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401ks Are Historically Poor Investments

A Brief History of the 401k

We are the only country in the world that has a 401K. Why?

Did you know that the”invention” of the 401K in the early 80’s was a solution to the stagflation of the 70’s? Johnson & Johnson, big business, Wall Street Titans and the government were desperate to reinvigorate consumer confidence with these new funds that they could trap in 401K, mutual funds, IRAs, etc were excited about the prospect of a burgeoning economy and more money for big business and the Wall Street big boys. When the pressure from these trapped funds elevated stocks and stock prices, the big 4 thought they had guaranteed themselves a home run.

And it worked……but only for a while. But it feels so good that it’s automatically taken out, helping you save by scaring you from withdrawing early. Like a big brother, right? Sometimes the employer’s even match your contributions up to a certain percentage, right? Free money, why wouldn’t you take it? Well, here’s what they don’t tell you when you land the big job and start dumping your money into a 401K, mutual funds and the like.

Administrative fees and the tyranny of compounding costs.

The toll taken by 401ks and associated mutual fund fees is staggering, and can eat up more than half your gains. With 401ks, there are usually more than a dozen undisclosed fees: legal fees, trustee fees, transaction fees, stewardship fees, bookkeeping fees, finder fees and more. But that’s just the beginning. The mutual funds inside 401ks often take a 2 percent fee off the top. If a fund is up 7 percent for the year, they take 2 percent and you get 5 percent. That’s almost 33% of your profit.</p> <p>As Jack Bogle, the founder of the largest mutual fun in the world, Vanguard, states, “What happens in the fund business is the magic of compound returns is overwhelmed by the tyranny of compound costs.” If you contribute $5,000 per year, from 25 years old to 65, and the fund goes up 7 percent every year, your money would turn into around $1,143,000. Yet, you’d only get to keep $669,400, or less than 60 percent. That’s because 7 percent compounding returns hundreds of thousands more than a 5 percent compounding return, and none of it goes to you. The 2 percent fee cuts the return exponentially. In the example above, by the time you turn 75 the mutual fund may have taken two-thirds of your gains. Bogle puts it like this, “Do you really want to invest in a system where you put up 100 percent of the capital, you take 100 percent of the risk, and you get 30 percent of the return?”

Lack of liquidity when you need it most.

Money in a 401k is tied up with penalties from withdrawing early unless you know how to safely navigate obscure IRS codes. This means you can’t spend or invest your money to enrich your life without great difficulty and/or taking a big financial hit. The only exception allows you to borrow a limited amount of money from your 401(k) if you promise to pay it back. This automatically leads to double taxation and a slew of other negatives, the worst being if you lose your job or your income dries up, the deal changes and you must repay the loan within 60 days. Not even break your-thumb loan sharks are that cruel.

Higher tax brackets upon withdrawal.

It’s ironic that people anticipate that they’ll have healthy returns on their qualified plan while at the same time figuring they’ll be in a lower tax bracket at retirement. If you have achieved any measure of success, you should actually be in a higher tax bracket at retirement. Most advisors, however, assume the opposite. Even worse, those higher tax brackets are likely to be even higher and more daunting in the future.

401ks are easy and high value targets for taxes.

Frankly, 401ks are sitting ducks for predatory estate taxes. Since there’s no clear exit strategy without major penalties or taxes, at the end of a person’s lifetime their 401ks often end up being a pile of cash that looks very tempting to the government. When it is passed on to the next generation, it’s likely not only hit by the income tax, but the estate tax as well. Politicians are always finding ways to redistribute wealth.

Turmoil in retirement.

When it comes time to withdraw money in retirement, maybe you can stomach the taxes, but can you stomach the market swings? Suppose you’ve projected to withdraw 6 percent a year, based on an average annual return of 8 percent. What will you do when the market is volatile?If your fund is down 10 percent one year, any withdrawal is tapping into your principal. At that point, your only choices are start withdrawing principal, or leave the money alone until your account is up again. Try sleeping at night when your income is at the complete mercy of the markets.

No exit strategy.

Early withdrawal penalties, over-the-top borrowing rules, daunting taxes, these are all incentives never to touch the money, ever. Getting into a 401k seems simple enough. But how are you going to get your money out of it?

You can be wiped out overnight.

A report on CBS’s 60 Minutes TV show asked of 401 ks, “What kind of retirement plan allows millions of people to lose 30-50 percent of their life savings just as they near retirement?” Unlike other investments that are protected from losses, your 401K rises and falls with the stock market where you have absolutely no control. Retirement planners will tell you the market averages 8-11 percent returns per year. That may have been true last century, but this century has seen that turned into a fiction. From 2000 to 2015, the market was up just 8.4 percent total when adjusted for inflation, or 0.56 percent per year, and that was after a substantial market rally.

There’s no cash flow for better opportunities.

