Retirement Debate Focuses on Annuities

WASHINGTON ( TheStreet) -- The steady evaporation of pensions, the asset-sucking sting of the recession and the prospect of Americans living deeper into their retirement years is driving insurers and the government alike to ratchet up a push for annuity products.

According to government projections, married couples have a 47% chance that at least one of them will reach their 90th birthday. In addition to the risk of outliving assets, sharp declines in financial markets and home equity during the last few years and the continued increase in health care costs have intensified workers' concerns about having enough savings and how to best manage retirement savings.

In response, the U.S. Department of Labor is soliciting opinions on whether new legislation or policy is needed to encourage the conversion of 401(k) assets into lifetime income streams through annuities.

Among the companies that has weighed in on the debate is Columbus, Ohio-based insurer Nationwide Financial Services ( NFS), which has launched its own policy initiative, 401KIncome.

Nationwide's 401KIncome proposal promotes 401(k) plans that would offer fixed income-deferred annuities as the investment option for the employer match. Plan sponsors would receive a tax credit instead of a deduction for any employer match used to fund a "guaranteed stream of income payments" to participants. Employees would still have control over and access to their own contributions, but the employer match would not be accessible for loans or early withdrawals. Employees could also choose to put their own deferrals in the defined benefit option.

"Ensuring that small employers have a broader tool set for their employees through a 401(k) plan is really what this proposal is trying to encourage," says Anne Arvia, president of Nationwide Retirement Plans. "It is really trying to create a product that shifts the guaranteed income stream -- which is a scary liability and why the defined benefit plans are moving away -- from the employer to an insurer who is probably better equipped to think about how to manage that risk."

TIAA-CREF, which manages the retirement savings of 3.7 million Americans and has $414 billion in assets under management, has also added its voice to the chorus.

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