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Ask The Expert: Should You Still Contribute To An Underperforming 401(k)?

Each week, one of our investing experts answers a reader's question in our InvestingAnswers' Ask The Expert column. It's all part of our mission to help consumers build and protect their wealth through education. If you'd like us to answer one of your questions, email us at editors@investinganswers.com and include "Investing Q&A" in the subject line. (Note: We will not respond to requests for stock picks.)

Do you know anyone younger than 40 who works for a private company and can count on a pension when they retire? Probably not.

Only government employers and a diminishing number of large employers still offer pensions, and even those programs may not be around much longer. Simply put, many companies have found it's far cheaper to provide access to 401(k) plans (known as defined contribution) rather than pension plans (defined benefit). Yet many 401(k) plans are less than ideal, as this reader notes in today's Q&A column.

Question: I'm not happy with my employer's 401(k) mutual funds -- they lag the major indexes. Should I not contribute to the program?
-- Philip, St. Paul, Minn.

The Investing Answer: I see where you're coming from, Philip, but the answer is that you probably should contribute for several reasons. The idea here is that even a less-than-ideal set of investing options will provide you with a better chance at building a solid retirement nest egg than if you do nothing at all.

I'll address your concern about the mutual funds' performance in just a minute. But for starters, consider the fact that many 401(k) plans come with an added bonus: Some employers match some of the money you contribute. So, for example, you put 6% of your paycheck into your 401(k), and your employer reciprocates by putting an additional 6% in your retirement plan. Now, that's free money -- at a 100% rate of return. Who doesn't like that? Bottom line: If your company offers to a 401(k) matching contribution, you'd be wise to participate in the plan and take full advantage of it.

It's hard to overstate the importance of these plans. Another big benefit here is the fact that they are tax-deferred. That means you are shielding some of your income from taxes while you are in your peak earning years.

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Let's say you're in the 28% tax bracket (which can be closer to 35% when you account for the income taxes levied in many states). And let's say you eventually withdraw those funds in retirement and earn less and are in the 15% tax bracket. The difference between your current and future tax brackets is the amount of profit you are making on your 401(k) -- even if the funds lag the broader market.

Also, think of 401(k) plans as a form of forced savings. Putting that money aside now and letting it grow for years to come will create a much bigger retirement nest egg than if you simply spent the money each year.  For a simple explanation about how the power of compounding can work for you, read this article.

Now, to get back to the lagging mutual funds, it's important to know that past fund performance isn't necessarily a forecaster of future gains. Many funds lag the major indexes when their particular asset focus (such as small caps or foreign stocks) has been out of favor recently. And in the stock market, a sector or asset class that underperformed the broader market last year can easily outperform the market in the future.

Ask yourself: How do these funds compare to their peer group? For example, if you are offered a small-cap fund that does worse than other small-cap funds year after year, it should be a concern. Often, you'll find the fund manager overseeing this fund has just been replaced. (Performance is taken seriously by the fund firms.) Go to websites like Morningstar.com for information about management changes in key funds.

Maybe the fund options don't correlate with the kinds of investments you want. For example, you might want a fund that focuses on value stocks, and if a value-oriented mutual fund isn't an option, you have a legitimate beef.

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Here's what to do: Ask your human resources manager these questions. Remember, it's your right.

  • Why have these fund choices lagged the market? 
  • Do these funds sufficiently represent all asset classes along the investment spectrum?
  • Are the management fees charged by the plan administrator reasonable, or are they one of the reasons the 401(k) is badly lagging the market?

Your questions may prove to be helpful to the folks in HR, who might not have been fully aware of the recent underperformance. It's more than likely that if you have concerns, so do others. Your HR rep may reach out to the outside organization (known as a plan administrator) that actually oversees the management of your 401(k) and discuss the various fund options.

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