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What Your 401(k) Provider Doesn’t Want You to Know

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What Your 401(k) Provider Doesn’t Want You to Know

Born in 1984, the 401(k) plan gave regular Americans a way to make tax-deductible contributions to a retirement account directly from their paychecks.

Today, it’s the single most important investment vehicle for most people in the country:

  • 90 million Americans participate in 401(k)s
  • $6 trillion in assets are invested in 401(k)s
  • 51% of employers match a portion of employee 401(k) contributions

The only problem? With trillions of dollars at stake, financial firms have scrambled to get their hands in as many 401(k) cookie jars as possible.

And today, the vast majority of plans are characterized by huge commissions, expensively managed funds, and layer upon layer of additional – and often hidden – charges.

Flying Below the Radar

Today’s infographic is from Tony Robbins, and it uses data and talking points from his #1 Best Selling book Unshakeable: Your Financial Freedom Playbook, which is now available on paperback.

It reveals that although 401(k) plans can be used as crucial vehicles for tax-free retirement saving, 92% of investors admit that they do not have any clue about the fees associated with their plan.

Further, 71% of people enrolled in 401(k)s incorrectly think that there are no fees at all.

The Retirement Savings Drain

Many people are unaware of the types of fees that get loaded onto 401(k) plans – and here are just some of them that get passed to the investor:

  • Investment expenses
  • Communication expenses
  • Bookkeeping expenses
  • Administrative expenses
  • Trustee expenses
  • Legal expenses
  • Transactional expenses
  • Stewardship expenses

How much does this all end up costing?

According to a thinktank report from Robert Hiltonsmith, the additional 401(k) fees can cut down the size of your retirement nest egg by an average of 30% for an average worker earning $30,000 per year (and saving 5%), this ends up being $154,794 over his or her lifetime.

For someone making $90,000 per year, it works out to a whopping $277,000 in 401(k) fees.

Paying to Play

Hidden fees are bad, but this next practice is potentially even worse.

It turns out that most big-name 401(k) providers accept payments from the mutual funds they offer on their plans, as a part of revenue sharing agreements. In other words, many of the funds you get to choose from are not there based on merit – instead, they were the ones that coughed up the money to be there.

Not surprisingly, these tend to be actively managed, expensive funds – some of which even charge a “front-end load” fee of 3% to even buy into.

Why are there so few options to choose from?

  • 93% of 401(k) plans carry under $5 million in total plan assets
  • These are the small and medium-sized companies that make up most of the economy
  • However, they also have the lowest buying power to demand better options for their employees

As a result, most providers offer limited options to their smaller, less lucrative accounts – and the low fee options that are offered are sometimes marked up big time.

For example, one major insurance company offers an S&P 500 index fund for 1.68% annually when the actual cost is 0.05%. That’s a 3,260% markup!

Small Fees Make a Big Difference

How much do these seemingly tiny percentages really hurt savers? More than you think.

Take two people saving for retirement generating the same return – one is charged 1% in fees, and one is charged 2%.

The 1% difference in fees may not sound like much, but through the power of compound interest, it works out to 10 years of extra retirement money!

What to Do About It?

The problems here are systemic, and not any one company is to be blamed. If you want to take action, here’s what you can do:

Examine: Take a look at your plan’s fee disclosures and the expense ratios of mutual funds you’re invested in. If expense ratios are above 1%, you are likely paying too much.

Compare: Look at available fund options and switch to lower fee options if they offer similar levels of performance.

Lobby: If your 401(k) is getting battered by fees, tell your employer. Employers not only have a fiduciary duty to benchmark their 401(k)s, but also to seek the best option for employees.

The journey towards financial freedom is tough enough as it is – and while a 401(k) is a wonderful tool to help you get there, it needs to be used correctly!

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Markets

How the S&P 500 Performed During Major Market Crashes

How does the COVID-19 market crash compare to previous financial crises? We navigate different contextual factors impacting crashes.

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How the S&P 500 Performed During Major Market Crashes

Like spectacular market peaks, market crashes have been a persistent feature of the S&P 500 throughout time.

Still, the forces underpinning each rise and fall are often less clear. Take the COVID-19 crash, for example. Despite lagging economic growth and historic unemployment levels, the S&P 500 bounced back 47% in just five months, in a stunning reversal.

Drawing data from Macrotrends, the above infographic compares six historic market crashes—examining the length of their recoveries and the contextual factors influencing their durations.

The Big Picture

How does the current COVID-19 crash of 2020 stack up against previous market crashes?

