There’s pending legislation in the Senate to require even tiny businesses that don’t already have a retirement plan to create an IRA for employees. Whether or not it will do much to help people save for their retirement in a meaningful way is debatable.
The bill, the Automatic IRA Act of 2010, introduced by Senator Jeff Bingaman (D-New Mexico) mandates that businesses establish individual IRA accounts for all employees. Contributions would come from payroll deductions, so employers wouldn’t have to cough up any money themselves, and employees would be able to opt out. Accounts would be managed by banks, mutual funds, and insurance companies that already manage this type of account.
Also employers would have no ERISA fiduciary liability as long as they used a provider on a government-approved list. And there’s a default investment structure: a principal preservation fund for balances of less than $5,000 and a lifecycle fund for bigger accounts.
Seems reasonable, until you drill down further. First there’s the infinitesimal default deferral rate. That’s 3 percent. As a result, since employers aren’t even allowed a match, it’s unlikely employees will be able to save a whole lot. Also employers get a measly $250 tax credit to cover administrative costs.
Mostly this bill will be a potential goldmine for financial services companies, at least those on the official government list of approved providers. While each account will be small in aggregate, the amount will come to quite an attractive proposition for these businesses.
If there were any doubt about just what a windfall this could be, consider the provision for a gradual phase-in of the law. For example, in the first year, the bill will apply only to businesses with 100 or more employees. It won’t cover companies with less than 10 employees until year four.
But that provision wasn’t put there with the company owner in mind. Instead it’s all about the retirement services providers to help them “prepare for a significant expansion in the number of IRA accounts.”
To be sure, something needs to be done to boost the retirement savings rate in this country. With this bill, however, the real beneficiaries will be the usual suspects–big financial services companies.