If we aren’t very smart investors, how can we expect 401(k) plans to provide a safe and comfortable retirement?

Broken pink piggy bank with scattered pennies

A new study by the Securities and Exchange Commission found that most of us are not very smart investors.

According to the SEC, we "lack basic financial literacy" and have a "weak grasp of elementary financial concepts and lack critical knowledge of ways to avoid investment fraud."

So why do we think 401(k) plans can possibly provide a safe and comfortable retirement for most Americans?

These types of accounts were created in the late 1970s as a perk for corporate executives who were looking for a way to delay paying taxes on a portion of their income.

But over the past three decades, they've turned into the primary retirement plan for most workers, driven by companies who don't want to provide traditional pensions for their workers anymore.

The argument is that these accounts give workers freedom to run their own retirement plans and take them from employer to employer.

But in reality, replacing traditional defined-benefit pensions with 401(k) plans is just another corporate cost-cutting measure.

Pensions were essentially deferred compensation plans in which workers agreed to take less money in exchange for a professionally managed retirement plan with a guaranteed monthly benefit for life.

The 401(k) dumps all of the responsibility and risk on us and almost always does so without raising anyone’s salary to make up for the deferred payment. (An employer match, if it's even offered, in no way makes up for what employees would have received from a typical pension.)

By 2009, the latest data available from the Department of Labor, 87 million of us were participating in 401(k) and similar plans.

Yet the SEC study shows most of us don’t know enough about investing to successfully manage them and accumulate enough money for a secure life after work.

I’ve seen reports that say the typical worker nearing the end of his or her career has less than $70,000 in a 401(k) plan and a total of only about $100,000 in all types of tax-deferred plans, including Individual Retirements Accounts (IRAs).

That’s only enough to prudently generate a meager $4,000 to $5,000 a year in income. (See the Interest.com story on the 4% rule.)

Good luck with that.

I know many supporters of 401(k) plans say we’re still in transition from pensions to do-it-yourself retirement. We just need to give the system a little more time to succeed.

But we’re a good 25 years into this, and I think we’re just kidding ourselves if we think this is going to work.

I don’t see anything happening in the economy that makes me think Americans reaching retirement age 10, 20 or even 30 years from now will have saved significantly more than those leaving the workforce today.

I don’t see Congress doing anything to help.

No one is rushing to raise the limit on how much we can contribute to our 401(k) plans. (It’s currently $17,000 for workers under 50 and $22,500 for those 50 and older.)

No one is pushing to give employees a say in who manages their 401(k) plan and therefore the balance-sapping fees they pay. (That’s why I rolled my 401(k) into a low-cost Vanguard IRA as soon as I left my last job.)

Why should there be any sense of urgency over fees when seven out of every 10 participants surveyed by AARP had no idea they were paying any fees at all.

I’m afraid nothing will change until we see the shocking number of seniors who will wind up in poverty with little or no income except Social Security.

They will be the cruel victims of this little social experiment.