April 2020

Unexpected Retirement Costs Can be Big

Four high cost eventsResourceful retirees usually weather the financial surprises that come their way. But a handful of unexpected health events can really hurt.

The death of a spouse is at the top of the list. Net worth drops by more than $30,000 over a couple of years as retirees pay for the extraordinary medical and other expenses surrounding a spouse’s death.

Two serious health conditions also deplete retirees’ assets: strokes and lung disease, which strike about one in five older Americans during their lifetimes, according to a National Bureau of Economic Research study funded by the U.S. Social Security Administration that tracked changes in the finances of people 65 and over.

Despite the presence of Medicare, a first-time stroke reduces a retired household’s average wealth by more than $25,000 – or 6 percent – and lung disease reduces it by about $29,000.

Net worth in this study includes financial assets and home equity minus debts.

These estimates of the cost of various events provide new information about a few of the many unknowns that go into retirement planning. Workers who may think they are saving enough to cover their routine retirement expenses don’t necessarily factor in medical and related costs that are difficult or impossible to predict.

Taken together, single and married retirees will use anywhere from 3 percent to 14 percent of their wealth to pay these unpredictable expenses. But wealthy retirees, who can afford first-rate care, spend much more than the average, while poor people, who have Medicaid to supplement their Medicare, spend very little. …Learn More

Fintech artwork

Fintech Lenders Discriminate Less

Do online financial companies give minorities a fair shake?

Researchers and consumers have found some early evidence that this fast-growing segment of the financial industry – Fintech – may be mitigating, though not eliminating, the legacy of discrimination that has been widely documented in the brick-and-mortar mortgage industry.

First came bank redlining, a conceptual line lenders drew around black neighborhoods. In a famous study, banks rejected black loan applicants more often than white borrowers with the same incomes. Lenders have also been found to discriminate by charging black borrowers higher interest rates for their mortgages.

Discrimination took a different form when subprime lending invaded the mortgage market prior to the 2008 financial collapse. Commissions to subprime loan brokers gave them an incentive to make as many loans as possible, and the high-interest-rate mortgages more often found their way into minority communities, even to the high-income people who could have qualified for regular mortgages.

But Fintech’s algorithms have improved the dynamics of lending for minority borrowers. The danger now is that the progress they have seen might be reversed as the pandemic batters the mortgage industry and loans dry up.

A November study by the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia found that Fintech lenders have made more loans in under-served minority and rural neighborhoods. The theory behind this is that old-style bankers discriminated against minorities because they met loan applicants face-to-face. Fintech’s computer algorithms, the argument goes, are blind to race, and loan approvals are more anchored in a borrower’s creditworthiness.

Economists at the University of California at Berkeley found more mixed but still promising results. FinTech lenders “do not discriminate at all in the decision to reject or accept a minority loan application,” the researchers concluded from an analysis of lending patterns.

But the other common form of discrimination against minority borrowers does exist: they are charged interest rates that are about one-tenth of a percentage point more than the rates charged to white borrowers. These higher rates cost African-American and Hispanic borrowers an estimated $765 million in extra interest annually. …Learn More

inequality art

COVID-19 Could Increase US Inequality

A growing number of Americans can’t pay their rent, and the queues forming outside food banks hint at human need on the scale of the Depression. For Americans who were already living paycheck to paycheck prior to the pandemic, the $1,200 relief checks the government has deposited into their bank accounts are too little and came too late.

Few are being spared the financial fallout from the COVID-19 economic contraction. But economists predict the damage being done to working and middle class people will cause another surge in U.S. inequality, just as the previous recession did.

The big unknown is whether this downturn, which is unfolding more violently than the previous one, will do even more damage to livelihoods and produce an even bigger increase in inequality. Some economists say the unemployment rate is approaching 20 percent – double the peak reached in 2009.

New York University’s Edward N. Wolff, who has studied inequality for decades, predicts wealth inequality will spike again within the next two years. In the last recession, wealthy people lost money in the stock market, but the middle class did much worse.

The typical U.S. household’s net worth – their assets minus their debts – plunged by 44 percent between 2007 and 2010. This ended a 15-year period of stability relative to wealthier households, pushing inequality to historic highs.

The vulnerability in middle America’s finances back then remains a vulnerability today: debt. The Federal Reserve Bank of New York was already reporting early signs of growing financial distress among credit card borrowers prior to the current contraction, and Wolff said that the ratio of debt to net worth in the middle class is currently higher than it is for other groups. This debt, when combined with a fall in investment portfolios and an expected decline in house prices, will push up wealth inequality, he said.

Another form of inequality – the disparity in incomes – widened after the last recession and Boston College economist Geoffrey Sanzenbacher worries that it will increase again. Between 2008 and 2018, the top 1 percent of U.S. families received nearly half of the increase in incomes for all U.S. families, adjusted for inflation. …Learn More

Self-Employment More Prevalent Over 65

Workers of all ages are being affected by the damage COVID-19 is doing to the economy, but people who are loosely attached to the labor force may be more vulnerable.

That’s the situation for a small but growing segment of the U.S. labor market: self-employed people who are 65 and older.

When workers are in their prime, most of them are directly on an employer’s payroll. But a new study finds that self-employment begins to dominate as people work past traditional retirement ages and work as independent contractors, consultants, freelancers, or gig workers.

