ICI Tax, Day 1: Will Washington Ever Grok Retirement?
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Monday, September 23, 2013

ICI Tax, Day 1: Will Washington Ever Grok Retirement?

Never mind Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, if you really want to get a sense of what's going on in D.C. these days, watch a Quentin Tarantino movie.

That was the message today from ICI president and chief executive Paul Schott Stevens, which was also echoed by a panel of top industry experts speaking afterward, on the subject of Washington legislative and regulatory antics-- and their potential impact on the mutual fund and retirement industries.

The industry leaders spoke during the ICI Tax & Accounting Conference hosted by the industry group from September 22 to 25th at the JW Marriott San Antonio Hill Country Resort in, of course, San Antonio.

Stevens made the movie metaphor during his morning opening remarks at the event, which included an eye-opening litany of details related to the ongoing legislative and budgetary impasse. Legislators have eight days to work out a new government budget, as well as deal with the approaching $16.7 trillion budge ceiling, or the government could face a shutdown.

"No one should take lightly the chance of a shutdown or default," Stevens said to audience members. "The longer they delay action, the more daunting, and more difficult, the solutions will become.

The fund lobbyist placed blame on both political parties and both sides of the budget debate for the impasse"the government spenders unwilling to stop their spending, and the budget hawks unwilling to make allowances. Stevens described the ongoing whirlwind of debates related to Obamacare, the looming sequestration, and looming debt limits.

Expressing his frustration over the ongoing battles, Stevens cited Washington's early warnings about partisanship, who declared during his farewell speech that political extremism "agitates the community."

In his own words, Stevens said that investors need "responsible action from the government."

"They want Congress and the Administration to work together," he said.

These concerns and warnings were echoed during a panel discussion that followed soon afterward, comprehensively outlining for the audience much of the good, and the bad, that has been going on within the American retirement industry.

The panel discussion, titled Retirement and Savings Trends, was moderated by the ICI's senior director of retirement and investor research Sarah Holden, and featured the wisdom of such industry luminaries as Vanguard Group principal Ann Combs, JP Morgan retirement strategist and head of individual retirement Katherine Roy, Fidelity executive vice president for retirement and investing strategies John F. Sweeney, and Joni Tibbetts, vice president for retirement and investor services at Principal Financial Group.

During the discussion, the executives set out to break down many of the myths circling the retirement industry, such as the view that the retirement system is broken and needs fixing and that Americans are ill-equipped to deal with their own retirement needs.

Instead of a broken three-leged stool, the public should view retirement as a pyramid, with social securit at the bottom, followed towards the top by such layers of homeownership, employer sponsored retirement plans (both DB and DC), IRAs, rollovers and other assets.

Participants have beneffited from a number of the industry's developments over the past few years in treiment plan design, including automatic enrollment with default, autoamtic escalation, streteching the match, re-enollments and assset allocation choices.

Major objectives in the industry to promote readiness include helping sponsors and employees better understand the workings of their plans via a variety of data, as well as continue to improve product design as well as education surrounding those plans.

One key challenge is helping participants deal with uncertainty. Panelists presented data from a February 2013 FBC Retail Customer Survey which showed that 68 percent of investors were uncertain about the U.S. Congress, and an equal percentage expressed unvertainty abut the U.S. Budget.

A major source of concern from Washington comes in the tax reform front related to retirement plans.

The panelists said that lobbyists faced conflicting goals over tax reform, with reduced odds for any kind of enactment.

However, that doesn't mean legislators will stop trying to generate government revenue from retirement savings, which is considered the second largest tax expenditure, after healthcare.

"When [legislators] go into that room and need some money, I do believe they will go back to the well," Combs said.

Options for legislators include limiting the deducatin for high income individuals to 28 percent, placing overall dollar caps on preferences, reducing current limits and steering mroe savings into Roth accounts.

Meanwhile, regulatory focuses include activit in the areas of fee disclosure, retirement income, standard of care/definition of fiduciary responsibilities and target date funds.

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