Originally broadcast on PBS’ “Frontline,” this disturbing documentary opens with a harsh statistic: approximately one-third of Americans have no retirement savings. And the most popular current vehicle for retirement savings, the 401k program, is used by 60 million Americans – but the vast majority of them have no true idea how this program works.
Complicating matters is the economic tumult of the past dozen years: the dot-com bubble crash and the recession following the collapse of the housing bubble depleted the retirement savings of millions of people. Correspondent Martin Smith uses his retirement planning woes – which he dubs “my own personal fiscal cliff” – and highlights the problems faced by a number of white collar collars who have discovered significant flaws in their respective 401k programs. One of the major problems uncovered here is the surplus of seemingly inscrutable fees that pick away at whatever earnings are accumulated in these programs.
This documentary, which is released without director credit, argues that index funds offer more stability and security than mutual funds, but that the financial services industry is more interested in pushing the latter. The film also notes how lobbyists have successfully prevented the U.S. Department of Labor – the agency assigned to regulate employee retirement plans – in trying to bring about any degree of federal reform regarding fiduciary responsibilities.
In many ways, this sharp portrait of a population facing a future with severely inadequate finances thanks to dubious retirement plans is scarier than any Hollywood monster movie. Even worse, we have no clue how this mess will ultimately play out.