401K Match: Is This Employee Perk Going Away or Coming Back?

by Darwin on August 4, 2010

The 401(k) match has been something employees like myself just took for granted for decades now.  While the benefit varies company to company, the conventional wisdom had always been to make sure you contribute at least enough to max out the company match since it’s free money.  In essence, if your company provides a 50% match on the first 6% of your contributions, that’s a free 3% boost every year (tax free until retirement).  What we saw throughout 2008 and 2009 though, was many companies ceasing to match employer contributions.  While viewed as temporary, it begs the question as to whether we’ll see a resurgence in the 401(k) match or actually see more of them going away.

Why 401(k) Matches are Coming Back

There was a recent piece on CNBC outlining the companies that are bringing back the 401(k) match.  Now, they cited companies such as American Express and JPMorgan as examples of companies reinstating the plans as evidence that there’s a rebirth of the 401(k) match by employers.  What they failed to mention is that these are firms that were on the brink of extinction and they were basically forced to throw out everything but the kitchen sink in order to preserve capital due to their dumb bets on real estate and consumer debt.  Now that the companies are flush with cash from government bailouts and a modest recovery, it’s not a stretch to reinstate the matches.  While the emploment expert cited in the article estimates that between 40 percent and 60 percent of the companies that took out the match have restored it, he also qualified his statement with the fact that his data is very limited and it’s not clear what’s going on throughout the whole country.

There are some logical reasons to expect employee 401(k) matches to return of course.  Namely, it’s a great employee talent acquisition and retention tool.  If you were confronted with two similar job offers and one had a company match, wouldn’t you logically choose the one with the match, all other things being equal?  Taking this a step further, even if you had an offer for a modest pay increase at another firm, if they weren’t offering a match and generous 401(k) program, would you be as apt to jump ship?

Another aggregate observation is that companies are flush with cash right now from massive productivity improvements and employee separations.  Basically, they’re doing more with less.  So, an optimist might suggest that with more cash on hand and fewer employees, companies would be more generous with their cash hoardes.  Unfortunately for the working stiff, that’s not how business works.  Companies pay the bare minimum to retain the talent they need, just like as an employee, you seek the maximum amount of compensation for a given job.

Why 401(k) Matches are Going Away

Personally, I’m surprised more companies aren’t doing away with them and I wouldn’t be shocked to see companies either scaling back matches or doing away with them altogether even during this modest economic recovery.  Why?  Because they can.  Employees are freaking out.  The real unemployment/underemployment rate is around 15-16% right now.  That’s 1 in 6 people in the US.  If your company cut the much vaunted 401(k) match right now, would you leave?  Heck, the company you move to may very well do the same, or let you go.

This is how these boom/bust cycles go.  During the good times, employers are struggling attract top talent and keep their top performers from jumping ship.  Benefits are generous and bonuses are high.  Then during the downturn, business ratchets down and squeezes all the productivity they can out of as few employees as possible to conserve cash and remain profitable.  Seeing as how it’s unlikely that we’ll see a (reported) unemployment rate below 9% over the next few quarters, if you were a company looking to increase the bottom line and “look out for shareholder interests”, wouldn’t you at least think about cutting out the 401(k) match knowing full-well that it would probably have no impact on employee retention?  I mean, sure, it could affect morale, but they’re not leaving.  You could cite increasing healthcare costs, the recession, fear of a takeover and the need to conserve cash or whatever…all while saving a substantial amount of money for your shareholders (and increasing your options account balance!).

Has Your Company Cut Your 401(k) Match?
Do You Think Matches are Coming or Going?

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1 Money Beagle August 5, 2010 at 9:16 am

Our company canceled ours last year and has shown no signs of re-instating it. I think it’s a bad sign for workers in their 20’s – 40’s, because most people before then had a pension, and now most of those are gone and employers aren’t contributing anything. I mean, we all talk about how we save and contribute towards our retirement, which I’m doing and hopefully everybody else does, but without some sort of contribution from our employer, there’s just no way to match what used to be available.

2 Budgeting in the Fun Stuff August 5, 2010 at 2:58 pm

My company kept our 6% match but we have been on a salary freeze for 2 years. I figure that enough people don’t participate in the plan that the company can afford the good publicity more than it wants to give raises right now…we’ll see if I am on a 3 year salary freeze when reviews roll around in October…

3 Kevin August 18, 2010 at 1:30 am

401k’s are a bad idea. If you’re going to contribute money to a system and want people motivated to stay after stock gyrations, a company is better off contributing each year to an annuity, that later builds up to become a pension-like instrument. I’m in the private sector and am deeply disturbed by the government pensions that no longer exist in the private sector. This annuity idea is a way that can actually make private sector employees wish they would not have just gone into government and had job security and a known retirement package. I’m not sure if government pensions won’t be cut back since the government has so many other fiscal problems, but it sounds good, and if the corporations switched to annutiy contributions it would give a greater sense of security and hope to us corporate stiffs. The corporate world is so much about a few at the top geting rich and shareholders that the employees are just squeezed and can’t grow wages beyond inflation. Until stakeholder value, not shareholder value becomes main stream (which I believe would actually improve corporate profits by having motivated employees), I wouldn’t count too much on getting ahead.

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