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Array of Financial Products is Dizzying

Timeline of financial products since the 1940sRather than put his money in a bank, my cousin, who’s in his mid-40s, makes loans in $25 increments on a peer-to-peer lending website.  He decides on the amount of risk he’s willing to take on – and the riskier the borrowers he chooses, the more he earns on his “savings.”

My cousin’s $25 investments illustrate how much our consumer finance market has evolved over several decades. We all embrace the convenience. Car loans are a more affordable way to buy a vehicle, Internet banking lets homebuyers get several mortgage quotes at once, and paying with cell phones is much easier than paying with cash or even credit cards.

But all this innovation has a downside. One example is the change from installment credit with fixed payments in the early 1960s to revolving credit, which lets consumers choose to pay a small required minimum – and increases the high credit-card interest that undisciplined borrowers pay. A recent and egregious innovation is companies that purchased lawsuit settlements from victims of lead paint poisoning for a fraction of their value.  Both innovations offer convenience in exchange for personal financial impacts that are either excessive or difficult to recognize.

A primary outcome of all this financial innovation is that U.S. households “in aggregate have taken on greater risk,” conclude professors at the Harvard Business School in their 2010 paper, “A Brief Postwar History of US Consumer Finance.”  Consumers now have an enormous amount of latitude – arguably too much latitude – to borrow, shift assets, save for retirement (or not), play the markets, or engage in peer-to-peer lending, they say.

As a result, risks pervade our investment portfolios, savings and retirement accounts, borrowing decisions, and how we purchase consumer goods.  And that’s the problem. …Learn More

Contingent Labor Force Growing Fast

Most workers quickly realize that the best solution to low earnings in a job with scant or non-existent benefits is to move on to something better.

But this is increasingly difficult to pull off, because technology and other powerful forces are reshaping the 21st century economy – and degrading the quality of the jobs that are available.  As companies seek to cut labor costs, technologies like scheduling software for retail and fast-food workers and platforms like Uber and Task Rabbit are making it easier to do.

Chart: Alternative WorkThe result has been a rapidly growing contingent labor force of temp-agency workers, freelancers, independent contractors, workers for contract companies, and on-call workers with unpredictable schedules, according to a recent study by prominent Harvard and Princeton economists.  They estimate that this contingent labor force has increased from 10 percent of all U.S. workers in 2005 to nearly 16 percent today.  Its growth effectively accounts for all of the net job gains over the past decade.

The transformation under way is so apparent that it has earned nicknames like the “gig,” “sharing,” or “on-demand” economy.  The resulting jobs are often touted as giving workers flexibility and the freedom to earn more money – and sometimes they do.  The researchers conducted their own survey of more than 3,800 contingent workers, and business consultants and computer engineers might be good examples of the independent contractors and freelancers who said in the survey that they prefer their arrangements to working for someone else. …Learn More

Why Most Elderly Pay No Federal Tax

Chart: Tax pieA March blog post pointing out that a large majority of America’s older population pay no federal income tax seemed to surprise some readers – particularly retirees who must send checks to the IRS at this time of year.

“[M]y annual tax liability is and will continue to be greater than when I was employed,” said one such retiree.

Readers’ comments are always welcome, and this time they’ve thrown a spotlight on a shortcoming of the article.  It did not fully explore why most retirees – roughly two-thirds of 70 year olds – pay no federal income tax.

According to a Tax Policy Center report, “Why Some Tax Units Pay No Income Tax,” tax filers over age 65 are the largest single group to benefit from special provisions of the tax code designed to help various types of people. The elderly receiving tax preferences make up 44 percent of filers of all ages who are moved off the tax rolls by these tax breaks, said the Center, a joint effort of the Urban Institute and the Brookings Institution.

Of course, retirees pay all sorts of other taxes, including property tax and state sales and income taxes.  But it’s essential for baby boomers to understand this federal income tax issue as they plan for retirement. …Learn More

Woman on computer

Black Americans Give More to Relatives

Giving money to relatives.

