October 2013

Graphic: Happy Halloween!

Fraud Scares Off Stock Investors

The evidence is clear: fraud causes investors to shed their shares of stock.

When the stock market is booming, fraud swirls unnoticed beneath the frothy surface. Only when the market busts, as it did in the fall of 2008, are allegations of fraud and financial shenanigans exposed to the public.

When they are, and rattled investors realize what has taken place, they decrease their stock holdings – whether they own shares in any of the fraudulent companies or not – according to researchers in Stockholm and at the University of Minnesota.

Their study analyzed changes in equity holdings among U.S. households in response to more than 700 Securities and Exchange Commission charges and other reports of fraud from 1984 through 2009. The researchers focused on investors state by state, based on the assumption that allegations of fraud at local companies were more visible and would be more likely to affect an investor’s decisions. They also controlled for economic effects, which can influence investors’ decisions.

Their findings are:

  • Reports of fraud in a given state made investors in that state less likely to hold stocks. …
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Homes More Affordable – For How Long?

There was a silver lining in the recent housing market collapse: prices dropped to more affordable levels for American families who didn’t already own.

Buying still isn’t easy. It’s become more difficult to qualify for a mortgage from banks and other lenders that have tightened up their credit qualifications. But the following chart, which also appears on page 11 of a chartbook released by the Urban Institute’s new Housing Finance Policy Center, shows the dramatic improvement in home affordability in the wake of the market’s recent downturn.

The blue line shows actual house prices over time – that’s the median, or middle, price for every single home sold nationwide in a given year. The red line shows the maximum a typical family can afford, assuming they put down 20 percent and get a 30-year mortgage at the prevailing interest rate, which is currently about 4.1 percent.

During the credit bubble, the blue price line surged above the maximum, putting a new house out of reach for many more families. Post-crash, that relationship reversed, making homes more affordable again.

But affordability still varies greatly, depending on where you live. … Learn More

Photo: Vintage of buy war bonds

Oldest Americans Are Lucky Generation

Americans in their 70s and 80s have earned more and are wealthier than the baby boom generation – for the simple reason they were born at the right moment in history.

It was easier for members of this older generation to get ahead, because they came of age in the aftermath of World War II, when economic and demographic trends were strongly working in their favor, contends new research by William Emmons and Bryan Noeth of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. The emergence of a modern social safety net and the rise of unions may’ve also contributed to their relative prosperity, they said.

Baby boomers born after about 1950 do not seem to have the same income and wealth over their working and retired lives that their parents have enjoyed, even after the research takes into account numerous things that determine an individual’s prosperity, such as their level of education. If the current trend continues, these younger boomers just won’t be as lucky.

Birth year “comes up as a significant variable in terms of influencing income and wealth,” Emmons, a senior policy adviser, said about the study, which analyzed decades of U.S. data on household finances. …Learn More

Food Stamps Need Rises in Good Times

Enrollment in the federal food stamp program, known as SNAP – for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program – has more than doubled over the past decade to 47 million.

What’s remarkable is that for the first time the number of Americans receiving food stamps increased even in a period when the economy was growing. During the 2003-2007 expansion, the SNAP case load, in a break with historic trends, rose 24 percent.

One explanation is the change in the longstanding correlation between the unemployment rate and poverty, according to research findings by economists Matt Rutledge and April Yanyuan Wu of the Center for Retirement Research, which were presented at the Retirement Research Consortium meeting in August.

Poverty used to fall in tandem with the jobless rate, reducing the need for food stamps. But the researchers found that the mid-2000s expansion was different: poverty did not decline as the economy grew.

In the recovery that has followed the Great Recession, the number of people receiving food stamps continued to rise, according to federal data.

The assumption has always been that a stronger labor market will reduce the need for food stamps. But this new trend suggests rising employment might no longer be enough. Reducing the food stamp rolls may require a broader recovery or initiatives to reduce poverty and provide more jobs for the marginally employed.

Full disclosure: The research cited in this post was funded by a grant from the U.S. Social Security Administration (SSA) through the Retirement Research Consortium, which also funds this blog. The opinions and conclusions expressed do not represent the opinions or policy of SSA or any agency of the federal government.Learn More

Video: Mutual Funds or Designer Shoes?


Prithi Gowda’s animated video was one of two winners in a competition among New York University film school students and alums to produce a video that would turn young adults on to mutual funds. The winners were awarded a trip to Monaco to premier their work.

The filmmaker practices what she preaches in this short animation, “Frenemies.” Gowda’s freelance work as a website designer and videographer for Wall Street firms has allowed her to build up “a nice, comfortable savings.” Investing, she said, has given her the freedom to start her own company, 21st Street Projects in Manhattan.

“I just feel strongly the world could be a much better place if people really understood how to deal with their finances,” Gowda said.Learn More

U.S. Families: Not Poor But Feeling Poor

New research shows the share of Americans who lack enough ready cash on hand for emergencies shot up in the aftermath of the Great Recession.

These families do not have access to the liquid assets – cash or funds in their checking or savings account – to cover emergencies like layoffs, health crises, or even car repairs, according to an analysis of federal data by Caroline Ratcliffe of the Urban Institute, who presented the finding to the Congressional Savings and Ownership Caucus in late September.

Ratcliffe’s measure of financial fragility was families who did not have enough liquid assets to subsist at federal poverty levels for three months. That amounts to $2,873 for a single person, $4,883 for a family of three, and $5,888 for a family of four.

By this measure, 37 percent of families in the middle income group – earning $35,600 to $57,900 a year – in 2010 were financially fragile – up sharply from 28 percent in 2007, a year before the Great Recession began. No income group was spared by the downturn: in most cases, the share of families at risk increased between 9 percentage points and 13 percentage points.

Ratcliffe said that financial problems can cascade if cash-poor families resort to high-cost loans or credit cards to pay their bills, and building wealth becomes extremely difficult.

“A shortage of liquid assets can lead to cycles of debt when financial emergencies arise,” creating “further financial instability,” she said.Learn More

Photo: Man helping elderly walk

Family Network for Elderly to Dwindle

Husband, wife, grandmother, uncle, elderly friend – we all need a devoted caregiver when we grow old.

But in a not-distant future, according to a new report from the AARP’s Public Policy Institute, the number of family and close friends available to fill this demanding role will decline sharply. It’s unlikely there will be enough of these unpaid caregivers for the multitudes of aging baby boomers.

Today, there are seven Americans between the ages of 45 and 64 for each individual who is at least 80 years old. The baby boomers, largely because there are so many of them, have done a good job of caring for their parents born during the Depression era. One surprising result has been a steady decline in nursing home occupancy rates.

But AARP estimates that the number of folks age 45 to 64 for each individual at least 80 will fall from seven today to six in 2020, four in 2030, and three in 2050. Worse still, not all of them can or will fill the role of caregiver.

“We’re at the demographic sweet spot right now,” said Donald Redfoot, senior strategic policy adviser for the AARP Public Policy Institute. “But as we go forward, all those positive developments over the past 20 years are going to reverse.” …Learn More

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