The things that beat down a retirement plan are well known: high costs, poor investment diversification, failure to save and failure to adapt your plan as your circumstances change. All of these could be helped (if not solved) by working with an advisor who understands your needs, and puts them first in her business practices.
Someone who does this adheres to what the law calls a “fiduciary standard.” It is conspicuously absent from most workplace retirement plans (401k, 403b) but several years ago the Obama administration had a plan to change that, and bring the fiduciary standard to your retirement.
The industry that was built around selling these plans to companies and workers immediately lost its collective mind. Then it got busy. It did not fix abusive practices and lower excessive fees, but rather cranked up its lobbying machine to remind politicians where campaign contributions came from, and remind regulators where they would be looking for work after they left the government.
Since the initial announcement, the US Department of Labor has agonized over changing the rules under which American retirement plans are managed. The product of all this agony was announced today when Labor Secretary Tom Perez revealed final regulations.
If you are saving for retirement, your life has not been helped by these developments. While paying lip service to a fiduciary standard, the new rules continue to permit the use of overpriced, proprietary products inside a retirement plan.
In his comments, Labor Secretary Perez parroted many industry talking points regarding the use of annuity products inside retirement plans. He defended the privilege of annuity and insurance sales reps to promote their own company’s offerings without mention of any others. He even spoke poorly of inexpensive, simple investments by likening them to a car-buyer purchasing a Yugo.
I guess that’s because we want to make investing for retirement more like buying a car, because we know how well that works and how everyone loves it.
I am still digesting the new rules and figuring out exactly what they will mean in practice. My first impression is that they are worse than not having any rule at all.
Here’s why: burying disclosures inside boilerplate pages that no one (and I mean no one outside the company legal department) will ever read will give cover to operators who fleece their customers into buying high-commissioned products. The rules will give cover to politicians who offer the appearance of doing something about the problem without crossing their deep-pocketed campaign contributors.
Those of us (and there are tens of thousands of us) who chose to build a practice by adhering to a real fiduciary standard were not going to have our businesses affected at all by these rules, so my day tomorrow (or Jan 2018, when the rules take full effect) is going to be pretty much like my day yesterday.
Unfortunately, the same will be true for millions of working people stuck in retirement plans that they don’t understand, cost too much, and will not provide them with the life they have earned in retirement.
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