June 4, 2013
Earnings Growth: Better at the Top
U.S. inequality can be measured two ways – by wealth or by earnings. Either way, most working Americans are losing out.
It’s the 1920s again for the richest 1 percent of Americans, and a recent analysis of the wealth gap illustrates why they’re able to live like the fictional Jay Gatsby, portrayed by Leonardo DiCaprio in the new movie, “The Great Gatsby.”
The value of their wealth rises and falls with the stock market. But since the 1960s, they have consistently held 33 percent to 39 percent of the wealth owned by all Americans, including their stock, mansions, commercial real estate, and businesses, according to economist Edward Wolff at New York University. In 2010, the last year examined by Wolff, the richest 1 percent’s share was 35 percent – that was before the Dow flew past 15,000.
The U.S. wealth gap is enormous, partly because most Americans have little wealth to speak of. Most people instead gauge their financial well-being by the size of their paychecks, and income inequality is rising sharply.
Between 1993 and 2011, the earnings of the top 1 percent of U.S. earners grew by nearly 58 percent, after adjusting for inflation. Earnings include salaries, bonuses, stock options, dividends, and capital gains on stock portfolios. That far outpaced the 6 percent rise for the rest of U.S. workers during the same 18-year period, according to a new analysis by economist Emmanuel Saez at the University of California, Berkeley. …Learn More
May 9, 2013
How Good Is Your 401(k)?
When Sanofi froze its defined benefit pension plan last year, the top brass wanted to make sure its 401(k) was seen as a worthy replacement by the company’s 24,000 U.S. employees and retirees.
Sanofi has succeeded, judging by Plan Sponsor magazine’s designation of the U.S. division of the French pharmaceutical giant as 2013 “Plan Sponsor of the Year.”
In corporate America, 401(k) plans are now the norm: in 2012, only 11 of Fortune magazine’s 100 largest companies still offered a traditional defined benefit pension, according to the consulting firm Towers Watson. But Sanofi U.S. had strong motivation for designing a 401(k) that is generous compared with typical 401(k)s.
The company has “highly technical, highly specialized, highly skilled [employees] that we have to recruit for and retain,” said Richard Johnson, senior director of benefits. “We wanted to ensure our employees had adequate retirement income.”
Squared Away recently interviewed Sanofi executives about their plan’s details, shown below, which readers can compare with 401(k) plans in their own workplaces. We hope you’ll post a comment on Facebook and let us know how, or whether, yours stacks up.
Here how Sanofi compares with other 401(k)s:
May 7, 2013
Retirement Countdown: Sheila Downsizes
Sheila Taymore could not afford the $2,200 mortgage and home equity loan payments, the enormous heating bills, and the repairs – so many repairs – on the home she’d owned for decades.
Sheila Taymore, 60, of Salem, Mass.
But selling it was emotional: she and her first husband had raised two sons in that house in the seaside town of Swampscott, north of Boston. Her decision to move was triggered by a recent divorce and came about two years after the death of her mother.
“I walked around and cried and said, ‘Who cares about this house?’ I make all this money, and all my money was going towards my house,” said Taymore, a Comcast Cable salesperson – last year was her best year ever.
She is like millions of U.S. baby boomers struggling, often imperfectly, to prepare financially for their imminent retirement. Wall Street may tout investment savvy as critical to ensuring a comfortable old age, but less lofty decisions can be more helpful to those with too little savings and too few working years left to make it up.
Taymore is also planning to delay her retirement to age 70. That will give her a larger monthly check from Social Security and fewer years of retirement to pay for. That was an easy call, she said, because “I just love my job.”Learn More
April 11, 2013
Jobless Boomers: How They Survive
Squared Away wrote about three unemployed baby boomers on Tuesday – an arts administrator, a corporate executive, and a social-services professional – who are having to scrounge for income to sustain themselves.
They are among the more than 1.5 million baby boomers caught in that painful limbo between a long and successful career and retirement – very possibly by default. All three want to get back into the labor force but may be forced to retire, because it’s more difficult for them to find employment than it is for younger workers.
While nearly half of unemployed adults between the ages of 25 and 49 were able to find work within seven months during and after the Great Recession, it took more than nine months for half of those over 50 to find a job, according to the Urban Institute, a Washington think tank. Many boomers may never find a job and will eventually retire.
“It’s different than being 35 or 45 and out of work,” said Kevin Milligan, an economics professor at the University of British Columbia. “We don’t necessarily expect these [older] people to go back to work.”
Milligan’s research last year determined that two-thirds or more of jobless Americans between ages 55 and 65 rely on their spouses for income. With only one spouse working, this creates hardships. These older households suddenly are able to save less in their 401(k)s. Milligan found that smaller numbers of boomers are also tapping their employer pensions or Social Security retirement benefits. …Learn More
March 12, 2013
Feeling Poorer? Blame the House!
The American psyche gets a lot of credit for fueling the boom in U.S. home prices, which ended in 2006. As houses increased in value, homeowners felt richer, and they spent more. Similarly, falling house prices led to declines in consumer spending as households found themselves poorer and less able to access credit, according to a new paper, “Wealth Effects Revisited: 1975-2012,” by economists Karl Case, the late John Quigley and Robert Shiller.
In this interview, Case explains this “wealth effect.”
Q: Why were our spending decisions influenced by our psychology during the housing boom?
