It’s bad enough that more than 50 million Americans have filed claims for unemployment benefits since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown. But in addition to the disruption, financial hardship, and uncertainty that unemployed Americans (and their families) are experiencing right now, this crisis also threatens their financial security during retirement.
Consolidation Corner Blog
Consolidation Corner is the Retirement Clearinghouse (RCH) blog, and features the latest articles and bylines from our executives, addressing important retirement savings portability topics.
The COVID-19 crisis has created a situation where tens of millions of American workers are in danger of seeing their retirement savings depleted. In addition to the awful death toll, the COVID-19 outbreak has led to extreme disruption in daily life, financial markets, and the economy—especially employment. As of May 28, more than 40 million Americans filed claims for unemployment benefits in the previous 10 weeks. This deadly combination of 1) levels of unemployment not seen since the Great Depression, 2) a significant market downturn, and 3) the ongoing plan-to-plan portability gap, has serious implications for these Americans’ retirement outcomes.
It goes without saying that we are not living in normal times. The health and safety of our families and communities are paramount, and measures to ease burdens and hardships are always appreciated. These include the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, the massive fiscal stimulus signed into law on March 27, 2020.
In extraordinary times like these, it is understandable that Americans need emergency cash injections to pay expenses. But before tapping their 401(k)s, workers should at least follow the advice offered by the old saying “think twice,” and consider all sources of short-term cash, before prematurely cashing out their 401(k) savings (WSJ: “The Emergency 401(k) Button,” March 20). Even if tax and other penalties on 401(k) cash-outs during this period are waived, Americans who cash out forfeit the additional savings which the sums they receive would have accrued by retirement, had they remained incubated in the U.S. retirement system.
Although defined contribution plan recordkeepers and sponsors have made considerable progress helping participants retain savings through reduced fees over the past decade, job-changing participants’ 401(k) savings account balances remain in a state of dangerous limbo, as participants often succumb to the temptation of cashing out. EBRI reports that at least 4.5 million—or 40%—of job-changing participants cash out $92.4 billion in 401(k) savings from the U.S. retirement system every year.
Every year, our nation’s retirement system loses $92 billion in savings because 401(k) plan participants prematurely cash out their accounts when they change jobs. This is the most recent estimate from the Employee Benefit Research Institute (EBRI), and while this finding affects all American workers, minorities are hit hardest.
Although the financial wellness of employees has emerged as a top priority for employers in recent years, too many workers are still struggling to improve their financial health.
Much has been written in the media, including this column, about the increase in mobility of today’s American workforce.
Fifteen years ago, when safe-harbor IRAs were first proposed as a destination for small, stranded 401(k) accounts that can be automatically rolled out of plans, then-U.S. Assistant Secretary of Labor Ann L. Combs spelled out what these investment vehicles were supposed to accomplish.
401(k) account cash-outs remain a potent threat to Americans’ retirement-readiness and by all accounts the U.S. Department of Labor agrees, having issued its final Prohibited Transaction Exemption (PTE) for auto portability at the end of July.