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Your 401(k) Won't Help When You Need It | The Nation

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Your 401(k) Won't Help When You Need It

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Will your 401(k) be there when you retire--and when you do, what will be in it? Everyone has been asking similar questions about Social Security, but not of the private savings plans that Republicans hope someday will replace it.

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Nicholas von Hoffman
Nicholas von Hoffman, a veteran newspaper, radio and TV reporter and columnist, is the author, most recently, of...

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Those trying to get rid of Social Security say that the politicians will not make good on the promise to pay these small but vital pensions, but so far the money has been there when it has come time to dispense it. That is more than we can say for many of the private retirement schemes favored by the moneyed classes.

Pensions, those guaranteed monthly checks, are on their way to the Smithsonian. Young workers don't get them. DuPont, which used to be a fairly civilized place, announced the other day that henceforth new hires will get no pension, no health plans nor anything else after retirement. Older workers, if they are high enough up in the power pyramid, do better, as was pointed out by the New York Times's Floyd Norris, one of a shrinking tribe of business writers who see a connection between money and morals. He added that DuPont was hardly alone. All the companies are abolishing pensions if they can legally get away with it.

We are reaching a point where the only people enjoying pensions are big-shot corporate executives, politicians and civil servants backed up by the rare union left with any clout. Did you notice that the members of Congress exempted themselves from the recently passed pension act, which all but ends pensions in the private sector and forces most employees into 401(k)s?

The stock market disasters of six years ago should have warned the country off reliance on individual private investment accounts for retirement. Those not blessed with the mind of a hyena are in grave danger of arriving in their 60s to discover there is scarcely a farthing left for them to live on. Untold thousands or hundreds of thousands whose 401(k)s were decimated by the market swoon are available as walking warnings of what lies ahead. Not everyone is a Warren Buffett.

This is not news to the millions who hope their house will be their retirement savings and that they will get enough for it to see them through to the cemetery. Hence a palpable uneasiness at the talk that housing prices may be declining and may even crash.

The think-tank doctrine has it that we proles have enough business savvy to manage our retirement accounts so that they will "outperform" Social Security. In a pig's eye! The odds are that most people managing their retirement accounts will earn less money than you'd get on a low-interest government bond.

It is quite a trick to make big money in the stock market, particularly if you don't spend as many hours a week confusing yourself by reading investment literature in your down time at work, which leaves no time for getting your toenails painted or rough-water kayaking. Making investment decisions is a job for professionals, who are not always any better at it than the rest of us. Which is why they cheat and break the law so often.

One example of how the pros cheat to make a profit appeared in a story by Gretchen Morgenson, another heroic business writer at the New York Times. She reports that more than 40 percent of this year's string of gigantic mergers and acquisitions were tainted by the pros who cleaned up by acting on insider information.

A second example concerns Prudential Financial Inc. Just last month Prudential Equity Group LLC admitted criminal wrongdoing and will pay a fine of more than $500 million for the sin of "market timing." Market timing involves being able to buy and sell mutual fund shares after hours when ordinary people with their puny 401(k)s cannot. The practice also costs mutual fund shareholders money.

There are a thousand and one other tricks, legal and illegal, for making money that ordinary retirement investors do not know about and would not be in a position to execute if they did. You could write a book about the dodgy ways the pros have of seeing to it that your golden years will be made of a baser metal.

To help the sheep keep the wool on their backs, the newspaper financial advice writers urge their readers to get help from somebody who has letters after his name. The bewildered would-be retiree can pick between a CFA (chartered financial analyst), CFP (certified financial planner), ChFC (chartered financial consultant), CPA (certified public accountant) and PFS (personal financial specialist). God only knows which ones are either incompetent or crooks and which can actually help you get to an old age not ruined by worry and incipient poverty.

As opposed to Social Security, which you can count on, we can figure that one-third or more of the people relying on 401(k)s are in for a disappointment. It won't be there for them, at least not enough to live on.

No worries: Penniless pensioners can live with their children, if they have any, or apply to a faith-based charity or take a job at Wal-Mart. While they cope with the day-to-day crises, these same people may draw satisfaction from knowing that they took responsibility for themselves.

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