Friday, January 17, 2014

Blip Theory -- The Downfall of 401(k) Outcome Theory

Most of the non-regulatory material that I read about 401(k) plans these days deals with participant outcomes. In fact, outcome seems to be one of the big buzzwords for 2014. We are suddenly talking about financial outcomes, health outcomes, and every other kind of outcome you can think of.

Don't get me wrong, I think it would be great if we all have wonderful outcomes. I just don't believe the studies that tell us how to get there.

In the typical piece that I read, I learn that in order to get the best outcomes, participants should begin saving at the beginning of their working career, increase the percentage of their pay that they save over time and convert their account balance (one way or another) to an inflation-adjusted annuity for longevity protection.

That's great. And, when a smart person models what will happen if a young adult follows this guidance, that person will always be destined to have a highly prosperous retirement.

But, it seems that very few people, even those who started saving when they were fairly young, are actually on target to have that very prosperous retirement.

Why not? What happened?

Life happened.

None of these models seem to reflect real life. In real life, people have periods of unemployment. During that unemployment, they stop saving. In fact, to the extent that those people have not also saved well outside of their 401(k), many will need to take distributions from those very 401(k) plans (paying income tax and the early distribution excise tax) just to stay afloat.

Where is this event in the models?

In real life, many young people actually do start to save at a modest rate and gradually increase the amount that they save. But, in real life, many of those people choose to have children and some will have them without having made a truly conscious decision to do so. Kids cost more money than anyone seems to think they will. That increase in savings rate often fails to be sustainable.

Where is this event in the models?

In real life, in 2014, an awful lot of people participate in high-deductible health plans. They are told that one of the great tax benefits of the modern world comes to people who put money away in a health savings account (HSA) to fund the high deductible part of their plans. This is a great idea as well, but real wages have not been increasing for probably the last 15 or more years. This model expects participants to save upwards of 10% of compensation in their 401(k) plans and an additional, say, $4000 per year in their HSAs. That's a lot of money. I think more people than not would tell you that this is just not feasible.

Where is this conundrum in the models?

Purchasing an in-plan annuity or taking an annuity distribution in your 401(k) is often an excellent idea. But, not all plans have them. Among those that do, many are not offered on a particularly favorable or attractive basis. The models that I have seen use a current, no-profit basis for converting your account balance to an annuity.

Where can I get one of these annuities on which an insurer makes no profit?

I'm all for wonderful outcomes. But, somebody needs to merge blip theory with outcome theory. Under blip theory, and I have never heard the term used before the morning of January 17, 2014, just as the road to hell is paved with good intentions, the road to wonderful outcomes is paved with potholes hereinafter known as blips. When models start including realistic numbers of blips, I'll start to believe the expected outcomes.


  1. Another approach would be for young people to factor blip likelihoods into their spending and savings strategy, which would likely result in less pre-retitement spending (cheaper cars, homes, clothes, etc.) but a healthier retirement income.

  2. Anonymous, thanks for reading and commenting. While I agree with your sentiments, I think this is easier said than done. My experience is that very few young people are willing to give up the nicer cars, homes, etc to save for something that seems so far away for them.

  3. The model has failed. Simple. The model and our 'system' express an ideological preference for self-help. individual control of 'their own' money, diminished government social protection programs, and an utter lack of recognition of reality, myopia, etc. The 'system' was popularized in a time of very robust, pre-2000 stock markets and of high salary growth for the upper and upper middle in the Reagan/Bush I years -- years in which the labor movement and the voice of the lower middle were stifled (yet to recover). Devastating social policy. Disasterous. For this to work at all (and it won't), we need reduced focus on consumerism (let the Chinese buy all the gadgts and junk we really don't need), much better financial education in schools, a world of healthier wage growth, better distribution of wealth (gini coefficient), etc. etc. It won't work.