NEW YORK (CNN/Money) -
Big changes are coming soon to a 401(k) near you.
Some of Wall Street's largest employers are relaxing their rules about company stock in 401(k)s as Washington lawmakers try to hammer out new laws in the wake of the Enron tragedy.
Walt Disney Co., CNN/Money parent AOL Time Warner and Gillette are among a growing number of big corporations that recently began allowing employees to diversify out of company stock in their 401(k)s whenever they want, instead of waiting until they are in their 50s.
"Many 401(k) employees are going to see new plan changes whether or not there's new legislation," said James Delaplane, vice president of retirement policy at the American Benefits Council, a non-profit group representing big employers such as IBM, Viacom, Ford and Exxon Mobil.
Saving your retirement
Enron's collapse into bankruptcy last fall caused thousands of employees to lose more than $1 billion in retirement assets when the company stock in their 401(k) plans plunged. The losses triggered public outrage as well as fears about other plans that are loaded with company stock. (Click here to read about companies with the "Enron problem.")
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Lawmakers have proposed at least 17 bills to overhaul the system, and the Republican-controlled House on April 11 approved a bill allowing employees to diversify out of company stock after three years.
As part of the proposal, companies could choose one of two methods to allow workers to sell their shares: Either employees would be allowed to sell company stock after three years of service; or they could sell each share after holding it for three years.
Employees would also be able to sell existing shares in their 401(k)s gradually over five years -- up to 20 percent a year. A phased plan would prevent a mass sale of stocks that could affect the price.
A new look post-Enron
The jury is still out on whether lawmakers will be able to agree on the terms of a new law -- it faces an even tougher fight in the Senate, where Democrats have a razor-thin majority. Indeed, many in the retirement industry doubt a law will happen before 2003 at the earliest. (Click here for more on the long road to pension reform.)
But regardless of what's happening in Washington, corporate America has been making changes of its own - sometimes more liberally than lawmakers have proposed.
At Walt Disney , for example, workers starting in March can sell company stock in their 401(k) in favor of another plan investment whenever they want, said spokeswoman Michelle Bergman. Previously, they had to wait until age 55. Company stock represents 35 percent to 40 percent of its 401(k) plan assets.
"It was something that we've been considering for some time, and with recent events, we saw no reason to wait," Bergman said.
AOL Time Warner made a similar rule change effective April 1, according to spokeswoman Tricia Primrose. Previously, employees had to wait until age 50, with five years of service to sell company stock, which represents about 40 percent of plan assets.
Other companies that have made such changes include Gannett and Gillette Co., said Nevin Adams, executive editor at Plansponsor.com, a Web site dedicated to benefits issues.
And Mellon Financial Corp. is allowing workers to sell shares they've held prior to Jan. 1, 2000 beginning July 1. Under the old rule, Mellon workers couldn't sell until age 55 - and could make exchanges during only one month a year. Company stock represents 36 percent of plan assets.
Viacom, too, is loosening its reins. Employees who are fully vested (it takes three to five years, depending on the division) can freely exchange shares, said spokeswoman Susan Duffy. Previously, workers had to wait until age 55 with 10 years of service -- and then only 20 percent of shares a year. Duffy did not have the percentage of company stock in the 401(k).
And two new studies show even more changes may be coming. One study, by the Committee on Investment of Employee Benefit Assets (CIEBA), a panel of executives who head retirement plans, showed 20 percent of big employers who have restrictions on company stock plan to make changes to their 401(k)s in the next 12 months. Another study, by World at Work, an organization of benefits and HR consultants, found 75 percent of companies with a stock-loaded 401(k) are considering changes because of Enron.
A trend that started before Enron?
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Still, some retirement pros say companies have been making changes that are unrelated to the Enron brouhaha.
"There's been a general trend in this direction," said David Wray, president of the Profit Sharing/401(k) Council, a non-profit group representing big companies with retirement plans. "You've got a strategic transition going on..it's part of a trend allowing employees to have more of a say in their plan. These plans are supposed to make people happy with their companies."
International Paper, for example, launched changes effective April 1 that had been in the works for more than a year, said spokeswoman Jenny Boardman. As part of the change, IP employees can diversify half of their company stock whenever they want. Previously they had to wait until age 55. IP also is making half of its 8 percent match in cash rather than stock. Before the change, all of the match was in stock.