401(k) Tax Subsidies & The Path of Least Resistance

In this post on Forbes.com, Jeffrey Brown points out (we think, correctly) that the employer tax subsidy plays a key role in the offering of retirement plans. We agree.

However, we think there is at least one point that Mr. Brown doesn’t really address. As he notes, the recent study reported in the New York Times economics blog that supposedly demonstrates that retirement tax incentives do not increase savings for high-income earners misses a big piece of the picture. The policy implications for the 401(k) deduction go beyond high-income earners.

Often times, those individuals have other uses for their money that the prescriptive investment and distribution rules of a 401(k) plan make it difficult for them to use the money as they intend. Even if those rules are not an impediment, nondiscrimination rules and existing legal limits may prevent them from saving sufficiently inside a plan, which is probably part of why, for them, employer-sponsored retirement plans may not necessarily increase their savings rate.

But all of that aside, some suggestions for lowering the 401(k) contribution limit (like the Simpson-Bowles report we’ve talked about previously) are likely to have a disproportionate impact on moderate income workers, not just the high earners. Capping contributions at 20% of pay (or $20,000, if less) is likely to hit almost everyone, not just the high rollers.

Interestingly, the authors of that study noted that most people are passive savers and are likely to take the path of least resistance. The infographic on SaveMy401k.com agrees, showing that over 70% of people offered an employer plan will save on a tax-deferred basis, compared to less than 5% without. So if, in fact, we have a retirement crisis in this country, and if we know that people will generally take the path of least resistance, why would Congress make the path to saving for retirement harder?

Related Links (Last Updated Dec. 27, 2012)

American Benefits Council Research: Attitudes of Employee Benefits Decision Makers Toward Retirement Plan Tax Proposals

Fiscal Cliff Updates on TrustBryanCave.com

NAPA Net – Obama Fiscal Cliff Offer Would Harm 401(k) Plans

Fox Business – How the Fiscal Cliff May Impact 401(k) Plans