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"It's ok guy, if that 401k doesn't exist, then neither will you".

There are a number of ways that can not be true without a large scale societal collapse. Fraud involving pension funds has happened many times in the past (Bernie Madoff, Robert Maxwell being two high profile examples). The last financial crisis brought a bit more attention to the topic of counterparty risk - the idea that your "safe" investment is only as safe as the institutions that are backing it in many cases. It's not necessarily a high priority concern but I think it's worth at least considering splitting your retirement savings across more than one account with different institutions.

There are also lots of conceivable larger scale crises with historical precedent (many in the 20th Century) that would render your retirement savings largely worthless without leaving you dead. In many of those you would have more pressing concerns than your 401K but it still seems like not a bad idea to have some physical things of value that you keep somewhere secure but accessible (cash, perhaps gold and/or silver).

401(k) plans have individual named customer accounts and strict auditing standards. A Bernie Madoff type scam isn't really possible. Even if Vanguard or Fidelity goes bankrupt the customer accounts will still exist. There's no counterparty risk (except for cash actively being transferred in or out).

Even if you have full confidence in auditors and regulators (Arthur Andersen?) that only guarantees that you own the contents of the account. What about what's in those accounts? How familiar are most people with the details of the various mutual funds and/or ETFs that might be held in their accounts? How complex are the webs of obligations inside those funds? If one or more large financial institutions were to have a Lehmann Brothers situation how long might the assets in some of those funds be tied up in litigation, even if they were actually still there?

These concerns are all likely fairly low probability but there's certainly a whole range of possible scenarios between "my retirement funds are completely secure" and "I'm dead in a global thermonuclear apocalypse".

There are enough people who depend on those for their income that congress would do something. I don't know what, but the litigation would be the top concern of congress and that pressure would ensure that things got wrapped up quick somehow.

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