October 24, 2017
401(k) Nudges and Course Corrections
Behavioral economist Richard Thaler, winner of the 2017 Nobel Prize for economics, regards his field’s greatest contribution as showing that people are more likely to save if the saving happens automatically.
“I’m all for empowerment and education, but the empirical evidence is that it doesn’t work,” he said in a 2015 Wall Street Journal interview. “That’s why I say make it easy.”
To make saving for retirement easier, employers have increasingly turned to automated 401(k)s. Automation has taken two basic forms. The first, automatically enrolling each employee, is pervasive and has had notable success in increasing participation in retirement savings plans. The second form, automatically increasing the amount employees save – a concept originated by Thaler and economist Shlomo Benartzi – is catching on. It’s hoped that the second will correct a problem created by the first.
Last year, 45 percent of Vanguard’s client base used auto-enrollment plans, according to its “How America Saves 2017” report. Historically, employees were asked to enroll in their employer’s 401(k). Today, more employers are – as Thaler would say – “nudging” workers by automatic enrolling them, usually when they are hired. Although they then have the freedom to opt out, inertia tends to keep them in the plans.
Participation in all types of 401(k)s has roughly increased in lock-step with the spread of auto-enrollment. Last year, 79 percent of workers participated in Vanguard-administered plans, up from 68 percent a decade ago, when a new federal pension law made auto-enrollment more appealing to employers.
The irony, however, is that while auto-enrollment encourages more people to save, Vanguard partly blamed a 2016 drop in employee contributions on their popularity. The average employee contribution in all types of 401(k) plans declined from 6.9 percent in 2015 of pay to 6.2 last year, well below the 7.3 percent rate prior to the Great Recession, according to Vanguard. …
October 5, 2017
Many Americans Feel Financial Distress
The unemployment rate is an incredibly low 4.4 percent, and a Federal Reserve survey released last week shows that American households’ net worth is increasing.
Yet all is not well.
One in three Americans say they are suffering financial hardships, and another third report they are making it but aren’t exactly thriving. One in five struggles to cover what is most basic: food, housing and medical care. These new findings, which came out of a report by the federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), aren’t about economists’ traditional, objective measures of security, income and wealth levels. This is about how people are feeling about their financial state of affairs.
The common, everyday financial distress expressed in the report is one marker of the familiar socioeconomic chasm that persists in this country. The CFPB highlights the most significant – and unsurprising – differences separating the secure from the struggling: education and income levels, the presence of health insurance, and how much of one’s budget is consumed by housing costs. “Access to jobs, benefits, sufficient income, and family resources likely play a major role in a person’s financial well-being,” the CFPB said.
But it’s also more complicated than that. For example, some lower-income people might, despite their challenges, be able to find their comfort level, CFPB said, while not all higher-income people do. One thing the survey can’t get at is the extent to which feelings of financial security or insecurity are being influenced by how Americans are doing relative to co-workers or people in their communities.
The agency used answers to its 2016 survey to assign financial well-being scores, ranging from 0 to 100, to nearly 6,400 participants. The findings are summarized in a new report.
Myriad factors influence how individuals feel, sometimes leading to surprising results in the CFPB report: …Learn More
September 21, 2017
The 411 on Roth vs Regular 401ks
Traditional 401(k) or Roth 401(k)?
Workers usually don’t know the difference. Yet employers increasingly are asking them to choose. Nearly two-thirds of private-sector employers with Vanguard plans today offer both a traditional and a Roth 401(k) in their employee benefits. Just four years ago, fewer than half did.
For tips on navigating the traditional-vs-Roth decision, we interviewed two members of the American Institute of CPAs: Monica Sonnier is an investment adviser in the Salt Lake City, Utah, area; and Sean Stein Smith is an assistant professor in the economics and business department at Lehman College in New York.
The difference in the two types of plans is the timing of federal income taxes:
- In a traditional 401(k), a worker who contributes to his or her account will see taxable income reduced by the dollar amount of the contribution. For example, contributing 6 percent of a $30,000 annual salary ($1,800 per year) means the worker pays federal income taxes on just $28,200. The taxes will be paid decades later, when the IRS will require the retiree to pay income taxes on the amounts withdrawn from the traditional 401(k).
- In a Roth, a worker pays income taxes on his or her full $30,000 salary, as usual. The 6 percent is an after-tax contribution that does not reduce the tax bill. The benefit will come decades later, because a Roth does not require the retiree to pay income taxes when the savings – including the Roth account’s investment earnings – are withdrawn.
If a retiree is taxed at the same rate as he was taxed as a worker, there is no difference in the after-tax retirement income the two 401(k) plans provide. However, traditional 401(k)s have generally been viewed as more advantageous, because people typically have lower incomes – and lower tax rates – in retirement than when they were working.
But things might also be changing. Over the long-term, increasing federal deficits due to increased spending pressures from popular programs to support aging baby boomers are expected to push up individual income tax rates. When that occurs, many retirees might be better off with a Roth so they won’t be taxed when they withdraw their savings.
Of course, each individual’s or couple’s tax situation is unique. Given all these caveats, here are the accountants’ rules of thumb for deciding between a traditional and Roth 401(k): …Learn More
August 17, 2017
Behind Asian-Americans’ Wealth Divide
When it comes to wealth, Asian-Americans aren’t much different than whites. The typical household’s net worth is around $133,000 in each group, and about 10 percent have no wealth at all.
And like white America, Asian-American inequality is high and rising. Asian-Americans ranking in the top 10 percent (in terms of their wealth levels) have $1.45 million in savings and home equity – about 170 times more than those in the bottom 20 percent. In the 1990s, the top 10 percent had 75 times more wealth.
