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Only small victories for retirement in Obama's speech
January 21, 2015 / 9:37 PM / 3 years ago

Only small victories for retirement in Obama's speech

A pair of elderly couples view the ocean and waves along the beach in La Jolla, California March 8, 2012. REUTERS/Mike Blake

Chicago (Reuters) - Remember Mitt Romney’s huge IRA? During the 2012 campaign, we learned that the governor managed to amass $20 million to $100 million in an Individual Retirement Account, much more than anyone could accumulate under the contribution limit rules without some unusual investments and appreciation.

Romney’s IRA found its way, indirectly, into a broader set of retirement policy reforms unveiled in President Obama’s State of the Union proposals on Tuesday.

The president proposed scaling back the tax deductibility of mega-IRAs to help pay for other changes designed to bolster middle class retirement security. I found plenty to like in the proposals, with one big exception: the failure to endorse a bold plan to expand Social Security.

Yes, that is just another idea with no chance in this Congress, but Democrats should give it a strong embrace, especially in the wake of the House’s adoption of rules this month that could set the stage for cuts in disability benefits.

The administration signaled its general opposition to the House plan, but has not spelled out its own.

Instead, Obama listed proposals, starting with “auto-IRAs,” whereby employers with more than 10 employees who have no retirement plans of their own would be required to automatically enroll their workers in an IRA. Workers could opt out, but automatic features in 401(k) plans already have shown this kind of behavioral nudge will be a winner. The president also proposed tax credits to offset the start-up costs for businesses.

The auto-IRA would be a more full version of the “myRA” accounts already launched by the administration. Both are structured like Roth IRAs, accepting post-tax contributions that accumulate toward tax-free withdrawals in retirement. Both accounts take aim at a critical problem - the lack of retirement savings among low-income households.

The president wants to offset the costs of auto-IRAs by capping contributions to 401(k)s and IRAs. The cap would be determined using a formula tied to current interest rates; currently, it would kick in when balances hit $3.4 million. If rates rose, the cap would be somewhat lower - for example, $2.7 million if rates rose to historical norms.

The argument here is that IRAs were never meant for such large accumulations; the Government Accountability Office (GAO) looked into mega-IRAs after the 2012 election, and reported back to Congress that a small number of account holders had indeed amassed very large balances, “likely by investing in assets unavailable to most investors - initially valued very low and offering disproportionately high potential investment returns if successful.”

The report estimated that 37,000 Americans have IRAs with balances ranging from $3 million to $5 million; fewer than 10,000 had balances over $5 million.

Finally, the White House proposed opening employer retirement plans to more part-time workers. Currently, plan sponsors can exclude employees working fewer than 1,000 hours per year, no matter how long they have been with the company. The proposal would require sponsors to open their plans to workers who have been with them for at least 500 hours per year for three years.

These ideas might seem dead on arrival in the Republican-controlled Congress. But the White House proposals add momentum to a growing populist movement around the country to focus on middle class retirement security.

As noted here last week, Illinois just became the first state to implement an innovative automatic retirement savings plan similar to the auto-IRA, and more than half the states are considering similar ideas.

These savings programs are sensible ideas, but their impact will not be huge. That is because the households they target lack the resources to sock away enough money to generate accumulations that can make a real difference at retirement.

Expanding Social Security offers a more sure, and efficient, path to bolstering retirement security of lower-income households. If Obama wants to go down in the history books as a strong supporter of the middle class, he has got to start making the case for Social Security expansion - and time is getting short.

(Corrects day in second paragraph to Tuesday from Monday)

Editing by Beth Pinsker and Richard Chang

Our Standards:The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.
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