Universal Savings Accounts Can Fix 401(k) Leakage

More than 50 million Americans hold trillions of dollars in 401(k) accounts. The retirement accounts have been a big success. By eliminating the double-taxation of savings under the income tax, 401(k)s encourage individuals to build larger nest eggs.

However, many people needing near-term cash end up withdrawing funds from their accounts or borrowing against their balances. Retirement experts are concerned about such “leakage.” But the real problem is that the system imposes paperwork burdens and penalties on people for accessing their own money.

The solution is to create a savings vehicle that would allow withdrawals without a mess of rules, penalties, and paperwork. The solution is Universal Savings Accounts (USAs), as discussed in this Cato study.

USAs would be the first tier of savings for individuals, with the funds available for any near-term expenses that may arise. For individuals that didn’t end up needing the funds in the near-term, account balances would grow tax-free and help cover future retirement needs.

Because USAs would allow withdrawals free of hassles and penalties, they would encourage more savings. The simplicity and liquidity of USAs would make the accounts popular across all age and income groups, which is the experience with similar accounts in Britain and Canada.

The Wall Street Journal yesterday highlighted the 401(k) leakage issue:

Annual defaults on loans taken against investors’ 401(k)s threaten to reduce the wealth in U.S. retirement accounts by about $210 billion when the lost savings are compounded over employees’ careers, according to an analysis by Deloitte Consulting LLP.

The projected future loss amounts to about 2.7% of the $7.8 trillion currently in 401(k)-style retirement accounts.

The numbers highlight the problem of tapping 401(k) savings before retirement, known in the industry as leakage. Most leakage occurs because about 30% to 40% of people leaving jobs elect to cash out their accounts and pay taxes or penalties rather than leave the money or transfer it to another 401(k) or an individual retirement account.

But employees also take out loans, which about 90% of 401(k) plans offer. Workers can generally choose to borrow up to half of their 401(k) balance or $50,000, whichever is less.

About one-fifth of 401(k) participants with access to 401(k) loans take them, according to the Investment Company Institute, a mutual-fund industry trade group. While most 401(k) borrowers repay themselves with interest, about 10% default, or fail to repay their accounts, triggering taxes and often penalties, according to research by authors including Olivia Mitchell, an economist at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School.

Failing to restore the funds typically occurs when employees with outstanding 401(k) loans leave companies before fully repaying their balances.

Money lost to 401(k) leakage, including loan defaults and cashouts, reduces the wealth in U.S. retirement accounts by an estimated 25% when the lost annual savings are compounded over 30 years, according to an analysis by economists at Boston College’s Center for Retirement Research.

Even those who successfully repay 401(k) loans can end up with less at retirement than they would have had. One reason is that many borrowers reduce their 401(k) contributions while repaying their loans.

While 401(k) loan defaults currently amount to about $7.3 billion a year, the impact is far greater given that many borrowers in default withdraw additional money to cover the taxes and early-withdrawal penalties they owe on their outstanding balances, says Gursharan Jhuty, senior manager at Deloitte Consulting.

… Few employers are willing to eliminate 401(k) loans, in part because academic studies have shown that they encourage 401(k) plan participation.

The fact that leakage is so high reveals a household need for flexibility that is not being met with current accounts. Universal Savings Accounts would fill the need by allowing withdrawals at any time for any reason. 

Ryan Bourne and I discussed the advantages of USAs in this study last year, and policymakers followed through with legislation this year. Republicans included USA accounts in their recent Tax Reform 2.0 package that passed the House.

We shall see which way control of Congress goes, but helping Americans at all income levels increase their financial security with USAs should be a bipartisan goal.