Funny things can happen when you get a ballroom full of pension plan actuaries and third-party administrators, and add booze and some disco music. More funny than you'd think, considering the demographic.
Mostly, people are a little more comfortable speaking their minds on what is really going on in the retirement business. And so after several days being embedded, more or less, with the folks at the ASPPA conference, I think I got an interesting glimpse at what remains unspoken underneath the relatively civil and businesslike proceedings in the retirement world. As I say, a few cocktails and repeated playings of "Gangnam Style" didn't hurt.
Turns out -- and this is just the unsolicited and non-official commentary of show-goers, industry front-liners who have to deal with plan administration and 5500s and all of that mind-numbingly complex but impenetrable-to-civilians stuff that makes up the retirement world -- that you're all facing a bit of an uphill battle.
While a hurricane was indeed a good excuse for members of the Department of Labor to skip the show -- the federal government had effectively shut its doors, after all -- the show-goers I spoke with said they feel that's par for the course, given the way they feel they're being treated by the DOL.
In a curious turn of events, the professionals I spoke with say they've come to see their relations with the Internal Revenue Service as being more kind and gentle and accommodating than their battles with DOL.
The consensus is that the DOL has adopted a stance that's more adversarial, for whatever reason, and that the range of penalties, prosecution and investigations of retirement planners, advisors and administrators borders on the hostile.
Laws are created -- and many speakers echoed this sentiment -- but they're written so obtusely so to be virtually impossible to follow. And those laws are perennially delayed, and then imposed virtually overnight, with no opportunity for DC and DB practitioners to interpret the rulings and put them into place.
Mostly, it seems to have created an atmosphere that's not at all geared towards the larger objective of helping Americans save for retirement, as the government itself has done virtually nothing to establish a comprehensive national retirement strategy. They can't even work out some minor fixes to fill the growing leaks in Social Security.
And that echoes the statements made repeatedly by ASPPA CEO Brian Graff: The existing tax deferrals taken by the nation's existing retirement plans (401(k)s and IRAs especially) are a gigantic target by lazy and frequently clueless Washington leaders who desparately need to make cheap and easy cuts. Retirement benefits are an easy hit. Things could be ugly.
So what to do in the meantime, especially with the total chaos of one of the most chaotic elections ever now less than a week away? I guess it's important for those in the trenches to continue to be involved with organizations that can effectively bend the ear of elected (or, soon-to-be-re-elected) folks and try to hammer the "retirement is good, really" message.
Otherwise, it all seems like a pretty tough fight for a system that the government doesn't particularly support. Good luck with the battle.