In hunt for revenue, Washington eyes 401(k) tax breaks

Pressure is growing to change incentives for retirement savings as U.S. lawmakers look for revenue, and top earners may pay the price.

The budget challenges confronting the federal government are leading to scrutiny of tax-advantaged savings accounts such as 401(k)s because they’re among the costliest tax breaks. A Brookings Institution report released Tuesday adds to research that recommends curtailing the benefits for top earners to boost U.S. coffers.

“We really need to think hard about whether the dollars we are spending are effective at achieving the goals,” says Karen Dynan, co-director of the economic studies program at Washington-based Brookings and author of the report. “Our existing programs are falling short.”

The shift from pension plans, which typically guarantee income for life, to tax-deferred 401(k)s has put more responsibility on savers to ensure they don’t run out of money in retirement. As the accounts have grown — Americans held $3.5 trillion in 401(k)s as of September 2012 — they’ve become a target in deficit-reduction talks because contributions usually are invested and compound on a pretax basis.

The benefits reward higher earners who would save anyway while not providing enough incentive for low and middle-income earners, according to Dynan.

The American Society of Pension Professionals & Actuaries immediately issued a statement objecting to the Brookings report, which it said “would more accurately be described as double taxation” for those affected.

“You won’t expand coverage by penalizing small business owners for offering a 401(k) plan,” writes ASPPA executive director and CEO Brian H. Graff. “If this proposal went through, a small-business owner in the 39.6% bracket would pay an 11.6% tax on contributions made to the 401(k) plan today, and pay tax again at the full rate when they retire.”

The benefit for 401(k)-type plans is the U.S. government’s third-largest tax expenditure, behind only the mortgage interest deduction and exclusion of employer contributions for medical insurance. It is estimated to cost about $429 billion in forgone revenue from 2013 through 2017, according to the administration’s latest budget proposal. IRAs will cost about $100 billion over the five-year period.

Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, plans to introduce legislation this year to require businesses that don’t offer a pension or 401(k) plan with a company match to automatically enroll workers in a so-called USA Retirement Fund.

About 68% of workers had access to retirement benefits as of March 2012, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“The dream of a secure retirement is getting fainter and fainter,” Harkin said Feb. 12 in a speech at the Center for American Progress in Washington, D.C. “Savings rates are low and there’s no simple way for people to convert their savings into a stream of retirement income they can’t outlive.”

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