Saturday, January 19, 2002

Portman seeks 401(k) safeguards

Enron workers stuck

By Derrick DePledge
Enquirer Washington Bureau

        WASHINGTON — Stunned by the financial collapse of Enron, Rep. Rob Portman said Friday that he would propose federal rules to help workers protect their money in 401(k) savings accounts.

        Mr. Portman, a Republican from Terrace Park, said workers should have more flexibility over selling their company stock in 401(k) accounts, knowledge of possible restrictions in the accounts, and better investment advice to diversify their savings.

        Enron, a Houston-based energy company, filed for bankruptcy protection in December as its stock plummeted. Enron workers lost an estimated $1 billion in retirement savings as the stock value fell.

        Workers also were apparently unable to sell stock for a time last fall, as the company was failing, because Enron had halted sales while changing pension plan administrators. Many Enron executives reportedly sold millions worth of stock in the months before the bankruptcy filing.

        President Bush has ordered a Cabinet-level task force to look into 401(k) safeguards, and officials are expected to make recommendations soon. Meanwhile, the Bush administration and members of Congress have opened investigations into all aspects of the Enron bankruptcy, the largest in U.S. history.

        “I was in shock,” said Mr. Portman. “The thing that troubles me the most was the behavior of the top executives for basically selling out and leaving employees and shareholders holding the bag.”

        Mr. Portman likely will draft 401(k) protections with Rep. Benjamin Cardin, a Maryland Democrat.

        Last year, the pair led Congress to agree to gradually expand annual worker-contribution limits in 401(k) plans from $10,500 to $15,000. Older workers would be able to save more money in the accounts because they are nearer to retirement.

        Most traditional retirement plans allow workers to have only 10 percent of their savings in company stock. In 401(k) plans, however, companies set most of the participation rules and the amount of company stock workers can hold has no limit.

        In most cases, workers set aside portions of their salaries in 401(k) plans and choose from several investment options, including company stock. Companies often match employee contributions to a 401(k), and sometimes offer company stock as the only match.

        Many companies also prevent workers from selling company stock offered as a matching contribution until they are 55 years old — 50, in Enron's case — or have been with the company for at least 10 years.

        Mr. Portman said workers should have more discretion over when they sell company stock and he may propose that guidelines on age or length or service be relaxed. He said workers should be notified well before stock sales are halted for administrative reasons. He also said workers should have access to more investment advice and the benefits of a diversified portfolio.

        The House approved a bill last year from Rep. John Boehner, a Republican from West Chester Township, that would permit outside financial advisers to counsel workers on investments as long as they disclose any fees or possible conflicts of interest.

        Mr. Boehner hopes the Enron example might lead the Senate to pass similar legislation.

        Democratic Sens. Jon Corzine of New Jersey,and Barbara Boxer of California have proposed limiting the amount of company stock a worker can hold in a 401(k) to 20 percent of their savings. They argue workers also should be able to sell company stock received as a matching contribution after 90 days.

        Ms. Boxer said Enron workers “never should have been put in a position where so much of their nest egg was invested in one company.”

        But Mr. Portman said he opposes a cap on company stock ownership because it might discourage some companies from offering matching contributions or prevent some workers from taking full advantage of a company's market success.

        “A cap is a mistake,” he said. “It will hurt the ability of people to save for their retirement.”


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