Thinking about the Ayn Rand novel "Atlas Shrugged," I found myself wondering if we 401(k) investors are propping up Wall Street. Are we to be the unsung heroes of an economic turnabout? Do American workers and taxpayers effectively own Corporate America? What happens if we decide to shrug?
If the stock market, depending on the month, has a total value of somewhere between $10 and $20 trillion, how much of that value is attributable to the steady march of 401(k) contributions and all the 401(k) money that has subsequently been rolled into IRA accounts?
The actual numbers assembled by the Employee Benefit Research Institute (EBRI) are illuminating. As of the end of 2007, the total amount in IRA accounts was $4.75 trillion. In any given year, roughly 85 percent of new IRA money comes from retirement plan roll-overs. Only 15 percent is from direct IRA annual contributions. There are about 3 million IRA contributors and we're approaching 50 million 401(k) participants.
In private sector 401(k) plans, there is (or was) about $3.47 trillion as of the end of 2007. In private sector Defined Benefit (traditional pension) plans, there was $2.33 trillion.
The combined total of all this retirement money is $10.5 trillion. If we add in the 20 percent of all workers who are government employees at some level, and assume comparable numbers for their retirement plans, we could bump this total by about 20 percent, bringing us to $12.5 trillion.
My fellow Americans and I might have lost some money in 2008, but two factors would have offset those losses. First, we had new contributions throughout the year which would have been about 15 percent of the total amount in the corporate retirement plans. And second, not everyone had money exposed to the market. I estimate that about half of all retirement money was invested in money market and bond funds throughout the year. When all the dust has settled, it would be safe to say that we still probably have $10 trillion in all retirement accounts with approximately half, $5 trillion, in the stock market.
We can look forward to another $1 trillion of new deposits into all forms of retirement plans in 2009 with $500 billion headed for the stock market to firm up demand. The other $500 billion headed for bonds certainly won't do their markets any harm.
So, if we decide that there is, at the moment, about $15 trillion in the U.S. stock market, we effectively own about one-third of that amount. The Saudis claim to own about 7 percent and other foreign interests probably own an equal fraction. The rest is invested by college endowments and wealthy people using brokers, advisors and hedge funds.
All those non-retirement investment entities are effectively tapped out. Some are really angry, which will affect their judgment. They will shun the market. Considering the current trend, it won't be long before our retirement plans will have a majority of all the money invested in stocks â€” up from only about 10 percent some fifteen years ago.
Ninety-four percent of us still have jobs, and if we're smart, we have done everything in our power to bump up our contribution levels while these stocks are at historically low prices. It's all up to us to lead the markets out of this quagmire.
Step one is to keep contributing.
Step two is to summon up some resolve and start moving money into stock-oriented mutual funds if you've strayed because of fear.
Having 10 times the number of voters invested in stocks as a result of 401(k) plans, we have what Charles Atlas would call "muscle definition" that was non-existent 20 years ago.
Considering how much we own and how much we have recently nationalized, it's safe to say that we own Corporate America. With an exertion of activism and legislation applied at this tipping point, we can bring an end to what has been an era of opportunism at our expense. No more fraudulent accounting, faulty bond ratings or grossly overpaid CEO's. Over the next two years, we will do some major shrugging.