June 2013

Photo of elderly couples

62YO Men File Social Security; Wives Pay

My father was never more in love with my mother than on the day he died in 2004, days before their 50th anniversary.

But he made one bad financial decision that she lives with today: he started up his Social Security benefits at age 62.

He felt he needed the money sooner than later. He had an inadequate pension from his first career, as an Air Force flyboy, and none from his Rust Belt business that went bust. But waiting to claim his Social Security would’ve increased the size of his check – and, after he died at 70, the money that’s still deposited into my mother’s bank account every month.

This happens to a significant share of couples, because almost 40 percent of all Americans claim their benefits the same year they turn 62. But a husband who waits until age 65 can increase his widowed wife’s future benefits by up to $170 a month, according to new research by Alice Henriques, an economist with the Federal Reserve Board in Washington.

What’s interesting about this study of nearly 14,000 older couples is that she teased out how much the husband’s decision was determined by the filing date’s impact on his own benefits, versus the financial impact on his wife’s spousal and, later, her survivor benefits. Similar research in the past had examined the impact of a filing date on their combined benefits during all their years of retirement.

Henriques was able to show that the husbands, when they made their decisions, took into account the impact on themselves of the claiming date they selected. But they showed virtually “no response to the large incentives” of having the ability to provide their widowed wives with more income in the future, she said. …Learn More

Puzzle pieces: auto enrollment

401(k)s Stall, Post-Auto Enrollment

Seven years after Congress encouraged employers to automatically enroll their workers in the company 401(k), the retirement fix has run out of steam.

Corporate America rushed in to adopt the feature in their 401(k) plans after the Pension Protection Act (PPA) made auto enrollment more attractive by giving employers that used it a safe harbor from non-discrimination rules governing their benefits.

Immediately after the PPA provision became effective in December 2007, employee participation in 401(k)s increased.  But since that initial bump, it’s been virtually flat for years.

In 2008, participation increased to 73 percent of all employees in workplaces that offered 401(k)s, up from 68 percent in 2007, according to Vanguard Group Inc.’s new “America Saves 2013” report, which provides a decade of participation rates for its large data base of clients.

Fast forward to 2011: participation was 74 percent.  It has barely budged.  (Last year, participation was 68 percent, but Vanguard said past experience indicates this figure will rise to roughly the same level when all of its clients turn in their data). …Learn More

Older Patients Tell Doctors, “Charge It!”

New research has uncovered one reason for the alarming rise in credit card use among older Americans: medical bills.

When people age 50 or older experience “health shocks” – newly diagnosed medical conditions – their credit card balances rise, according to research published in the Journal of Consumer Affairs. The worse the medical condition, the more they charge.

A mild, new medical problem, for example, adds $230 to credit card bills – that’s a 6.3 percent increase on a starting balance of $3,654. If the new condition is severe, balances increase by $339, or 9.3 percent.

Separately, the researchers looked at the effect of out-of-pocket medical costs, such as copayments for doctor visits and prescriptions not covered by private insurance or Medicare. For each $100 that those costs increase, about $4.50 winds up on the cards, according to Hyungsoo Kim at the University of Kentucky, WonAh Yoon at the Samsung Life Retirement Research Center in Seoul, Korea, and Karen Zurlo at Rutgers University.

Their findings shed new light on why more older Americans, who have the greatest medical needs, are becoming reliant on credit cards with their high interest rates. …Learn More

Photo of ostrich head in ground

Are You An Ostrich About Investing?

As the stock market approached and then broke through the 15,000 mark, did you get a little obsessed with your 401(k) balance?

You would not be alone. A novel research project recently analyzed how often investors went online to check their 401(k) accounts and found that they did so more often when the Dow was rising. What could be more pleasant than watching your wealth grow?

The researchers quantified the emotional roller coaster that our investments can take us on by looking at log-on activity during 2007 and 2008 for 100,000 401(k)-style accounts at Vanguard Group Inc. To make sure they were properly measuring investor interest, the sample included only online customers who did not receive paper statements in the mail.