TitleStart — End DateDuration (Trading Days)% Drop
Black Tuesday / Great Crash*Sep 16, 1929 — Sept 22, 1954300 months (7,256 days)-86%
Nixon Shock / OPEC Oil EmbargoJan 11, 1973 — Jul 17, 198090 months (1,899 days)-48%
Black Monday**Oct 13, 1987 — May 15, 198919 months (402 days)-29%
Dot Com BubbleMar 24, 2000 — May 30, 200786 months (1,808 days)-49%
Global Financial CrisisOct 9, 2007 — Mar 28, 201365 months (1,379 days)-57%
COVID-19 Crash***Feb 19, 2020 — Ongoing5 months+ (117+ days)-34%

Price returns, based on nominal prices
*Black Tuesday occurred about a month after the market peak on Oct 29, 1929
**The market hit a peak on Oct 13th, prior to Black Monday on Oct 19,1987
***As of market close Aug 4, 2020

By far, the longest recovery of this list followed the devastation of Black Tuesday, while the shortest was Black Monday of 1987—where it took 19 months for the market to fully recover.

Let’s take a closer look at each market crash to navigate the economic climate at the time.

After the Fall

What were some factors that can help provide context into the crash?

1929: Black Tuesday / Great Crash

Following Black Tuesday in 1929, the U.S. stock market took 7,256 days—equal to about 25 years—to fully recover from peak to peak. In response to the market crisis, a coalition of banks bought blocks of shares, but with negligible effects. In turn, investors fled the market.

Meanwhile, the Federal Reserve Board rose the discount lending rate to 6%. As a result, borrowing costs climbed for consumers, businesses, and the central banks themselves. The tightening of rates led to unintended consequences, with the economy capitulating into the Great Depression. Of course, factors that contributed to its prolonged recovery have been debated, but these are just a few of the actions that had implications at the time.

1973: Nixon Shock / OPEC Oil Embargo

The Nixon Shock corresponded with a series of economic measures in response to high inflation. Soaring inflation devastated stocks, consuming real returns on capital. Around the same time, the oil embargo also occurred, with OPEC member countries halting oil exports to the U.S. and its allies, causing a severe spike in oil prices. It took seven years for the S&P 500 to return to its previous peak.

1987: Black Monday

While the exact cause of the 1987 crash has been debated, key factors include both the advent of computerized trading systems and overvalued markets.

To curtail the impact of the crash, former Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan aggressively slashed interest rates, repeatedly promising to take great lengths to stabilize the market. The S&P took under two years to recover.

2000: Dot Com Bubble

To curb the stratospheric rise of U.S. tech stocks, the Federal Reserve raised interest rates five times in eight months, sending the markets into a tailspin. Virtually $5 trillion in market value evaporated.

However, a number of well-known companies survived, including eBay and Amazon. At the time, Amazon’s stock price cratered from $107 to $11 while eBay lost 75% of its market value. Meanwhile, a number of Dot Com flops included Pets.com, WorldCom, and FreeInternet.com.

2007: Global Financial Crisis

Relaxed credit policies, the proliferation of subprime mortgages, credit default swaps, and commercial mortgage-backed securities were all factors behind the market turmoil of 2007. As banks carved out risky loans packaged in opaque tranches of debt, risk in the market accelerated.

Similar to 1987, the Federal Reserve initiated a number of rescue actions. Interest rates were brought down to historical levels and $498 billion in bailouts were injected into the financial system. Crisis-related bailouts extended to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP), the Federal Housing Administration, and others.

2020: COVID-19 Crash

In 2020, historic fiscal stimulus measures along with trillions in Fed financing have factored heavily in its swift reversal. The result has been one of the steepest rallies in S&P 500 history.

At the same time, the economy is mirroring Great Depression-level unemployment numbers, reaching 14.7% in April 2020. In short, this starkly exposes the sharp disconnect between the markets and broader economy.

Bearing Witness

History offers many lessons, and in this case, a view into the shape of a post-coronavirus market recovery.

Although the stock market is likely rallying off Fed liquidity, investor optimism, and the promise of potential vaccines, it’s interesting to note that the trajectory of this crash in some ways resembles the initial rebound shown during the Great Depression—which means we may not be out of the woods quite yet.

As the S&P 500 edges 2% shy of its February peak, could the market post a hastened recovery—or is a protracted downturn in the cards?

This graphic has been inspired by this Reddit post.

