With the real-life perfect storm of Hurricane Sandy looming outside, this year’s ASPPA Annual Conference in Washington D.C. is standing bravely. But organization president and CEO Brian Graff said a much larger issue is on the horizon: the prospect of major tax reform may pose a bigger long-term threat to those in the retirement business.
“If they slash and burn this system to help try to get lower tax rates, we all get burned,” Graff said. “Again, we are being used as a piggy bank to pay for other stupid stuff.”
Speaking at Sunday’s opening session, Graff rallied the troops and debuted the organization’s ambitious grassroots marketing campaign designed to elicit a quarter-million 401(k) participant-written emails to Congress, protesting potential cuts to tax-deferred status of their retirement plans.
Based on the past few months of contact with elected leaders, Graff said the 401(k) – as was the case during major tax reforms in 1986 – is certainly going to be one of the first items on the chopping block, when 401(k) contribution limits were slashed by 70 percent.
“We have a large target on our backs. We’re a big number, and even though we’ve got a good story to tell, we’re at risk,” he said. “We’d just like to let them know that our stuff works … don’t screw it up.”
Save My 401(k), a multi-platform social media campaign, will launch Nov. 12 (“we’re not going to do anything until after the election,” he explained) with the intention of soliciting the voices of those many 401(k) enrollees.
A bright and consumer-friendly website, www.savemy401k.com, will contain one-touch letter-sending links to put participants in touch with Congress; associated Facebook pages and Twitter feeds will also be launched to heighten the message: “Stay away from my 401(k).”
“This is not for us, this is for the public,” Graff said. “It’s our industry, but it’s their future, and the American people really do care about their retirement plan.”
And the timing is important, he explains.
The threat to the retirement business – and the 70 million American workers who rely on 401(k) and similar workplace plans to form the cornerstone of their retirement savings – is also completely bipartisan, he adds.
Both presidential candidates are offering hints of reform in their pre-election speeches that “all have nothing to do with retirement … they’re all designed to raise revenue to lower taxes,” Graff noted.
And with a perfect storm of debt – the looming changes to the Bush-era tax cuts, sequestration and massive cuts in defense and health spending – leaders will be looking to make easy cuts, though Graff said that privately, many Congressional leaders understand that robbing the retirement benefits world for larger tax savings will only cause more significant issues down the road.
This time, unlike the 1980s cuts that severely transformed the 401(k) business, Graff said the organization, and the industry in general, is now taking a proactive stance and hopes to use an ongoing slate of lobbying and a member-funded political action committee to hammer away at members of congress and reinforce the real benefits of retirement systems.
The new website also includes touches such as a cartoon explaining the retirement taxation crisis, as well as an interactive video game designed to humorously raise awareness of the issue.