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Three Ways to Boost Retirement Savings

Barry Ritholtz is a Bloomberg View columnist. He founded Ritholtz Wealth Management and was chief executive and director of equity research at FusionIQ, a quantitative research firm. He blogs at the Big Picture and is the author of “Bailout Nation: How Greed and Easy Money Corrupted Wall Street and Shook the World Economy.”
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It's tax day. Perhaps like millions of your fellow Americans, you waited to the last minute to file and will be trudging off to the post office or filing electronically later today. I'm not going to lecture about your procrastination. However, I am going to ask you two somewhat tax-related questions:

1. How much have you saved for your retirement?

2. On how much of those savings were taxes deferred?

Your answers will determine how you will spend your golden years when you no longer earn an income but need money for life’s necessities. This is more than a personal question; it is an issue with tremendous national ramifications.

As Charles Ellis and Alicia Munnell warn in their recent book, "Falling Short: The Coming Retirement Crisis and What to Do About It," we have a retirement problem:

Because of economic and demographic developments, our retirement income systems are contracting just as our need for retirement income is growing. On the income side, Social Security is replacing less of our preretirement income; traditional defined benefit pension plans have been displaced by 401(k)s with modest balances; and employers are dropping retiree health benefits. On the needs side, longer lifespans, rising health care costs, and low interest rates all require a much bigger nest egg to maintain our standard of living. The result of all these changes is that millions of us will not have enough money for the comfortable retirement that our parents and grandparents enjoyed.

Don’t say you weren’t warned.

We know exactly what we need to do -- save more and begin earlier to build our own nest eggs. If large numbers of people don't have enough savings for retirement, that is an enormous potential future government obligation that will cost taxpayers trillions of dollars. There are three simple things that Congress can do to help avoid that fate:

1) Raise the tax-deferred limits on retirement accounts   

The Internal Revenue Service indicates the amounts you can contribute toward your retirement savings on a tax-deferred basis:

For 401(k) plans, the limit is $18,000 this year ($24,000 if you're 50 or older).

For IRAs, the limit is $5,500 ($6,500 if you’re 50 or older).

These contribution ceilings haven't risen very much. Back in 2008, the 401(k) limit was $15,500 (for workers under 50) and the IRA ceiling was $5,000; raising these limits will let more people put aside more money to build a self-sufficient retirement.

Increasing the limits will boost total nongovernmental retirement savings, and that’s a very good thing.

Solution: Double the 401(k) contribution cap, and raise the IRA contribution limit to $10,000 right away and increase it to $20,000 by 2020. (See chart at end of column for contribution limits.)

2) Reduce student-loan interest rates

Some people, such as hedge-fund manager Bill Ackman, see the student-loan crisis as a risk to credit markets. That may be too limited a way to think about this. The big picture, long-term view is that high student-loan debt is actually part of the retirement crisis 50 years from now. High compound interest rates equal much lower retirement savings for the millennial generation.

As Patrick O'Shaughnessy wrote in "Millennial Money: How Young Investors Can Build a Fortune," the best way for this generation to save is to begin early. But they can't do that if they are saddled with expensive high-interest student loans.

Solution: Lower the interest rate on all student loans to the fed funds rate (now about 0 percent) and cap it at 5 percent for the next decade.

3) Fiduciary standards for all investment advice

It is past time to establish standards for giving financial advice that put investors first while barring conflicts of interest.

As Wes Gray of Alpha Architect has noted, regulations today let advisers recommend investments that charge fees so excessive they destroy returns. This is unacceptable. And it is the reason the Department of Labor is issuing stiffer rules to protect retiree cash.

Solution: Mandate a standard that makes investor interests paramount for anyone who provides financial advice.

We can radically improve the quality of retirement for all Americans. A few tweaks from Congress will go a long way toward achieving that.

 Source: 401k HelpCenter

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Barry L Ritholtz at britholtz3@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
James Greiff at jgreiff@bloomberg.net