Charles E. Richardson

Bad, bad brackets

I don't know about you, but my 401(k) statement arrived the other day. It sat there ominously. I was afraid to open it, knowing what has been going on with financial markets. I debated with myself. Why open it? It can't be good news.

Even though my investments don't tend to be on the risky side, the Dow was at 10,847 on Oct. 1, and then all you-know-what broke loose. Friday, stocks continued to tumble to 8,451. Thank God for the closing bell.

Still, the statement sat on my counter unopened. It wasn't that long ago when I was feeling pretty good about my retirement account. Statements would lie unopened because we were in boom times. Now that beige envelope was calling my name. It wanted to see some attention paid to it. My wife, who is the perpetual worrier, has nightmares about being on the street after retirement. To be honest, I have a few of those nightmares, too.

I carefully approached the counter, eyeing the envelope like it was a deadly wasp, ready to strike. I picked it up and examined it, looking for an easy opening. I had three possibilities: I could lose, win or draw. Really, only two were real possibilities.

I lifted the edge of the envelope, but someone had sealed it with super glue. Maybe I became a little impatient while ripping apart the envelope. I wish it had been someone's head. I stared at the folded sheets and closed my eyes and unfolded the statement.

I'm a bottom-line kind of guy, and that's where my eyes quickly focused. I should have kept them closed. One set of brackets -- symbolizing a loss -- are not enough to describe the pain. I had visions of being a 90-year-old Wal Mart greeter. And then I thought it could have been worse.

My alter ego questioned, "OK smartipants, how could it have been worse?"

My mind traveled back to 2005 when President George W. Bush was pushing his plan to save Social Security. Part of his proposal was to give us the ability to put some of our payroll taxes in personal retirement accounts.

The White House said the money would "go into a conservative mix of bond and stock funds that would have the opportunity to earn a higher rate of return than anything the current system could provide."

They said a "young person who earns an average of $35,000 a year over his or her career would have nearly a quarter million dollars saved in his or her own account upon retirement," and it "would replace the empty promises of the current system with real assets of ownership."

His plan would probably work over the long haul if we could survive times like these, but it is at a time like this that I'm happy the plan didn't gain traction.

My problem with his plan was simple. Someone, or somebodies, would have to manage the millions of accounts, and those somebodies would take one or two or three percent off the top for their services. Guess who those somebodies might have been — the same Wall Street jokers at AIG who thought it cool to hit an exclusive California spa after they had pilfered American taxpayers' wallets to the tune of $85 billion.

It would have been the same types like former Lehman Bros. CEO Richard Fuld, who, when questioned by House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Henry Waxman, D-Los Angeles, admitted that he didn't make $500 million like Waxman charged, but conceded $250 million was still a "large number."

So I thank God for small favors. I still have a little time before I put on my greeter's vest. Maybe I can recover between now and then. Opening this last envelope will give me reason to open future ones to compare. However, those blasted brackets will probably surround my bottom line for a while to come, and when those brackets fall away, it might be time to move what little I have left to underneath my mattress.

Charles E. Richardson's columns appear Sundays. He can be reached at crichardson@macon.com or (478) 744-4342.

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