I’d like to sketch a plan to promote American retirement income security and ways to prevent poverty-stricken old age. I believe Australia’s superannuation system can serve as a lodestar for defined-contribution systems in other countries. Here’s a brief description of how it works (from Wikipedia). I will be adapting certain features of it to an American context.
Currently, there are a number of accounts that can be used for retirement savings. The 401(k) can be offered by employers, and the Individual Retirement Account can be set up by individuals. These can be made as either tax-deferred contributions, where income tax on the principal and earnings is due upon withdrawal, or as post-tax contributions, where taxes are paid on the principal upfront and can be withdrawn tax-free (along with earnings) at retirement age. In addition, federal employees and uniformed services are eligible to participate in the Thrift Savings Plan (TSP), which is similar to the 401(k) but with its own investment funds. Most employers that offer a 401(k) also match employee contributions up to a certain amount. In an IRA, the employee can use his choice of investment vehicle through a firm of his choice, while those in a 401(k) are limited to investment options offered by the company’s contracted 401(k) provider. After leaving an employer, employees may leave their money in the company’s 401(k) (although unable to make further contributions), roll it over into a new employer’s 401(k) plan, or roll it over into an IRA.
The first problem I see is there are too many types of accounts. I suggest merging all of them into a single Universal Retirement Account (URA), which can be subdivided into pre- and post- tax contributions. Further, many (mostly small) businesses don’t offer 401(k)’s which limits workers’ ability to save. In addition, when you invest in a 401(k), you are stuck with the plan’s investment options. To resolve these issues, I propose making URAs universal and not employer-dependent. My employer can deposit my paycheck where I want; there’s no reason why they can’t do the same for retirement contributions. If an employee doesn’t already have one or doesn’t provide the information, the employer would auto-enroll the employee with a provider of the employer’s choice and funds would be invested in an appropriate target-date fund (which is already the default for most 401(k)’s). Another option would be opening the TSP, which are currently reserved for federal employees, as a default option. This both resolves the access problem and provides maximal employee choice and control for those who want to be hands-on. Note that the employer’s obligation is limited to enrolling employees who don’t have one and sending contributions. This is similar to many state programs that require IRA auto-enrollment.
I believe this needs to be made mandatory. Currently, Australian employers are required to contribute 9.5% of salary. In America, we have a culture of employee contributions with some level of employer matching. Economic theory suggests that the full burden of these contributions would fall on employees, with employer contributions being made up in terms of lower wages. I would propose that, initially, 6% of pre-tax salary be required, rising to 10% over a period of time. This could be employer or employee contributions, or a combination of both. Employees could make additional pre- or post-tax contributions. Total contributions are capped at the current 401(k) cap. If a mandate is undesirable or politically unpalatable, simply making this opt-out would get most of the benefit.
Finally, I realize there is the issue of low-income people having difficulty investing a sufficient amount. There are a few options for helping here. One is to divert a portion of poor people’s FICA taxes to their URA and make up that amount by raising the FICA-tax cap on higher-income people. Another is that the government could divert a portion of the Earned Income Tax Credit to the URA.
Reforms along these lines could have appeal across the political spectrum. For those on the Left, this would reduce wealth inequality by helping those lower on the economic ladder grow assets. Currently, the retirement savings system benefits mostly the upper and upper-middle classes. For those on the Right, this could be a move towards fulfilling former President George W. Bush’s vision of an “ownership society” where workers have maximal control of their retirement savings.
In closing, I want to suggest that this policy sketch be considered merely a starting-off point for discussion. It does not represent my final, firmly-held policy view. Many incremental changes are worth considering, such as those state laws that require automatic IRA enrollment or Marco Rubio’s plan to allow small business that don’t offer 401(k)’s to join the federal TSP.
I’m really looking forward to hearing your thoughts.