The theory behind the 401k project is that you keep putting money away, where you can’t easily touch it without penalty for 30 years, and it will compound into enough to retire on. We’ve seen why you should be suspicious of that story. Compounding charts don’t look the same at 0.56 percent annual returns. But here’s the other problem. Money left to compound unpredictably for 30 years is stagnant money. There’s no cash flow ready to direct to today’s best uses. Instead, it’s sitting still inside one 30-year bet, while newer, better opportunities may be passing you by.

Lack of knowledge encourages unconscious investing.

With 401ks, we’ve seen environmentalists who are unknowingly invested in big oil, and anti-smoking advocates invested in big tobacco. Simply put, 401ks teach people to be unconscious while investing. Think about it, how much do you really know about your 401k? Do you know the funds in which you’re invested? Do you know the details of the companies inside those funds? Do you know the fund manager’s philosophy, history, and performance? Probably not, How can you expect to gain a return from something that you know so little about? And how can this be called investing? It’s not investing, it’s gambling.

Fear of taxes leads to underutilization.

401ks are tax-deferred, meaning you avoid paying taxes today by committing to paying them later. But taxes are historically low compared to the days of 50, 60, or even 90 percent marginal rates of the past and chances are, with record national debt, that taxes are going up. If you don’t like paying taxes today, why would you want to pay more taxes in the future? The tax deferral aspect of the 401k, which is touted as a great boon, is actually a primary factor contributing to it’s underutilization. When the time finally comes to enjoy or live off the money, retirees are incentivized to let the money sit for fear of triggering burdensome tax consequences.

The government owns your 401k and can change the rules at will.

You may be surprised to learn this, but your 401k does not even technically belong to you. Read the fine print and you will find “FBO” (For Benefit Of). The tax code makes it technically owned by the government, but provided for your benefit. Judging from world history, 401(k)s could be in great jeopardy. Other countries have raided private retirement plans to fund the government. Argentina did it in 2008, Hungary did it in 2010 and Ireland in 2011. Similar pension raids occurred in Poland and France. Could it happen in America? Well, during the last recession, Congress invited an expert to give testimony on confiscating 401k)s and turning them into a public retirement plan like Social Security. It only takes one economic crisis before you retire for possible rule changes or confiscation of your 401(k).

Lost without a comprehensive plan.

We’ve witnessed many people whose finances are in shambles, yet who continue to contribute diligently to their 401(k) plans. It’s like someone with a slit wrist tending to a scraped knee. You need a macroeconomic, big-picture plan that identifies, prioritizes and manages all pieces of your financial puzzle in harmony with each other. You don’t need a general, one-size-fits-all plan that’s sold to everyone.

Neglect of stewardship and responsibility.

401(k) plans encourage people to give up responsibility for their investment decisions. They believe they can just throw enough money at the “experts” and, somehow, 30 years later, they’ll end up with a lot of money. Then when things don’t turn out that way, they blame others. A true financial plan requires stewardship and responsibility. In short, saving for retirement is wise and prudent. But other investment philosophies, products and strategies can meet your financial objectives much more quickly and safely than a 401(k). Investing for cash flow, or investing directly in a business, or Cash Flow Banking, where you become your own “bank,” could be smarter moves. Even paying off a high interest rate loan can be a smarter move than contributing to your 401(k). Whatever you choose, we urge you to do it as a conscio us investor.

No worries. West Coast Swiss Group has many strategies that are more predictable and historically more profitable than the average 401ks & 403bs, without the restrictions and penalties of rules like the 59 1/2 withdrawal limitation.

Here you can find quick videos expanding on some of our strategies, philosophies & products. We are currently under re construction. Please come back and visit us in a week.

Ever start to think that portfolio investing is so confusing that you need a financial advisor to help them to your money? Maybe it’s by design. Get educated on our blog. Time to get in touch, stay in touch and get educated about your money. Your education is our advantage. Check out our extremely educational and entertaining Money Series with Money Making Mark and Regular Joe.


Todd Wille
CEO, American Business Association Turnaround CEO of the Year

I’m a CFO by trade. WCSG has strategies for families, executive & business owners that accountants and financial advisors don’t have. Highest recommendation.

John Johnson

Probate Attorney, As an attorney, my job is to weigh risk. As an investor, weighing risk and reward is even more important. As someone retiring in next 15 years, I wanted to eliminate the risks of a stock market crash. WCSG does this better than any other company.

Graphs can speak a thousand words.

Ever wonder how much of your portfolio is the money you put into your 401K, IRA or Mutual Fund versus how much your advisor has actually made you in last 10, 20 or 30 years? It can be confusing getting hit with each Financial Advisor pitch you hear, right? “We only make money when you do.” We charge a flat fee.” “We are Fiduciaries.” “We provide Wealth Guard protection.”

These pitches are all desperate attempts to camouflage the facts that they will charge you devastating fees, they can’t promise that you’re retirement will never lose 20, 30, 50% in a crash, guarantee you much higher returns than 3-4 % AND/OR allow you to take advantage of the market in an up year. We are going to give you peace of mind and make your retirement yodel.