Death on the Descent: Mount Everest and Retirement Accounts

Pretend for a moment that you’re preparing to go to work. You’ve completed your morning routine and are just a few moments away from departing for the office but this particular morning is a little different. You have the means to get yourself to the office but not to return home. You hear the conversation run through your mind: “How are you going to get home? You don’t have access to public transportation. You don’t have money for a taxi. Your coworkers are not able to bring you back. There are no friends or acquaintances that can pick you up. You have no money and just enough gas to get you there. What in the world are you going to do?”

Would you even travel to the grocery store without the ability to return home? How about a vacation, would you plan a trip without specific knowledge of your return?

Plan my descent down Mt. Everest? No, I’ll just wing it

The answer is simple to these somewhat rhetorical questions; however, I wonder if those who set out to climb Mount Everest spent any time developing a plan to get them off the mountain? I would be willing to place a wager that not one single expedition up Mount Everest, let alone any mountain, has ever failed to plan a way back down. Not once. Why? Because summiting the mountain is only half of the journey. Unfortunately, the descent down Mount Everest is the most dangerous.

In a story from Scientific American back in December 2008, 56% of those who have died on Everest have died during their descent after summiting. Another 17% died after turning back (i.e. descending). That’s a total of 73%. Only 15% died on their way up or before leaving their final camp. The remaining died through various accidents like avalanches and falling ice at lower altitudes.

The descent is by far the very most dangerous, treacherous, threatening, unsafe, formidable, perilous and risky phase of the Everest exhibition. If there is no plan in place for the descent then failure surely awaits.

Retirement is just like descending the mountain

How does this real life example perfectly reflect the financial planning being pursued by virtually 68% of the population (Figure 7.5 The answer is simple: pre-tax investments.  You’ll notice that the Figure 7.5 is titled “Many U.S. Households Have Tax-Advantaged Retirement Savings”. Wow, is that ever misleading. Pre-tax investments are not in any way tax-advantaged. What is the advantage? Many financial pornographers, like Dave Ramsey, profess that there is a mathematical advantage to investing pre-tax. Math proves him wrong. A couple of years ago I wrote a blog on this very topic so I won’t duplicate it here. So if you think I’m wrong then read this post first…and then feel free to comment.

How does Mount Everest tie into this tax debacle for the everyday American? Well, if you have money in an IRA, 401k, SEPP, or another government-run retirement plan (even Roth IRAs) then you have an enormous tax problem. You see, you are climbing the mountain with no knowledge of how to get down the mountain. What are the tax laws when you decide to retire? What are the distribution requirements? What are the tax rates? Do you know? Does anybody?

Only the financial planner with a crystal ball

There is not one single financial planner on the planet that can plan a retirement (using assets to provide income in order to maintain a desired lifestyle) for an individual when the majority of their portfolio is made up of government-run plans. The professional certainly doesn’t know the answers to the above questions and therefore has no idea how long the money will last. How much is the government going to take? If you have an IRA or any other pre-tax vehicle (the balance is irrelevant) then I have one question for you: how much of it is yours? No one knows. And no one will know until you’re standing on top of the mountain…and at that point you’ll only know one year at a time.  It’s just like climbing Mount Everest with no plan to descend until you’re finally standing on top…very dangerous strategy.  It’s actually worse than that because are the rules going to be the same when you’re 75 as they were when you started using the funds at age 65? It’s like only being able to plan your descent every 10 feet and having no idea what’s facing you at the next 10 feet. That’s not just dangerous but perilous.

Kelly, I’ll be in a lower tax bracket. You will? How? Why does the government put far more restrictions on after-tax positions (Roth IRA) – like income and contribution limits – than they do on the pre-tax (no income limitations and you can contribute a heck of a lot more). Seriously, why? Because they know that the only mathematical factor that determines the winner is the future tax rate and only they control that factor. You don’t control it otherwise your taxes would be zero. Roths aren’t even safe because they can change the rules at any point. Could they choose to tax the gains? Yep. Social Security was supposed to be tax-free forever but that changed.

The government is absolutely working in my favor…or is it?

Do you believe the government has your best interests at heart? Do you honestly believe that they are fine with you not paying taxes now so that you can pay less in the future? Do you feel the government will do everything it can to ensure the math lines up in your favor so you can get down the mountain? Me neither. Yet almost 70% of households are doing this very thing and unfortunately, virtually all of them will face a “tax descent” that will be immensely costly. Here’s a video that goes into some detail on this issue.

When did all this begin in the first place? Could that give us any insight? It sure can. Pension plans worked very well so why did all of that change in the 1980s when the government realized it had the largest working population in all of history (American history)? Why did pension plans fall out of favor to be replaced by the government-run retirement accounts? Who had lobbyists in that room?

Certainly the government was in that room because they could then control the largest portion of the citizens’ retirement assets. There’s an estimated $19,000,000,000,000 held in these accounts. That’s $19 trillion controlled, not by the citizens, but the government. The banking industry was certainly present in the lobbying for this because the rules with these accounts do not favor the investor having access to capital. Penalties, unfavorable loan features and simply the denial of access to the funds in these accounts (can’t access more than the loan provisions on a 401k while employed with the company – why?) mean that the investor will need the bank. Wall Street was also at the table because this would put the once untouchable pension now in the hands of the investment broker. It also would provide incredible job security for Wall Street because the investor can’t touch the money until they’re 59 ½ years old. If you’re 25 years old and contributing to a 401k then that represents 34 years of security for Wall Street. That’s awesome for them.

Turn the coin over. Look at the other side. Follow the history. Dig in. Let the light shine on this a little bit and you’ll realize that NONE of it is for your benefit. None.

There are solutions but you must be willing to have some conversations. You must be willing to plan a descent and not just for the summit! Our job is to ensure you get DOWN the mountain because, after all, that’s the goal.

Kelly O’Connor –


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