Capital Excess

Funding Gap

Unwieldy Size

Irrational Exuberance

Unknown Territory

A Brief Commercial

Home for the Holidays and Black-Eyed Peas

Why do we invest? Everyone has their reasons, but funding retirement may be the most common one. Whenever the time comes, we want to relax in comfort and security.

Yet this whole “retirement” idea is really quite new. For most of human history, almost everyone worked as long as they physically could, then expired soon after they couldn’t. Capping your life with a few years of leisure wasn’t an option. Without an extended family that would take care of you, life was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” (to quote Thomas Hobbes). Comfortable retirement is possible now, or at least we hope it is. But we’re never quite sure—which is why we stay nervous about our portfolios.

“Self-directed” retirement investing is also new. Other than Social Security, US retirement benefits came mostly from employer and union pension plans until just a few decades ago. Your employer would put money into a big pool where professionals would invest it on your behalf and pay you some kind of “defined benefit” upon reaching retirement age. This was normal and worked pretty well.

In 1978 Congress passed a law allowing tax-deferred compensation for bonuses and stock options. The relevant clause was section 401(k). Benefits consultant Ted Benna saw it could be used to create tax-advantaged savings accounts. Companies jumped on the idea quickly because it was simpler and less expensive than funding their defined benefit plans. Workers liked the idea of being in control of their retirement money. Today, the old-style plans are rare in the private sector, but they remain common in state and local governments.

This new arrangement, while an improvement in some ways, generated different challenges. Giving workers control over their own investments presumed they would invest wisely, which is often not the case. It turns out humans are, well, human, with evolutionary survival traits that are not necessarily the best traits for investing. An entire subset of economics called behavioral economics has evolved (pun intended) to describe our human foibles.

But the even bigger problem is the employers who kept DB plans without adequately funding them and/or generating returns sufficient to pay the promised benefits. It is a systemic problem that affects others. Today we’ll discuss this problem and some of its macro-level consequences.