The Obama administration appears to be proceeding with a novel way of financing trillion-dollar budget deficits by forcing IRA and 401(k) holders to buy Treasury bonds by mandating the placement of government-structured annuities in their investment accounts.
The requirement to invest private retirement assets has been cleverly buried within plans to create “automatic IRAs” that would mandate employer groups enroll all employees in 401(k) or IRA plans.
The U.S. Department of Labor released yesterday an agenda for an upcoming joint hearing with the Department of the Treasury scheduled for Sept. 14 and 15 on whether government life-time annuity options funded by U.S. Treasury debt should be required for private retirement accounts, including IRAs and 401(k) plans.
WND reported in January that Assistant Labor Secretary Phyllis C. Borzi and Deputy Assistant Treasury Secretary Mark Iwry are planning to stage a public comment period before implementing regulations that would require private investors to structure IRA and 401(k) accounts into what could amount to a U.S. Treasury debt-backed government annuity.
In a 2010 budget blueprint unveiled Feb. 26, President Obama proposed that employers sponsoring 401(k) plans or other defined contribution plans should be required to offer automatic enrollment in these plans, or in direct-deposit IRAs, as steps that would change the nation’s voluntary retirement plan into a government-mandated nationalized program.
With the Treasury needing to sell another $1.4 to $1.5 trillion in government debt to finance the anticipated fiscal year 2010 federal budget deficit, the Obama administration is obviously scrambling to find ways to sell government debt without having to raise interest rates.
Under ERISA, the Department of Labor regulates approximately 700,000 private pension plans, with approximately $4.7 trillion in assets.
The Investment Company Institute estimates that IRA assets have grown from $25 billion in 1980 to a peak of $4.747 trillion by the end of 2007, declining to $3.613 trillion in 2008.
For 401(k) plans, the ICI estimates a peak of $3.025 trillion in total assets was reached in 2007, declining to $2.350 trillion in 2008.
The ICI estimates that total U.S. retirement assets decreased to $14 trillion in 2008, down 22 percent from the peak of $17.9 trillion in 2007.
Kerry introduces ‘Automatic IRAs’
Earlier this month, Sens. John Kerry, D-Mass., and Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., introduced legislation in the Senate to create “Automatic IRAs,” a plan in which employees whose companies do not provide a retirement plan would be enrolled.
Under the Kerry-Bingaman plan, in the first year of enactment, private companies with 100 or more employees would be automatically enrolled into government-mandated IRAs, forcing these businesses to contribute on behalf of their employees a “default amount” equal to 3 percent of an employee’s pay.
Employees would be allowed to raise or lower their contributions, or opt-out of the plan.
In the second year, companies with 50 or more employees would be required to provide Automatic IRAs; in the third year, 25 or more; and in the fourth year, 10 or more.
Workers 18 years or older and employed for at least three months would be automatically enrolled.
The Automatic IRAs would be permitted to invest only in options determined by Treasury and Department of Labor guidelines. A mandatory investment option would include a “principal preservation fund” that would have to invest in a newly created Treasury Retirement Bond, the “R-Bond,” specially designed for use with an Automatic IRA.
WND obtained a letter from the Treasury Department, Bureau of Public Debt informing U.S. citizens that Treasury will soon stop offering paper savings bonds through payroll savings plans.
As of Sept. 30, federal employees will no longer be able to purchase paper savings bonds through payroll deduction.
Instead, the federal government is rolling out a new program called “Treasury Direct” that “allows you to purchase, manage, and redeem electronic (paperless) savings bonds 24/7.” It has the option of setting up a payroll plan or direct deposit investment program with Treasury Direct using a personal bank account to purchase Treasury debt “on a schedule you choose.”
The Service Employee International Union, or SEIU, a key labor union ally of the Obama administration, has mounted an effort to create government-mandated worker retirement accounts as an entitlement program, with the possibility that a portion of all private retirement funds could be forced into U.S. Treasury debt.
Branding the program under the banner “Retirement USA,” SEIU the has joined with the AFL-CIO, the Economic Policy Institute – a Washington-based economic left-leaning think tank that receives substantial labor funding – and two other left-leaning interest groups, the Pension Rights Center and the National Committee to Preserve Social Security.
Retirement USA promotes the concept that all workers in the U.S. have a right to a government retirement account that would fund a secure retirement with adequate dollars in addition to Social Security and private ERISA-retirement workplace retirement programs such as 401(k) programs.
“Our goal is to involve all workers and all employees in a government-mandated retirement program, with the government putting up the difference for lower paid employees,” Nancy Hwa, a spokeswoman for the participating Pension Rights Center, told WND.
The Retirement USA government-mandated workplace retirement account would require by law employers and employees to contribute into a retirement account for every employee and demand that a portion of that contribution go into a federal-government created annuity that would be funded by purchasing Treasury debt.
“Retirement USA is basically an effort that amounts to nationalizing 401(k)s and IRAs,” David John, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, told WND.
Under the guise of making workplace retirement savings accounts available to all Americans and insuring that existing retirement savings accounts pay lifetime income, the SEIU-led Retirement USA effort is quietly exploring strategies that would create “Universal IRAs” or “Guaranteed Retirement Accounts” for all workers.
Mutual fund industry pushes back
Not surprisingly, the U.S. Treasury and Department of Labor are getting serious pushback from the mutual fund industry objecting to what some financial planners see as a government attempt to divert hundreds of billions of dollars of private retirement accounts into federal government debt, regardless whether the investment in Treasury bonds is in the best investment interests of the retirement-oriented investor.
While many investment specialists in the retirement field favor “automatic” plans that would increase employee participation in job-related retirement programs, there is concern over investment options that would establish government mandates to require a proportion of the retirement investment to be placed in a government-guaranteed annuity invested in Treasury debt.
Right now, IRA holders and investors in 401(k) plans are free to invest in Treasury bonds if they choose.
Also, annuities are a popular settlement option for IRAs and 401(k) plans that transition from the accumulation phase to the payout phase.
Annuities are an attractive payout instrument because annuities offer the part of lifetime income and only a portion of each payout installment is considered taxable as return of investment principle.
Interest or investment earnings in annuities accumulate income tax deferred until the annuitant takes out money, either in an unscheduled withdrawal, or in a payout option extending over a specified number of years in retirement, or for the lifetime of the annuitant.
A survey conducted by the Investment Company Institute showed more than 70 percent of all households disagreed with the idea of requiring retirees to buy annuities with a portion of their assets, whether that annuity is offered by an insurance company or by the government.
Moreover, 96 percent of households in the Investment Company Institute survey responded that retirees rejected the idea that the government should mandate turning IRA or 401(k) assets into annuities, asserting instead that retirees should make their own decisions about managing retirement assets and income.
The ICI’s Paul Schott Stevens is scheduled to testify at the DOL/Treasury hearing Sept. 14, as are mutual fund representatives from Fidelity Investments, Putnam Investments, Lincoln Financial and Vanguard.
The Investment Company Institute member companies manage some $11.62 trillion in mutual fund assets for some 90 million mutual fund shareholders, including retirement-oriented investors participating in defined contribution plans such as employer-sponsored 401(k) accounts.