During the State of the Union address, President Obama said, “Let’s do more to help Americans save for retirement. Today, most workers don’t have a pension. A Social Security check often isn’t enough on its own.” He then announced plans to create a new government-backed savings account called MyRA, and he asked Congress to offer every American access to an automatic IRA on the job.
Two days later, Senator Tom Harkin, chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, introduced new legislation: the Universal, Secure, and Adaptable (USA) Retirement Funds Act of 2014. Senator Harkin says the legislation would create a new type of privately run retirement plan that combines the advantages of traditional pensions and 401(k)s.
Numerous studies have shown that Americans are not saving nearly enough for retirement—it’s not even close. So anything that helps in this regard is a good thing. Let’s compare the two proposals.
MyRA is strictly an account balance. An individual contributes after tax dollars to the fund, and the distributions are tax-free at retirement. This is the same concept as a Roth IRA. The fund is backed by U.S. Treasury securities, and the principal is guaranteed not to lose value. When the balance grows to $15,000, the individual must roll the account over to a private Roth IRA. One big stumbling block to MyRA, though, is that employers are not required to set up the mechanism to allow their employees to contribute to the account via payroll deduction. The president does intend to include this provision in his budget for employers who do not offer an employer-sponsored savings plan—a process that would require Congressional approval.
USA Retirement Funds also starts out as an account balance. During working years, it operates just like a 401(k). The principal is not guaranteed, but the funds are pooled and professionally managed. The plan shifts to a traditional pension at retirement, when the fund is converted to a lifetime income distribution with spousal death protection. Employers with more than 10 employees who do not offer a plan with automatic enrollment and a lifetime income option would be required to select a USA Retirement Fund and automatically enroll all employees at a contribution rate of 6% of pay. Employees can opt to increase, decrease, or stop contributions anytime. Employers are allowed to make additional contributions on behalf of their employees. Because it’s an account balance during working years, the plan is completely portable upon a job change.
Could these proposals make a dent in the retirement savings gap of many Americans and increase their confidence level about a secure retirement? MyRA is essentially a new way to set up a Roth IRA, which is currently underutilized. But without requiring employers to automatically enroll their employees, can it make a significant impact? The automatic enrollment feature of USA Retirement Funds can be a powerful mechanism, and some people may like the built-in lifetime income aspect. In addition, USA Retirement Funds could be appealing to small employers who would like to provide a retirement plan but have been reluctant because of the plan administration hurdles.
It’s time to move our retirement savings crisis to the forefront. Maybe MyRA or USA Retirement Funds can get it kick-started.