Given this high concentration of wealth, “many Asian Americans, especially Asian American seniors who need to live off of their savings, live in an economically precarious situation,” according to a Center for American Progress study in December. The Urban Institute in a newer study concluded that “Asian American seniors are often left out of the national conversation on poverty.”
A deeper analysis reveals the dynamics at work in this rapidly growing and diverse socioeconomic group.
The timing of immigration is key to socioeconomic status. The Japanese, who came to this country in large numbers in the early 1900s, have had plenty of time to improve their lot. A new report by the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, focused on the Los Angeles area, found that people of Japanese descent are, by far, the wealthiest segment of the Asian community there. Remarkably, the median household’s net worth approached $600,000 in 2014.
Immigration from Korea, by contrast, didn’t pick up steam until the 1980s and 1990s. Not surprisingly, the typical Korean household lags behind, with about $25,000 in wealth. But that could be changing: one in five Koreans owns a business, the highest rate of business ownership for Asians in the Los Angeles area.
Inequality also emerges between generations in upwardly mobile Asian-American families. …
August 8, 2017
401k Saving Harder at Lower Incomes
Our 401(k) retirement system doesn’t work as well for lower- and middle-income workers as it does for those at the top.
That’s because they face more severe headwinds in pursuit of their retirement goals, concludes a new study.
Consider what happens when a worker’s earnings drop 10 percent or he experiences a bout of unemployment. These episodes are more common among lower-paid workers, and when they hit, they hit their 401(k)s harder than the 401(k)s of people who earn more, according to the study, “Defined Contribution Wealth Inequality.”
In theory, 401(k)s could work for everyone – if everyone had access to an employer savings plan (which they don’t). And while people who earn more money obviously have more to sock away in their retirement plans at work, smaller paychecks aren’t necessarily a problem either.
The key to retirement for any worker is whether he or she has saved enough, along with Social Security, to cover about 75 percent of what they earned at work during the years leading up to their retirement. It’s true that lower-paid workers can’t save as much, but less could still be enough to reach their more modest retirement goals.
But earnings declines, unemployment, smaller employer contributions, and unwise investment choices – these “barely affect earners in the top 10 percent of the earnings distribution but are associated with less DC [defined contribution] wealth accumulation for those at the bottom,” concluded the researchers, Joelle Saad-Lessler at the Stevens Institute of Technology and Teresa Ghilarducci and Gayle Reznik at the New School for Social Research.
This disparity, they argue, has increased the retirement wealth gap in this country. In the post-recession period 2009-2011, for example, more high-income workers saw their DC account balances increase than did workers in the bottom half.
The researchers tracked the same people over time in two groups – the bottom 55 percent of the earnings ladder and the top 10 percent. They were able to more precisely compare each group’s ability to save for retirement by using the actual earnings and employer contributions to individual workers’ retirement plans. Here are their other findings: …Learn More
July 25, 2017
Retirement Researchers Meet Next Week
On August 3 and 4, the Retirement Research Consortium will hold its annual meeting in which retirement researchers from around the country will converge on Washington to present their latest findings.
The papers being presented next week will explore the impact on retirement from our health, work-life balance, and family ties, as well the millennial generation’s prospects for retirement. These are just some of the research topics. Click here for the full agenda.
For those who can’t attend, the CRR will provide live streaming of the presentations as they occur. In late August, they will be archived on the CRR’s website.
The Retirement Research Consortium includes the Center for Retirement Research (CRR) at Boston College, which sponsors this blog, as well as the Michigan Retirement Research Center, and the National Bureau of Economic Research. The research being presented at the conference is funded by the U.S. Social Security Administration. Throughout the year, the findings will be covered in this blog.Learn More
July 18, 2017
Mid-sized Employer Meets Big 401(k) Goal
Thomas Automotive Family’s service department in Bedford, Pennsylvania.
When Peggy Zembower became the human resources director for Thomas Automotive Family about four years ago, she was dismayed that some long-time employees had never increased their retirement saving above the measly 1 percent of pay they’d started at.
One big issue was that the lowest-paid workers at the auto dealership – like low-wage workers everywhere – felt they couldn’t afford to save in the 401(k). A lack of knowledge about investing and a reluctance to give up control of their money seemed to frighten others out of saving, which meant forfeiting their employer’s matching contribution.
“It bothered me when I saw employees who’d been here five years and up and saw what small amounts they were investing,” she said. “Many lower-paid employees saved little or nothing.”
With her boss’ blessing, Zembower got to work.
Thomas Automotive is a mid-sized company with 280 full-time and part-time workers. Their earnings run the gamut, from employees in the service department earning $11 per hour (or about $23,000 per year) to car salespeople earning as much as $100,000, and Thomas Automotive’s owner, who has four dealerships in Pennsylvania and one in Maryland.
By doing the things retirement experts recommend, Zembower increased participation to 87 percent of employees, up from 53 percent. She did this by instituting automatic enrollment in the 401(k) at 4 percent of workers’ pay and auto-escalation, over time, of the amount saved. (Employees have the right to pull out or to maintain past contribution levels.) These techniques are far more common at large companies.
She goes further, re-enrolling all non-participating employees each April 1st, which requires them to revisit their decision before opting out of the retirement savings plan again. “We have a few employees who feel we don’t have the right to do this,” she said, “but we do.”
One gets the impression when interviewing Zembower that it is not what she’s done to make the 401(k) plan work better. It’s how she’s done it, with her gentle insistence that saving for retirement is best for the workers. Sometimes this means she’ll ask a worker to wipe off his greasy hands and look with her at the retirement calculator placed front and center on the employee page of the company website. …Learn More