Oprah has done it – in the form of a $490,000 house for her newly discovered sister. Former NFL cornerback Phillip Buchanon just wrote a book complaining about it. And Charles Barkley is characteristically blunt about it.

“When you continually come to me for money, that’s what ruins relationships,” Barkley explained on NBA TV. “I probably got $4-5 million I lent to friends and family I’ll never see again.”

No one is immune to a relative’s appeals for financial help. But this is a perennial and far more prevalent issue among black Americans – and not just the ultra-rich like Oprah and Barkley – according to Rourke O’Brien at the University of Wisconsin.

What O’Brien calls “informal assistance” exists, in part, because giving bestows non-monetary benefits on the givers as they foster emotional support and solidarity among their kin. But as a personal financial issue, the expectations and feelings of obligation are very challenging – and a topic of conversation in the black community.

One woman commenting online said she was looking for some useful advice about how “to be more comfortable with saying ‘no’ ” to her loved ones. …Learn More

How Federal Taxation Drops for Retirees

Chart: taxes

Taxes are not as inevitable as most people assume. As the chart shows, the share of Americans paying federal income taxes falls precipitously after age 60.

Young adults often have little or no tax liability, because they’re either in school or aren’t yet earning very much. Older people revert to a similar picture, after having paid taxes all their lives.

The peak occurs around age 50, when nearly 80 percent of households pay federal income taxes. That share plummets to half at age 65 and to just over a third at 70, according to The Hamilton Project at The Brookings Institution, which produced the chart. [The chart is based on 2007 data; there may be some changes in current data, though not in the age patterns.]

This is important information for most baby boomers, because their tax picture will change dramatically in retirement. Taxes paid, as well as the share of people paying taxes, decline because retirees’ incomes generally fall below what they earned while they were working.

Further, U.S. tax policy provides additional deductions and credits for people over age 65. While some people pay taxes on their Social Security benefits, this usually happens, according to the Social Security Administration, “only if you have other substantial income (such as wages, self-employment, interest, dividends and other taxable income that must be reported on your tax return) in addition to your benefits.”

As the chart makes crystal clear, tax considerations are a crucial part of retirement planning. Learn More

Photo of apartment buildings

Rising Rents Slam the Middle Class

Chart: Renters are paying moreFirst it was the Irish, then Portuguese, then Brazilians – for more than 150 years, Somerville, Massachusetts, absorbed wave after wave of immigrants. Today, hipster professionals are pouring into this city next door to Boston.

Somerville rents have shot up as much as 50 percent in 15 years, and a two-bedroom apartment for under $2,000 in a shabby chic neighborhood is a rare find.

A similar trend is playing out all over the country – from Boston and Miami to Los Angeles and Seattle – and it’s squeezing working- and middle-class families the most, according to the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University. …Learn More

U.S. Workers Got a Raise Last Year

It probably doesn’t feel like it, but workers got a decent pay raise in 2015.

wagesInflation last year was an improbably low 0.7 percent, and the fairly strong job market helped, too, by pushing up average hourly wages by 2.6 percent. Together, these translate to nearly a 2 percentage point increase in workers’ pay. Wages rose again in January by one-half percent, which was the second-best monthly increase in the current economic expansion. Minimum wages are also going up in many states.

It gets even better, based on an analysis by the American Institute of Economic Research (AIER) in western Massachusetts. An inflation measure designed by AIER that it calls the everyday price index, or EPI, actually declined last year. As its name implies, the EPI gauges changes in prices for things that are necessary for daily living, such as utilities and groceries, and excludes infrequent big-ticket items such as cars, homes, appliances, and even clothing. For this reason, it also weights gasoline more heavily than the standard consumer price index (CPI). The EPI declined 1.4 percent for the 12-month period ending in November, the latest data available, compared with the 0.7 percent increase for the CPI. …Learn More

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