Skip to main content

Will 401(k) plans keep getting worse?

By Teresa Ghilarducci, Special to CNN
December 12, 2012 -- Updated 2222 GMT (0622 HKT)
IBM plans to contribute only once every December to its employees' 401(k) accounts.
IBM plans to contribute only once every December to its employees' 401(k) accounts.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • IBM said it would contribute once every December to its employees' 401(k) plans
  • Teresa Ghilarducci: This type of payment benefits the company rather than workers
  • She says relative to other companies, IBM actually has a good retirement plan
  • Ghilarducci: Most companies are reducing retirement benefits; workers lose

Editor's note: Teresa Ghilarducci is a professor of economics and director of the Schwartz Center for Economic Policy Analysis at The New School.

(CNN) -- IBM, one of America's largest companies, shook the employee compensation world when it announced recently that it would contribute only once every December to its employees' 401(k) accounts. Any employee who leaves before December would not be able to collect the company's match.

Workers at IBM aren't marching to the picket line like Walmart workers and longshoreman who protest pay and working conditions, but you just never know.

Only about 9% of the nation's employers make matches once a year. IBM's move is paving the way for big companies to go down this road.

If I were an IBM manager, I would love this once-a-year lump payment. First, my buddies in Human Resources would have much less hassle with fewer deposits to make. By delaying payment to the end of the year, "the float" -- interest accrued -- would go to the company instead of the workers. In other words, the company saves money.

Moreover, few IBM workers are going to voluntarily leave before December, which means projects can be planned better and employees can be asked to do more.

QUIZ: The ultimate portfolio -- 15 questions to help you define your financial goals

A few years ago, in 2008, IBM made news by transforming its traditional defined benefit plan, a pension, into a 401(k)-type plan. That move saved money, but the company lost an important personnel tool.

Defined benefit plans are designed to encourage employees to exit or retire when it is optimal for the company. A 401(k) is cheaper, but it is a "cash and carry" account that does not have the element of timing finesse. A 401(k) plan does not reward loyalty, and its value is not predictable as it fluctuates all over the place depending on the financial markets.

How important is saving for retirement?
Investment options for a 401(k)?

By making workers stay until December before they can receive the company's 401(k) match, IBM is putting back, albeit with an anemic substitute, a reward for workers to stay at least until December.

The company can be pretty sure that there will be very few workers exiting during crunch time season: September, October and November. It would really be IBM's choice in determining which employees to let go. This incremental addition to IBM's control over their employees is surely the main reason IBM changed its 401(k) payment timing.

But let's step back. Relative to other companies, IBM actually has a good retirement plan. It matches more than 6% of a worker's contribution, which is above the national average. Only 7% of companies do not make matches to 401(k) plans, so at least IBM is, for now, in the majority of companies that match their employees' contributions. Not many people know that just because a company sponsors a 401(k) plan doesn't mean that it will pay a cent.

In the Great Recession of 2008 to 2009, more than 11% of companies stopped their 401(k) match. Because they are voluntary, most workers do not even have a retirement account plan, which means many middle-class and upper-middle-class workers will only have Social Security to rely on for retirement.

These workers face considerable chance of downward mobility later in life because Social Security is not designed to replace pre-retirement living standards for anyone but the lowest paid workers. Middle-class workers will need at least a $500,000 payout on top of Social Security checks to have a chance of remaining middle class when they retire. Most of us could only dream of accumulating that amount or its equivalent by saving for retirement at work or being in a pension plan.

IBM looks better than most companies because most companies are whacking their workers' retirement plans or don't sponsor any at all. GM offered its salaried, white-collar workers a lump sum -- the worst way to get a retirement account because people spend a lump sum too fast -- instead of an annuity. Ford will follow GM's example next year. Fortunately, very few auto managers and workers are taking up such an offer; they must know an annuity is more valuable.

What is there to stop companies from ending retirement accounts altogether? Nothing.

Unions represent less than 11% of the private sector workforce and the unemployment rate is high enough that anyone who has a job feels lucky to have a job. I don't see anything on the horizon that will encourage companies to maintain or improve retirement programs at the workplace.

Political leadership and bravery is needed to call out the failure of the voluntary retirement system and to secure retirement income and savings for all American workers.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Teresa Ghilarducci.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
August 31, 2014 -- Updated 1754 GMT (0154 HKT)
Carlos Moreno says atheists, a sizable fraction of Americans, deserve representation in Congress.
August 31, 2014 -- Updated 1625 GMT (0025 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says Democrats and unions have a long history of mutual support that's on the decline. But in a time of income inequality they need each other more than ever
August 31, 2014 -- Updated 0423 GMT (1223 HKT)
William McRaven
Peter Bergen says Admiral William McRaven leaves the military with a legacy of strategic thinking about special operations
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1611 GMT (0011 HKT)
Leon Aron says the U.S. and Europe can help get Russia out of Ukraine by helping Ukraine win its just war, sharing defense technologies and intelligence
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1724 GMT (0124 HKT)
Timothy Stanley the report on widespread child abuse in a British town reveals an institutional betrayal by police, social services and politicians. Negligent officials must face justice
August 30, 2014 -- Updated 0106 GMT (0906 HKT)
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say a new video of an American suicide bomber shows how Turkey's militant networks are key to jihadists' movement into Syria and Iraq. Turkey must stem the flow
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 1516 GMT (2316 HKT)
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1434 GMT (2234 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 1432 GMT (2232 HKT)
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 0243 GMT (1043 HKT)
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
August 30, 2014 -- Updated 1722 GMT (0122 HKT)
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1330 GMT (2130 HKT)
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1849 GMT (0249 HKT)
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2242 GMT (0642 HKT)
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2335 GMT (0735 HKT)
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2053 GMT (0453 HKT)
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1919 GMT (0319 HKT)
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1558 GMT (2358 HKT)
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1950 GMT (0350 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2052 GMT (0452 HKT)
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2104 GMT (0504 HKT)
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2145 GMT (0545 HKT)
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
ADVERTISEMENT