The Loan Danger

Borrowing from 401(k) accounts can be a bad deal all around.

See this year’s 401(k) Special Report.

The credit crunch has come home to roost in many unlikely places, from the student-loan market to the municipal-bond arena. Here’s another improbable victim: your human resources department. The subprime crisis and its many ripple effects are prompting more financially strapped homeowners to borrow from their 401(k) plans. That not only puts their long-term fiscal health in jeopardy, but also places a large burden on their employers.

“Loan programs may be the single most disliked and burdensome administrative difficulty associated with operating 401(k)s,” says employee-benefits attorney Fred Reish of Reish Luftman Reicher & Cohen in Los Angeles. Too often, he says, discrepancies between the amortization schedule created for the loan and the repayment schedule created by a company’s payroll vendor go undetected until a retirement plan is audited by the Internal Revenue Service, whereupon the employer must scramble to set things right. “It’s a nightmare,” agrees consultant Kendall Storch, director of retirement services with Boston-based Longfellow Benefits. “The tracking of the loans, the managing of the repayments, the fallout if for some reason the payments get off schedule — it all becomes a big hassle.”

It’s no picnic for employees, either; they face a raft of difficult calculations when deciding whether to tap a 401(k), and often don’t understand the potential long-term (or even short-term) impact of such a move.

Emergency Room

Plan sponsors aren’t required to offer loan programs, but a majority do. Companies routinely add a loan feature to their 401(k) plans in the belief that more employees will participate if they know they can access the funds in an emergency. But many experts say that view is misguided, and some finance chiefs agree. David Magers, executive vice president and CFO of Country Insurance & Financial Services, a privately held insurance, banking, and asset-management company, says he thinks “the defining reason employees don’t sign up is cash flow. They’re having trouble paying the rent.”

Nonetheless, Bloomington, Illinois-based Country offers 401(k) loans because, as Magers says, “we realize there are going to be occasions when not allowing employees access to that money could put them in a position of hardship. There are times when they may need to borrow.”

Hard Times

Like now, for instance. Major 401(k) providers report 13 to 19 percent jumps in loans and hardship withdrawals, with the fourth quarter of 2007 seeing a major spike in such activity. The appeal for employees is understandable, at least on the surface: you pay interest to yourself. In fact, in the first few years of this decade, when the stock market and money-market funds on average were earning 1 percent or less, an employee repaying a loan at, say, 7 percent (a typical rate is 1 percent over prime) actually earned a better rate of return than he or she might have under most other scenarios.

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