Case: The increase in house prices was like magic. They went from the 1950s until 2006 without ever falling nationally. The numbers are astonishing. If you look at the Federal Reserve’s Flow of Funds Accounts, the value of the owner-occupied housing stock in the United States increased from $14 trillion to $24 trillion. All of a sudden the collective balance sheet of U.S. households had $10 trillion worth of assets that it didn’t have before. That’s a very big number.
The first thing I asked myself is, How did I behave? I bought a house in Wellesley [Massachusetts] for $56,000 in 1976. When I sold it in 1991, it was a $240,000 asset. I know my behavior changed. I was in my 40s, and I found myself with a quarter million dollars that I didn’t know I had. It made me feel wealthier, and I spent more and saved less than I otherwise would have. Home equity loans and second mortgages made it possible for homeowners to withdraw their newly acquired equity to finance a higher level of spending and/or a new or bigger home.
Q: How do we decide we’re feeling richer?
Case: Household wealth is made of many things: houses, cars, and financial assets. The value of any asset, including housing, is determined by what people are willing to pay for it. What determines that? Our expectation of whether it will go up in the future. If you have a house I think is going to go up 10 percent per year, I’m willing to pay more for it than if I think it’s not going up at all. That’s how psychology drives the housing market.
In annual surveys for another paper, we asked 5,000 people going forward 10 years, what do you expect the average annual increase to be in the value of your house? They said 8-10-12 percent per year. They were feeling better because their house was worth more. That leads to more spending.
Q: Is it fair to say the housing market was one of the primary influences on the economy?
Case: Absolutely. Our finding has been very controversial. Some people say housing’s wealth effect doesn’t exist. Our own earlier work suggested that it works when the housing market is on the way up but not on the way down. We now have evidence that it works in both directions. …Learn More
February 26, 2013
Millennials in Debt: Is It a Big Deal?
Young adults, when asked if they have college loans, often just sigh or groan quietly.
But how much does this debt really matter to their lives? Conflicting trends make this difficult to answer. College graduates have ample time – decades of employment – to pay off their student loans, economists argue, and they’ll bring in more earnings to pay them back. A college education is worth $1 million in extra earnings over a lifetime.
Behind the student-loan sigh is anxiety that the post-Great Recession job market makes it tougher for many graduates to earn what they need to pay their loans back. Indeed, the rate of delinquencies has risen in tandem with increased borrowing. Payments on half of all student loan accounts are now being deferred, the consumer credit firm TransUnion reported last week, and these deferrals are the first step to still more delinquencies.
Some researchers are warning about the additional financial risks facing graduates with large loan balances. “That didn’t happen in previous generations,” said Ohio State University’s Lucia Dunn, whose study published last month in Economic Inquiry found that young adults are on a path to having far more credit card debt in middle age than did their baby boomer parents. Credit cards, student loans – debt of all kinds – she said, “is just an overwhelming burden for many young people.” …
February 19, 2013
Boomers Still Cautious About Stocks
Mutual fund investors poured some $17 billion into domestic equity funds in January, reversing 2012’s trend, according to the Investment Company Institute (ICI), an industry trade group.
But it’s too early to declare that fund investors have fully recovered from the 2008 market collapse, even as the bullish S&P500 stock market index flirts with its 1,565 all-time high reached on October 9, 2007.
Fund investors surveyed by ICI still remain less willing than they were prior to the big bust to take what the survey questionnaire calls “above-average or substantial risks” in their investments.
This trend cuts across most age groups, from 40-somethings to retirees. The exception is the under-35 crowd: 26 percent identified themselves as being in these higher-risk categories, slightly more than the 24 percent who did back in 2007.
But boomers nearing retirement and current retirees burned in the 2008 market collapse keep paring back their risk profiles. Older investors are moving “from capital appreciation to capital preservation,” said Shelly Antoniewicz, an ICI senior economist. Even 35-49 year olds, who still have two to three decades of investing ahead of them, are not quite back to where they were earlier in the decade when they were more willing to take risks in the stock market.
“What we have seen historically is that there is a relationship between stock market performance and inflows into equity funds. When the stock market goes up, we tend to get larger inflows into equity funds,” she said. “What we’ve noticed in the past two to four years is this historical relationship has gotten weaker.” …Learn More
February 7, 2013
Why Minorities Need Social Security More
Source: Social Security Administration
The U.S. population is in the midst of a transition from predominantly white to one in which “minorities” will one day be the majority.
A Social Security Fact Sheet recently published by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington throws a fresh perspective on the program, which provides the financial bedrock for most retirees. It shows that the program is even more important to African-Americans and Latinos than it is for white Americans.
Seventy-three years after Ida May Fuller became the first person to receive a Social Security check, on Jan. 31, 1940, Social Security provides more than half of the retirement income received by about two out of three elderly white Americans. But many more – about three out of four – African-American and Latino retirees rely on Social Security for more than half their income.
The obvious reason is that minorities earn lower incomes on average while they are working, according to Kathy Ruffing, a senior fellow at the Center, and that has “hampered their ability to save for retirement.”
Congress intended Social Security to be a progressive program that benefits lower-income individuals more. The Social Security Administration’s (SSA) formula for calculating the monthly check is designed to replace a larger share of the employment income of, say, a maintenance worker who has retired than it does for a retired corporate executive. …Learn More