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Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Occupy Retirement Planning

Your retirement savings are not safe.  I mean, they’re way more secure right now than they would have been if President G.W. Bush and friends had succeeded in privatizing social security back in the 2000’s, but unless you are among the 1% or so of Americans with substantial and globally diversified portfolios, a dignified retirement is far from guaranteed no matter how diligent a saver you’ve been.  For that you can thank our good friends in both parties in Washington and their generous benefactors on Wall Street.

When I say that your retirement savings are not safe, I actually mean that they are dangerous. It sounds crazy but they are in fact probably hurting you right now.  For the past several decades your retirement portfolio has been -- and continues to be -- used by Wall Street to undercut your career prospects, your earnings prospects, and I dare say your overall quality of life.  

What do I mean when I say this?  I mean that American retirement funds are one of the very biggest sources of investment capital in the economy, so the investment decisions made by those who oversee those funds have tremendous influence over the direction of our whole society.  

And oh boy have those folks taken our economy in the wrong direction. They took it so far in the wrong direction that the industrial heart of it ended up in Asia.  Despite a few recent rhetorical nods to the 99%, Obama has proven committed to the bi-partisan consensus to send US jobs oversees via corporatist job-killing free trade agreements.

Now we have a whole generation of blue collar folks with virtually zero job prospects and a backlog of deeply indebted, highly embittered, and extremely over-educated college graduates competing for low wage “service sector jobs.”  

How did this happen?  It happened partially because our corporate financed political class, investment professionals, and pension fund managers all deluded themselves into the macro-mistake of believing that the best way to help Americans have a dignified retirement is to invest in the causes of the very crises currently plaguing our country.

Take unemployment.  There are a lot of reasons why we face such high unemployment rates these days, but several come to mind right away.  How about outsourcing?  How about off-shoring?  How about automation?  Heck, how about the financial crisis itself?

Well, while hard working Americans have been struggling to save for their golden years the Wall St.-DC-finance industrial-complex has been using our retirement savings to finance a golden age in corporate profitability.  

Guess what those profits are largely based on?  Yep, cutting worker wages, laying off workers, speculating on esoteric/exotic/synthetic financial instruments, moving operations off-shore, and replacing human employees with machines.  

Currently, investing for retirement means parking a portion of your paycheck with the same old folks who are singing the same old song.  Your hard earned dough ends up paying the exorbitant salaries of high flying executives of global companies using global stock and bond markets to finance global operations.  

Global companies don’t care about you.  They don’t care about your retirement.  They don’t care about your community.  They don’t care about America.  They only care about next quarter’s bottom line.  When the chips are down, that is all they are capable of caring about.

So what are you going to do about it?  Now that you’ve moved your money out of that big bad bank, I challenge you to find a way to move your retirement savings out of the equally big investment banks and equally bad broker-dealers who oversee your retirement account.  You pretty much can’t do it.  All the experts agree -- if you want to start saving for old age, address the check to Wall St.  

Local businesses need your money more than the big guys do.  And who doesn’t want to invest in local businesses which provide local jobs and thereby support vibrant communities? The problem is that there just aren’t a lot of options for regular folks to do so.  One option is to invest in Community Development Finance Institution Funds, which will use your money to provide valuable financial services to marginalized people that traditional banks aren’t interest in helping because they can’t make enough money from them. Women’s Economic Ventures, for example, is a local CDFI doing great work.

Lots of other initiatives and enterprises are being tried right now to redirect our money toward more human-scale enterprises that are rooted in communities, but there just aren’t any great options yet for retirement investing.

Developing the tools, analysis and legal structures to empower investment professionals to invest in sustainable and regenerative enterprises is one of the greatest challenges facing this generation of activists, policy makers, scholars, and financial professionals.  It just doesn’t seem like anybody realizes that yet.  

I don’t claim to have the answers, but I do know that if we want to save the middle class, we’d better find some answers soon.

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