It's bad enough that we've been forced to bail out Wall Street. But now the Obama administration is hatching plans to raid our retirement savings, too.
To say that I'm "outraged" doesn't come close to describing the emotions I experience every time I think about the government's latest hare-brained scheme.
According to widespread media reports, both the U.S. Treasury Department and the Department of Labor plan are planning to stage a public-comment period before implementing regulations that would require U.S. savers to invest portions of their 401(k) savings plans and Individual Retirement Accounts (IRAs) into annuities or other "steady" payment streams backed by U.S. government bonds.
Folks, there's only one reason these agencies would do such a thing - the nation's creditors think that U.S. government bonds are a bad bet and don't want to buy them anymore. So like a grifter who's down to his last dollar, the administration is hoping to get its hands on our hard-earned savings before the American people realize they've had the wool pulled over their eyes ... once again.
It's easy to understand why.
Facing a $14 trillion fiscal hangover, the Treasury can no longer count countries such as Japan and China to be dependable buyers of U.S. government debt. Not only have those nations dramatically reduced their purchasing of U.S. bonds, most of our largest creditors are now actively diversifying their reserves away from greenback-based investments in favor of other reliable stores of value - like oil, gold and other commodities.
This growing reluctance couldn't come at a worse time. Just yesterday (Tuesday), in fact, the Congressional Budget Office estimated that the U.S. budget deficit would hit $1.35 trillion this year. And that's not the only shortfall the Treasury has to address. The U.S. Federal Reserve is supposed to stop buying Treasury bonds for its asset portfolio, a program the central bank put in place last year.
The upshot: The Obama administration has to find other ways sell government debt - without raising interest rates, a move that would almost certainly jeopardize the country's super-weak economic recovery.
Facing an uphill battle and increasingly skeptical buyers, the government is changing tactics and targeting the biggest pile of money available as a means of dealing with its fiscal follies - the $3.6 trillion sitting in U.S. retirement plans, including 401(k) plans.
The way I see it, the Obama administration can see the financial train wreck that's going to occur. So it's rushing to crack open the safe that holds our retirement money before anyone realizes that they've been robbed.
And if this plan becomes reality, that's just what it will be - robbery. American retail investors didn't sign up for the financial-crisis roller-coaster ride we've been on since 2008. We didn't approve the nation's five-fold increase in lending capacity. And we certainly didn't volunteer to help pay down a national debt that's doubled.
Few people realize that the federal government spent an estimated $17,000 to $25,000 per U.S. household in 2009 (the final figures haven't been calculated, yet). But that's no surprise: "We the people" didn't approve it.
At a point where it's spending money like a drunken sailor, Washington seems more interested in appropriating and redistributing our retirement savings than it is in fixing a system that's badly broken. If you add in all the stimulus spending that the taxpayers must now repay, the average government-agency-spending tab has zoomed more than 50% in the last couple of years. That's right - 50%.
So it's only logical that the administration would go after our 401(k) and IRA savings plans.
Disgusting, but logical.
Here's how the argument is likely to be framed.
The system we presently have in place is what's commonly called a "defined contribution plan." Under such a plan, the benefits we enjoy during retirement aren't determined in advance. Instead, those benefits are determined by how much money we contribute while working, and by the performance of the investments that we choose. The 401(k) is almost exclusively a defined contribution plan.
Years ago, Americans depended more upon "defined benefit plans" that promised a steady stream of income at a future date - with the actual amounts determined by our years of service or our earnings history. Old-fashioned company pension plans and even U.S. Social Security are examples of defined benefit plans.
By laying claim to our retirement assets in exchange for 30-year Treasury bonds, annuities or other payout streams, the government will try to persuade us that we're not capable of managing our own money, that the stock market is too risky a place for most Americans, and that we need Big Brother to hold our hands and protect our futures.
What we need, the administration is going to tell us, is a defined benefit plan.
So expect a big snow job. But here's the problem.
Defined benefit plans are great only as long as they are well funded. Unfortunately, most aren't.
In fact, according to various studies, pension funds could already be underfunded by as much as $5.3 trillion. Add that to the $14 trillion we've already got on the table and we're talking a staggering $19.3 trillion - and that's with no escalators, no cost-of-living adjustments and no interest-rate increases. And that's assuming we don't need another round of stimulus.
Here's what the government isn't going to tell you. When pension funds transition from defined contribution plans to defined benefit plans, the only backing they have is the underlying assets themselves and the company or entity that's responsible for the plans - which in this case would be the U.S. government.
If the prospects of your entire future being placed in the hands of the federal government doesn't scare the daylights out of you after all we've experienced so far, I suspect that nothing will.
Our elected leaders, appointed government guardians, and Wall Street have together demonstrated a total inability to manage what they already control. There's no reason on the planet why they should be allowed to get their hands on our hard-won savings. All that will do is punish the thrifty, disciplined and far-sighted investor, while rewarding - or at the very least protecting - the inept politicians and career bureaucrats who allowed this crisis to occur in the first place.
By backing their plan with 30-year Treasuries, government backers of this plan are betting that you and I won't notice that the trouble with annuities and long bonds is that they tend to get annihilated by inflation. That's why even the most jaded professionals will tell you that investing in such instruments right now when interest rates are being artificially held down near 0.00% is bad juju: Interest rates have only one direction to travel - up, which tends to crush bond prices.
Right now, Americans are apparently smarter than the administration believes. In fact, a survey by the Investment Company Institute found that more than 70% of all households disagreed with the idea of requiring a retiree to buy an annuity with a portion of their assets. And it didn't matter whether the annuity was offered by an insurance company or by the government.
Let's hope that the full-court press that the administration is getting ready to deploy doesn't snow American investors. If the government succeeds, we'll look back and see that they pulled a pretty slick trick to get our support.
Unfortunately, it won't be the last trick they play with our retirement money. That last trick will come after they have control of our savings - when they make our retirements disappear.
updated Jan 27, 2010
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