Americans’ retirement savings are at risk of being appropriated by the U.S. government, according to a number of articles published over the past few months. The voices are getting louder, and some article headlines and respective content appear to convey more than just a sense of urgency with some giving the feeling that time is running out.
It’s difficult to ascertain truth from rumor. Also, there is no consensus, as people are on both sides of the aisle. Some discard the information as hogwash, while others have started to look for ways to safeguard their nest eggs. There are also those who have taken on a wait-and-see attitude.
“With Washington battling over what to do about its $16.4 trillion debt pile, rumors are swirling that the government will start taking 401(k) money to cure its fiscal ills,” a Feb. 11 article on the Money Morning website suggests.
“Americans have $17.5 trillion in savings with 25% of it in IRA’s. It is a future source of revenue for the government if they can get their hands on it,” a Feb. 4 article on The Independent Sentinel website warns.
A Nov. 28, 2012, article on the Investors.com website suggests that Americans try to put away some earnings so that they have a well-padded nest egg for when they are ready to retire.
“Many in Washington see our investment accounts not as the expressions of well-planned, disciplined decisions but as untapped reservoirs of wealth they can drain to fix the problems that they caused,” the Investors.com article forewarns.
Seizing Private Retirement Funds at Issue
“Every few years there are rumors that a particular administration wants to seize private retirement funds, and so far it hasn’t happened. The rumors come in different flavors and several ideas have even been proposed before Congress,” a discussion on the cashmoneylife website states.
A number of schemes, such as a one-time taxation of retirement funds proposed by the Clinton administration, as well as limiting the amount that can be saved in a retirement account to far below the present annual threshold, have been tabled.
Another plan would have the government seize private retirement funds and convert them into annuities administered by the U.S. government. The Obama administration is proposing to convert some of the privately held retirement funds into U.S. Treasury bonds.
Rep. Tom Harkin, chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, has proposed the creation of a Universal, Secure, and Adaptable (USA) retirement fund.
The discussion on the cashmoneylife website states unequivocally that the U.S. government has the power to appropriate retirement accounts, but can’t do so without changing existing laws or creating a new law. Under current laws, all three branches of government—Congress, the president, and the Supreme Court—must give their consent.
The National Seniors Council (NSC) initiated an online poll in November 2012, asking the American public if the U.S. government should nationalize private retirement accounts. Of those who voted, 95.7 percent told the sitting administration to keep its hands off private retirement funds.
Seizing retirement accounts “would merely retire less than 19% of Washington’s $16.3 trillion debt. Taxed at 50%, 401(k)s would narrowly cover the $1.3 trillion deficit that Washington rang up in 2012,” the article on the Investors.com website states.
In an address at West Virginia University in 2005, former President George W. Bush told the American people that the government is using retirement money for reasons other than Social Security. A precedent has been set with the government’s administration of Social Security, according to the Social Security website.
“A lot of people in America think … we [the government] take your money through payroll taxes and then we hold it for you. … But that’s not the way it works. There is no ‘trust fund,’ just IOUs that I saw firsthand, that future generations will pay—will pay for either in higher taxes, or reduced benefits, or cuts to other critical government programs,” the former president said.
The U.S. Social Security Trust Fund was indexed in 1972 by Congress and has been transferred, including the interest payments, from the federal government to the U.S. general fund. Treasury then uses the funds for any program in need of money and puts an IOU into the Social Security Trust Fund.
Countries that have taken a cue from the United States by raiding the people’s retirement funds to pay government debt not related to retirement include Bulgaria, France, Hungary, Ireland, and Poland. These governments seized $70 million, $1.6 billion, $14 billion, $21 billion, and $2.3 billion respectively in 2009, according to a December 2010 article on the Adam Smith Institute website.
In January of this year, the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) broke the news that Spain has been bleeding its citizens’ social security fund for some time now.
“At least 90% of the €65 billion ($85.7 billion) fund has been invested in increasingly risky Spanish debt,” according to the WSJ article.
In December 2012, the government of the Dominican Republic announced that it had appropriated $1 billion of its citizens’ pension fund to build affordable housing, according to the DomincanToday website.
“A recent hearing sponsored by the Treasury and Labor Departments marked the beginning of the Obama Administration’s effort to nationalize the nation’s pension system and to eliminate private retirement accounts including IRA’s and 401k plans, NSC is warning,” according to an Oct. 13, 2010, article on the NSC website, updated after President Barack Obama was re-elected.
U.S. Retirement Assets
“Total U.S. retirement assets were $19.4 trillion as of September 30, 2012, up 3.5 percent from $18.7 trillion recorded on June 30, 2012,” according to a Dec. 19, 2012, article on the Investment Company Institute (ICI) website.
There are five different retirement plans: annuity reserves, a fund that is managed by an insurance company; government plans; defined contribution plans (DC plans), such as 401(k)s, which are funded by employees and their companies; private defined benefit pension plans (private DB plans), which are funded by small companies; and Individual Retirement Accounts (IRAs), which are tax-deferred accounts that are administered by a financial institution.
By the end of third quarter 2012, annuity reserves held $1.7 trillion, government plans held $4.8 trillion, 401(k)s held $3.5 trillion, DC plans held $5.0 trillion, private DB plans held $2.6 trillion, and lastly, IRAs held $5.3 trillion.
“The increase in retirement assets was driven in large part by the rise in corporate equity values. … Retirement savings accounted for 36 percent of all household financial assets in the United States at the end of the third quarter of 2012,” the ICI article states.
Public Opinion Concerning Government Interference
“More than nine out of 10 households agreed that retirees should be able to make their own decisions about how to manage their own retirement assets and income,” according to survey results published by ICI in February.
More than 60 percent of survey respondents do not wish to convert their retirement accounts to a government administered account that ensures a set income for life, such as the Social Security fund.
Close to eight out of 10 Americans who own private retirement accounts “were confident that such accounts can help people meet their retirement goals,” the ICI report advises.