Their analysis gauged how responsive these investors were to stock market swings in either direction, based on the size of one-day market moves. If the Dow increased by 1 percent in a day, for example, the total number of log-ins rose nearly 2 percent. But if the Dow fell by 1 percent, then 2 percent fewer investors checked their accounts.

This human inclination to avoid the pain of losing money has been labeled the “ostrich effect,” because investors respond by putting their heads in the sand when the market is down. …Learn More

Photo of generation: Grandmother, mother, daughter

Retirement Tougher for Boomer Children

The financial media (including this blog) inundate baby boomers with articles cajoling, coddling, and counseling them about their every retirement concern.

But members of the Me Generation might want to focus on their children: retirement is likely to be an even greater financial challenge for Generation X, now in their 30s and 40s.

Economists at the Center for Retirement Research, which supports this blog, recently produced this striking prediction: three out of five Americans in their 30s and well over half of those in their 40s are at risk of experiencing a decline in their standard of living after they retire.

This compares with 44 percent of baby boomers.

The reasons for Generation X’s poorer prospects are due to long-term trends like the rise of 401(k)s and less generous Social Security benefits for future generations. …Learn More

Photo of underwater fishes

Too Many Homeowners Still Underwater

With house prices rising smartly, homeowners should be celebrating. Right?

Wrong. To be sure, a 10 percent jump in house prices in the first quarter, compared with a year earlier, pushed more people out of the red and into the black. But one in four U.S. homeowners with a mortgage still has “negative equity:” the mortgage exceeds the value of the home, according to new data from Zillow.

These 13 million U.S. homeowners will need more price appreciation before they can feel that the housing-market downturn of the previous decade is truly over.

Negative equity is prevalent not just in obvious places like Las Vegas, once the poster child for the go-go real estate market that went bust. The painful aftermath lingers in Chicago and Minneapolis, where about one in three owners has negative equity.

Seattle, Cleveland, and Baltimore also each have a larger share of owners in negative territory than the national average.

Zillow computes a second, broader measure of underwater homeowners. It adds together people with negative equity and those who have some equity, though not enough to pay a real estate agent and related costs to sell their house and move. When this second group is included, the share of home borrowers in a financial bind increases to 44 percent, from 25 percent, Zillow said. …Learn More

Nobel Winners Are Unsure Investors

Medal for the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences. © ® the Nobel Foundation

A Los Angeles Times reporter once called up several Nobel laureates in economics to ask how they invest their retirement savings.

One of the economists was Daniel Kahneman, a 2002 Nobel Prize winner who would become more famous after writing “Thinking, Fast and Slow” about the difference between fast, intuitive decision-making and slow, deliberative thinking. Kahneman admitted to the reporter that he does not think fast or slow about his retirement savings – he just doesn’t think about it.

Kahneman’s confession in the 2005 article seems even more relevant in today’s 401(k) world. Americans are realizing the investment decisions imposed on them by their employers may be too complex for mere mortals. For example, three out of four U.S. workers in a 2011 Prudential survey said they find 401(k) investing confusing.

Readers might take comfort in learning that even some of the world’s great mathematical minds have admitted to wrestling with the same issues they do: How do I invest my 401(k)? Should I take some risk? How about international stocks?

Here are the Nobel laureates remarks, excerpted from the article, “Experts Are at a Loss on Investing,” by Peter Gosselin, formerly of The Los Angeles Times:

Harry M. Markowitz, 1990 Nobel Prize:

Harry M. Markowitz won the Nobel Prize in economics as the father of “modern portfolio theory,” the idea that people shouldn’t put all of their eggs in one basket, but should diversify their investments.

However, when it came to his own retirement investments, Markowitz practiced only a rudimentary version of what he preached. He split most of his money down the middle, put half in a stock fund and the other half in a conservative, low-interest investment.Learn More

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