Let’s say you’re a person who has worked very hard. You’ve done the right thing — you’ve saved every possible penny for your 401(k). For this, you’re hoping to have a decent stream of income in your golden years. And yet in the end, you may not have access to all of that hard-earned money. Why? Because the legal standards that govern people who give advice on retirement plans are a complete joke.
Right now, all across the country, the savings of blameless, hard-working people are being nibbled away without their knowledge by unscrupulous actors. And there doesn’t seem to be anything that can be done about it.
Meet “the Guy”
When you ask people about their retirement planning, they often refer to somebody known as “the Guy.” As in, “Oh, yeah, the Guy who advises me recommended a variable annuity.” Or, “the Guy says I should switch to a different mutual fund.”
The Guy advertises himself as a financial expert. He (or she) wears a neat suit and speaks in impressive sounding financialese, projecting confidence and authority. This individual shows up at your workplace with thick binders and nifty brochures— maybe just as you’re getting ready to retire and figure out what to do with your 401(k). Or maybe he comes recommended to you through friends or neighbors. Or he hosts a helpful seminar at your community center, or your favorite restaurant. This Guy is supposed to give you advice that protects your financial interests. That’s his job, right?
Wrong. Contrary to what the vast majority of people think, a financial professional does not necessarily have to serve your interests ahead of his own. Too often, the Guy is a wolf in sheep’s clothing who uses sophisticated tricks to trap you into purchasing products that feature hidden fees and incomprehensible terms. He may come loaded up with conflicts of interest, and could be pushing you toward investments that do absolutely nothing for you, but lots for his bottom line.
The Guy looks like the picture of respectability, but he may very well be ripping you off, right under your nose. And a sleazy industry is hellbent on arranging things so that he can continue to do it without running afoul of the law.
The Regulatory Wild West
For the last five years, the Labor Department, which oversees retirement plans, has been trying to address a wildly out-of-date regulatory structure that basically lets shady financial professionals fleece you at will. Specifically, it has been working to update a 1975 rule, part of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) — a law that allowed for the creation of the very first individual retirement accounts (IRAs). The rule in question says when an investment adviser has to act as a fiduciary – a legal term for a person who must serve your best interests. According to ERISA, when dealing with retirement accounts, a broker is supposed to put your interests first. But there are several ridiculously easy ways brokers can brush off this duty. If the advice is a one-time thing, the rule doesn’t apply. If you and your broker don’t agree that advice was the main reason for your investment decision, the rule doesn’t apply either. And so on. Result? The Guy can lure you into decisions that will eat up substantial amounts of your precious savings without fearing legal repercussions.
ERISA was created in a time when over half of Americans had pensions, and long before 401(k)s turned your retirement into an “industry” in which ordinary people were expected to magically transform themselves into sophisticated financial managers. In the face of do-it-yourself retirement plans, we are increasingly relying on professional advisers to help us navigate the complex world of financial investments, especially when it comes to something as critical to our well-being as retirement plans.
Unfortunately, the structures for regulating this retirement “marketplace” are woefully inadequate. As the New York Times recently reported, the mighty financial industry has unleashed a tsumami of money to fight off any introduction of ethics or common sense into what has become a lucrative rip-off business of “experts” whose real area of expertise is not enhancing your savings, but their own bank accounts. These predators are very good at posing as legitimate financial advisers — they may tell you that they only get a flat fee for an investment plan, when in reality they stand to collect commissions. Their industry pays armies of lobbyists to promote their interests in Washington, where they scream that if brokers have to keep their customers’ best interests in mind, they won’t be able to conduct business. Which tells you something about the nature of their business.
Assistant Labor Secretary Phyllis Borzi has been warning of a Wild West environment in which unlicensed brokers and unethical “experts” peddle bad investment advice that cost retirees dearly. But is anybody listening? Check out a video featuring government officials and members of Congress invited by the Financial Services Roundtable to address Borzi’s warnings who do little but deny the existence of a problem. They repeatedly use slippery catchphrases like “limiting investor choice” and warn of a “chilling effect” on brokers. Their goal appears to be to keep the con — and the campaign donations — going strong.
Time to Expand Social Security
The inability of the Labor Department and other watchdogs to stand up to Wall Street and rein in such abuses is yet another reason why Social Security must be expanded, rather than cut. Clearly, the financial industry who wants to gobble up your savings through fees and the greedy rich who don’t want to pay taxes are vehemently opposed to this idea, and they use all sorts of scare tactics and austerity campaigns to get their way. But Americans are staring at a coming retirement train wreck, and they are beginning to understand who is running them over. They are catching on to the fact that the challenges of the current do-it-yourself retirement go far beyond just being able to save enough. They involve the myriad ways in which unethical actors can drain your accounts even if you do manage to save. They concern the sad truth that many older Americans will develop dementia and other cognitive challenges that make them less able to spot the unscrupulous broker’s tricks and traps when they arrive on the scene.
Social Security is crucial to America’s retirement because it is the check that arrives every month, no matter what. It can’t be scammed away from you, and it’s not vulnerable to fees and tricks. We need Social Security more than ever, as Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman, Senator Elizabeth Warren, and others have emphasized.
The alternative to expanding Social Security is that more of us will fall prey to financial hustlers, and tens of millions will fall into poverty in our golden years — because no matter how much planning we do, the Guy is always planning, too, and waiting patiently to take away what is rightfully ours.
Lynn Parramore is an AlterNet senior editor. She is cofounder of Recessionwire, founding editor of New Deal 2.0, and author of “Reading the Sphinx: Ancient Egypt in Nineteenth-Century Literary Culture.” She received her Ph.D. in English and cultural theory from NYU. She is the director of AlterNet’s New Economic Dialogue Project. Follow her on Twitter @LynnParramore.