Self-employment graphyThe detailed Gallup survey designed by the researchers shows that self-employment is more pervasive at older ages than previous data had indicated. Nearly half of all workers in their late 60s are self-employed, and that rises to more than two-thirds of workers in their late 70s. In contrast, only one-fourth of people in their late 50s are self-employed.

The Gallup survey was designed to capture self-employment more fully than the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) does. That’s because the researchers asked detailed questions designed to get a more complete count of the independent contractors who may mistakenly have failed to report themselves as self-employed to the BLS.

In the study, independent contractor is the most common form of self-employment at older ages. This is mainly the province of an elite group who are able and willing to continue working several years after most people have retired. They are often professionals or former managers who said their primary motivations for being self-employed are remaining active or pursuing an interest.

But even at the oldest ages, a significant minority of independent contractors are working mainly for the money. …Learn More

Fewer Choosing Annuities in TIAA Plan

Woman being carried by a dollarIn a 401(k) world, purchasing an annuity is one way to turn retirement savings into a reliable source of income. But annuities have never been popular.

Now, a new study finds they are losing appeal even among some employees who historically purchased annuities at much higher rates than the general public: members of the TIAA retirement savings plan – one of the nation’s largest. Until 1989, TIAA required that retirees convert their savings into annuities.

Even in 2000, one out of two participants putting money in TIAA would eventually take their first withdrawal in the form of one of the annuity options the plan offers to retirees.

But by 2017, this number had dropped to about one in five, according to an NBER study for the Retirement and Disability Research Consortium that followed some 260,000 employees with careers at universities, hospitals, and school systems.

The researchers identified two distinct groups in terms of their annuity activity.

The first group tended to have smaller account balances and started tapping annuities in their retirement plans prior to the age when retirees are subject to the IRS’s required minimum distribution (RMD), which was, at the time of the study, 70½. Over the period studied, annuity selections by the first group fell from 57 percent to 47 percent.

The second group – people who had larger balances and didn’t touch their retirement accounts until after the RMD kicked in – saw their annuitization rate plummet from 37 percent to just 6 percent of the participants. …Learn More

Golden eggs

More Cuts to 401k Matches are Coming

To conserve cash, some employers are suspending contributions to their workers’ 401(k)s. And if this downturn plays out like previous recessions, more will follow.

The handful of employers announcing suspensions in recent weeks include travel companies and retailers hit first and hardest by shrinking consumer demand, including Amtrak, Marriott Vacations Worldwide, the travel company Sabre, Macy’s, Bassett Furniture Industries, Haverty Furniture Companies, and La-Z-Boy.

Tenet Healthcare and a physician practice in Boston on the front lines of providing expensive coronavirus care have also suspended their matches. Employees, not surprisingly, are unhappy with these moves. An emergency room doctor told The Boston Globe that his organization’s decision comes as he is “working huge extra hours trying to scrape together [personal protective equipment] and otherwise brace for COVID-19.”

Employers are required to give their workers a 30-day notice and cannot stop the match prior to the 30-day period.

Suspending matching contributions has become somewhat of a recession tradition. In the months following the September 2008 market crash, more than 200 major companies rushed to do so, according to the Center for Retirement Research. The firms’ primary financial motivation was easing an immediate cash-flow constraint – not a concern about profits – the researchers found.

But cutting 401(k) contributions may be a small price to pay for mitigating layoffs, said Megan Gorman, a managing partner with Chequers Financial Management in San Francisco. “It might be a stop gap to help save the business in the long run,” she said. A typical employer matches 50 percent of employee contributions up to 6 percent of their salaries.

Amy Reynolds, a partner at Mercer Consulting, said the bigger danger for workers’ future retirement security is tapping their 401(k)s to pay their routine expenses in a tough economy. As part of the rescue package Congress passed in March, workers can withdraw up to $100,000 without paying the 10 percent penalty usually imposed on 401(k) withdrawals by people under 59½. “We want them to be thoughtful and consider other sources before they get to that,” Reynolds said. …Learn More

Social Security sign

Social Security Tapped More in Downturn

It happened after the 2001 and 2008-2009 recessions, and it will happen again. Some older workers who lose their jobs will turn, in desperation, to a ready source of cash: Social Security.

In the wake of a stock market crash like the one we just experienced, baby boomers’ first inclination will be to remain employed a few more years to make up some of the investment losses in their 401(k)s. But as the economy slows and layoffs mount, that may not be an option for many of the unemployed boomers, who will need to get income wherever they can find it.

Age 62 is the earliest that Social Security allows workers to start their retirement benefits. In 2009, one year after the stock market plummeted, 42.4 percent of 62-year-olds signed up for their benefits, up sharply from 37.6 percent in 2008, according to the Center for Retirement Research (CRR).

Social Security is a critical source of income even in good times. One out of two retirees receives half of their income from the program, and they can also count on it when times get tough.

But the financial cost of starting Social Security prematurely is steep, because it locks in a smaller monthly benefit for the rest of the retiree’s life. For those who can wait, the size of the monthly check increases an average 7 percent to 8 percent per year for each year claiming is delayed up until age 70.

Unfortunately, the people who claimed Social Security early in the wake of the 2001 recession had fewer financial resources to begin with – namely, their earnings were lower, they had less wealth, and they were less likely to have a spouse to fall back on – according to the CRR study.

“These simple characteristics suggest that those hardest hit by recessions are most likely to use Social Security as an income-insurance policy,” the researchers concluded. …Learn More