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Ranked: The Best and Worst Pension Plans, by Country

As the global population ages, pension reform is more important than ever. Here’s a breakdown of how key countries rank in terms of pension plans.

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Ranked: Countries with the Best and Worst Pension Plans

The global population is aging—by 2050, one in six people will be over the age of 65.

As our aging population nears retirement and gets closer to cashing in their pensions, countries need to ensure their pension systems can withstand the extra strain.

This graphic uses data from the Melbourne Mercer Global Pension Index (MMGPI) to showcase which countries are best equipped to support their older citizens, and which ones aren’t.

The Breakdown

Each country’s pension system has been shaped by its own economic and historical context. This makes it difficult to draw precise comparisons between countries—yet there are certain universal elements that typically lead to adequate and stable support for older citizens.

MMGPI organized these universal elements into three sub-indexes:

  • Adequacy: The base-level of income, as well as the design of a region’s private pension system.
  • Sustainability: The state pension age, the level of advanced funding from government, and the level of government debt.
  • Integrity: Regulations and governance put in place to protect plan members.

These three measures were used to rank the pension system of 37 different countries, representing over 63% of the world’s population.

Here’s how each country ranked:

CountryOverall ValueAdequacySustainabilityIntegrity
Argentina39.543.131.944.4
Australia75.370.373.585.7
Austria53.968.222.974.4
Brazil55.971.827.769.8
Canada69.27061.878.2
Chile68.759.471.779.2
China48.760.536.746.5
Colombia58.461.44670.8
Denmark80.377.58282.2
Finland73.673.260.792.3
France60.279.14156.8
Germany66.178.344.976.4
Hong Kong61.954.554.586.9
India45.839.944.956.3
Indonesia52.246.747.667.5
Ireland67.381.544.676.3
Italy52.267.41974.5
Japan48.354.632.260.8
Korea49.847.552.649.6
Malaysia60.650.560.576.9
Mexico45.337.557.141.3
Netherlands8178.578.388.9
New Zealand70.170.961.580.7
Norway71.271.656.890.6
Peru58.56052.464.7
Philippines43.73955.534.7
Poland57.462.545.366
Saudi Arabia57.159.650.562.2
Singapore70.873.859.781.4
South Africa52.642.34678.4
Spain54.77026.969.1
Sweden72.367.57280.2
Switzerland66.757.665.483
Thailand39.435.838.846.1
Turkey42.242.627.162.8
UK64.46055.384
U.S.60.658.862.960.4

The Importance of Sustainability

While all three sub-indexes are important to consider when ranking a country’s pension system, sustainability is particularly significant in the modern context. This is because our global population is increasingly skewing older, meaning an influx of people will soon be cashing in their retirement funds. As a consequence, countries need to ensure their pension systems are sustainable over the long-term.

There are several factors that affect a pension system’s sustainability, including a region’s private pension system, the state pension age, and the balance between workers and retirees.

The country with the most sustainable pension system is Denmark. Not only does the country have a strong basic pension plan—it also has a mandatory occupational scheme, which means employers are obligated by law to provide pension plans for their employees.

Adequacy versus Sustainability

Several countries scored high on adequacy but ranked low when it came to sustainability. Here’s a comparison of both measures, and how each country scored:

Ireland took first place for adequacy, but scored relatively low on the sustainability front at 27th place. This can be partly explained by Ireland’s low level of occupational coverage. The country also has a rapidly aging population, which skews the ratio of workers to retirees. By 2050, Ireland’s worker to retiree ratio is estimated to go from 5:1 to 2:1.

Similar to Ireland, Spain ranks high in adequacy but places extremely low in sustainability.

There are several possible explanations for this—while occupational pension schemes exist, they are optional and participation is low. Spain also has a low fertility rate, which means their worker-to-retiree ratio is expected to decrease.

Steps Towards a Better System

All countries have room for improvement—even the highest-ranking ones. Some general recommendations from MMGPI on how to build a better pension system include:

  • Increasing the age of retirement: Helps maintain a more balanced worker-to-retiree ratio.
  • Enforcing mandatory occupational schemes: Makes employers obligated to provide pension plans for their employees.
  • Limiting access to benefits: Prevents people from dipping into their savings preemptively, thus preserving funds until retirement.
  • Establishing strong pension assets to fund future liabilities: Ideally, these assets are more than 100% of a country’s GDP.
  • Pension systems across the globe are under an increasing amount of pressure. It’s time for countries to take a hard look at their pension systems to make sure they’re ready to support their aging population.

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