401K Tipping Point? The Demographic Wave Builds

tipping-pointThere are several critical images to contend with when you look at demographics and retirement.  In fact, it’s one of the critical risks we contend with in retirement planning (You can read up on Demographic Risks Here)

Here’s the $.10 summary:

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A wide bulge of Baby Boomers is approaching retirement, and they will start selling securities  at a more rapid clip than younger generations are saving and buying.

I personally believe that there is a significant wave of selling pressure on the markets in the years ahead.

This Wall Street Journal article doesn’t specifically touch on the demographics, but perhaps it’s an early warning sign that the net outflows from 401Ks exceeds the inflows….

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Over the Hill: Retirees Yank 401(k) Funds

Withdrawals from 401(k) plans are now exceeding new contributions as baby boomers age, a shift that could have profound implications for the U.S. retirement industry.

Investors pulled a net $11.4 billion from tax-deferred savings plans in 2013, according to an analysis of government data provided to The Wall Street Journal by BrightScope Inc., ending decades of expansion. Complete industry information for 2014 isn’t yet available.

The movement out of 401(k)s is expected to accelerate in the coming decade as more baby boomers retire, squeezing large money-management firms that rely on fees charged to employers and investors as a chief profit engine, some analysts said.

Asset managers hope they can replace the outflows with a new surge from millennials or other products, such as individual retirement accounts. One industry data provider said most funds leaving 401(k)-style plans are migrating to IRAs.

It is “an inflection point” for the U.S. retirement industry, said J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. analyst Ken Worthington in a research note in April.

Large money managers will be forced to cut fees, offer different products or consolidate operations, Mr. Worthington added in an interview. “It changes the dynamic of the business itself.”

Tax-deferred 401(k) retirement accounts came into wide use in the 1980s as big companies embraced them as a replacement for costly pension funds. Baby boomers were the first generation to rely heavily on the savings plans and helped create a multitrillion-dollar industry that supported hundreds of investment firms and financial planners. Learn more about business, and visit Lee Rosen‘s blog.

Assets held by 401(k) plans ballooned to $4.6 trillion in the fourth quarter of 2014, up 171% from $1.7 trillion in 2000, according to the Investment Company Institute, a trade organization for mutual funds.

Now the 401(k) generation is ready to take its money out as the number of Americans reaching retirement age this year is expected to hit 3.5 million, up from 2.7 million in 2010, according to J.P. Morgan Chase and Census Bureau data.

One investor preparing to begin his exit is Dave Bernard, 56 years old, who retired three years ago as a consultant to startups in Cupertino, Calif. He and his wife, an office manager, both have a sizable amount invested in their 401(k)s, but in the coming months, when his wife retires, Mr. Bernard will start pulling money out of his plan for living expenses.

He expects to make withdrawals for about 10 years until he can access the full amount of Social Security benefits.

“We’re going to end up using a good portion of our 401(k) to subsidize us,” Mr. Bernard says.

The biggest 401(k) operators in the U.S. noticed the shift first since they generally serve older workers, according to BrightScope. In the past four years, investors pulled a net $12.8 billion from the top 25 plans by assets, according to BrightScope.

Estimates vary on how long the 401(k) net outflows will last and how severe they will become. Financial-services research firm Cerulli Associates projects outflows will persist at least until 2019 when investors will pull an estimated $51.6 billion, according to a December report. J.P. Morgan predicted in its April note the trend will last through 2030, with outflows peaking at $40 billion in 2019.

That money could stay with the retirement industry if baby boomers move 401(k) funds to IRAs. Contributions into IRAs are expected to reach $546 billion by 2019, up from $205 billion in 2003, according to Cerulli.

Some money managers are banking on another demographic group to reverse this shift: millennials. But they acknowledge that will require some convincing.

“Millennials haven’t moved into a higher savings rate yet,” said Douglas Fisher, Fidelity Investment’s head of policy development on workplace retirement. Fidelity is one of the largest providers of 401(k)s, managing accounts for 13 million people across 20,000 companies.

“We need to start getting them to the right level,” he said.

But even if millennials boost their savings, it will take some time for asset managers to see the benefits, said Mr. Worthington of J.P. Morgan.

“Redemptions in the industry are actually going to get worse for the next four to five years,” he said.

Scott David, the head of U.S. investment services for fund firm T. Rowe Price Group Inc., says the key to offsetting outflows from retirement plans is to move older workers into different products at the firm. T. Rowe also is among the largest 401(k) providers.

“Their distribution from a 401(k) plan just means they’re entering a different part of their life,” he says. “They still have investment needs, but their investment needs will change a bit.”

Some money-management firms are expected to lower fees in an attempt to keep market share.

Vanguard Group and Fidelity recently made moves to cut fees in retirement products, and 401(k) participants invested in stock mutual funds paid an average expense ratio of 0.58% in 2013 as compared with 0.63% a year earlier, according to the Investment Company Institute and Lipper Analytics, a mutual-fund research firm. Other fee rates in mutual funds also dropped that year.

One investor who is ready to pull money even though she doesn’t need it is Denise Dobkowski Hammond, 68, who retired about seven ago from her post as treasurer of West Bloomfield, Mich. Ms. Hammond says she saved as much as she could her entire life, putting the maximum amount into her retirement accounts and paying off her house.

Ms. Hammond said she doesn’t need her savings to live on, but a federal law requires her to start withdrawing money from her 401(k) at age 70½.

“I’ll pull out the minimum unless the kids need something,” she said.

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