or go up 200 points tomorrow, it only makes sense to look for alternative long term investments. Unfortunately most employer sponsored 401k plans invest in the traditional stock markets and do not support other types of investments.

I would rollover my traditional 401k into a self-directed Roth IRA and invest in commodities right now. I'd be a buyer of gold, oil, wheat, sugar, copper & platinum futures contracts to take advantage of skyrocketing commodities prices in this period of stagflation. You can read about my investment theories for retirement @

Anonymous said...

Technically you can't roll your
401k into a Roth. It has to be converted via a traditional IRA, at which time one pays taxes (no penalty) as if he or she took the lump sum. Probably not a great idea for older participants. Secondly I believe one is supposed to buy low and sell high. Therefore many commodities are probably not the best best. If it's retiremnt money were talking about, one probably has more than five years let's be traditional, stocks, bonds, and mutual funds will you suit most just fine. visit for a free report.

Anonymous said...

This is such a great blog. Americans of all economic backgrounds need to know how important 401k investments can be and keep it up even and especially now.

We didn't think we could save until we read They shared with us the importance of 401k, Roth IRAs, Traditional IRAs and savings (not in a bank).

We cannot have too much information. Everyone should be encouraged to START saving and look for tips and a plan like the one we found on

It will make a huge difference in your life later.

Thank you for this blog.


Anonymous said...

We didn't think we could save until we read They shared with us the importance of 401k, Roth IRAs, Traditional IRAs and savings (not in a bank).

We cannot have too much information. Everyone should be encouraged to START saving dell latitude d620 battery dell d820 battery
and look for tips and a plan like the one we found on

Anonymous said...

I agree with one of the previous commentors, if time is on your side, this may be a great opportunity to buy in when the market is down. Of course what you buy is most important and you should seek advice.

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