This is not a good sign. A lot of people are borrowing from their retirement accounts to pay off debt:
Borrowing from the Nest Egg, by Lane Kenworthy: This news is discouraging, but hardly unexpected. According to a “Marketplace” report, a survey by the Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies (pdf here) finds that the share of workers borrowing from their 401(k) retirement funds increased from 11% in 2006 to 18% in 2007. Nearly half of those taking out such loans in 2007 cited the need to pay off debt, compared to a quarter in 2006.
Stagnant wages and salaries, most spouses already employed, rising health care and college tuition costs, higher mortgage debt loads, and falling home values mean lots of American households — including many middle-income ones — are pinched financially. The late 1990s economic boom lessened the strain for a while. Then home equity loans helped. More recently, credit card usage has jumped. Borrowing against retirement savings is the logical next step.
This is why I wonder about the long-term participation rate in "opt out" retirement accounts that are being promoted as a way to deal with the retirement security problem. How many people will opt out of these accounts when economic conditions for the household deteriorate temporarily for some reason? And once they opt out, will they opt back in? People who are motivated enough to borrow against their retirement accounts - almost one fifth in 2007 - would also be motivated enough to opt out of an automatic savings plan. Many of the studies, at least the ones I have seen, do not track people over long periods of time where this type of deterioration would be present, and they do not follow people through a recession when the pressure to opt out would be greatest. I'm not saying we shouldn't have these programs, they do help some people save, and even if some people opt out at least they have a source of funds to use when times get tough. The point, though, is that the people most likely to opt out are the very ones we would like to see participate in savings programs so that they have more than just Social Security available during their retirement years. Because of that, we should be careful not to place too much emphasis on opt-out types of mechanisms for solving the retirement security problem. These accounts may not provide as much of a boost as we hope to key segments of the population.
Update: Megan McArdle follows up with comments on forced saving as a solution to this problem.