Black Families Struggle to Build Wealth

It is extremely difficult for black Americans to accumulate wealth they can pass on to their children.

Getting to the heart of this concern is new research by the Urban Institute. The Washington think tank found that while blacks excel at converting the gifts and inheritances they receive into even more wealth, the size and frequency of these bequests are much smaller than for whites, perpetuating a wealth gap that has existed since emancipation.

“In the news, you hear about the racial income gap, but the racial wealth gap is so much larger, and it’s not improving,” said Signe-Mary McKernan, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute and co-author of the new study. Smaller inheritances and gifts in African-American families “are hindering their opportunity and wealth accumulation,” she said, about her findings.

Median wealth for black families is $18,181 – white family wealth is $122,927, and Hispanic wealth is $33,619.

But the real question is, why is white wealth seven times larger than black wealth? The researchers found that blacks are five times less likely to receive family bequests than are whites, and their inheritances are $5,013 smaller.

McKernan’s research employed standard statistical methods by holding factors such as income and education constant in order to highlight the racial aspect of differences in wealth.

But Lester Spence, a political science professor at Johns Hopkins University who sometimes conducts statistical analysis in his research, said such analysis fails to fully capture the significant impact of factors such as the social and cultural barriers facing black Americans. …Learn More

Overconfidence Linked to Senior Fraud

The seniors who are most confident of their knowledge about money and investments are also the most likely to fall victim to fraud.

That conclusion, by Chicago researchers at DePaul University and the Rush University Medical Center, is among the first to explain the underlying reason for an alarming trend being detected by law enforcement and financial experts: a rise in fraud committed against an enormous and rapidly aging baby boom generation.

Fraud against the elderly can arise from “that combination of not knowing but thinking you know,” Keith Gamble, an assistant finance professor in DePaul’s Driehaus College of Business, said in an interview in which he explained his new study. “That’s what we call overconfidence,” which he and his co-authors determined was “a risk factor for being victimized by fraud.”

The U.S. incidence of fraud has exploded in recent years. Complaints of financial fraud compiled by the Federal Trade Commission surged more than 60 percent in just three years, to 1.5 million last year.

There is growing concern nationwide that boomers, due to what can be a dangerous combination of cognitive decline and having some money socked away for retirement, are extremely vulnerable to con men peddling financial products that make big promises and deliver nothing – or, worse, rob retirees of money they need to live comfortably or even survive.

Declining cognition is associated with lower financial literacy – that’s nothing new. The concern is that seniors do not recognize the problem, Gamble said. “They are actually more confident in their financial decision-making capabilities. The problem is they don’t have the decision-making ability they once had.”

The Chicago researchers focused on seniors who have not acquired actual dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. Rather, they examined whether fraud could be linked to the cognitive decline that is a natural part of aging. …Learn More

College Educated Take On More Debt

Americans with college degrees are more likely to overuse their credit cards, home equity loans and other debts than are people who didn’t attend college, according to research in the latest International Journal of Consumer Studies.

“I was really expecting the reverse,” Sherman Hanna, a professor of consumer sciences at Ohio State University in Columbus, said about the results of his research, conducted in conjunction with Ewha Womans University in Seoul and the University of Georgia in Athens.

The study also reveals the increasing fragility of Americans’ finances, particularly in the run-up to the 2008 financial crisis when overall debt levels surged amid what Hanna called a “democratization of credit” that made it easier – critics said too easy – to borrow.

The percent of all U.S. households with monthly debt payments exceeding 40 percent of their pretax income rose from 18 percent in 1992 to 27 percent in 2007. (Consumers have slashed their debt during the recent recession.)

Based on education levels, Americans with a bachelor’s or graduate degree had more than a 32 percent likelihood of being heavily in debt. That compared with 24.5 percent for people who graduated from high school and did not attend college, according to the study, which tracked U.S. households from 1992 through 2007. To make their comparison, the researchers controlled for the effect of incomes.

The researchers designated households in their sample as being heavily in debt if their monthly loan payments and other debt obligations exceeded 40 percent of their pretax income. That is a high share of income to devote every month to paying off loans, rather than buying groceries, saving for retirement, or utilities…Learn More

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401(k) Fund Choices: Less is More

New research suggests that the more mutual funds your 401(k) offers, the more likely you are to take the easy way out to escape the mental gridlock.

The typical 401(k) has seven mutual fund investment options, but some have as many as 21 funds. We may think we like choices, but behavioral research has shown that people simply can’t handle so many options – that’s why some employers have turned to auto enrollment in their 401(k)s or picking investments for workers who can’t or won’t make the decision.

A new study building on prior research finds that the more investment options an employee has the more likely he or she is to simply divide the money evenly among those options. This can potentially reduce the diversification in employees’ retirement portfolios, with long-term consequences.

“We find that considering a larger number of funds to invest in may be overwhelming for many investors,” said the research, by Gergana Nenkov and colleagues at Boston College, as well as Rutgers University, the University of Pittsburgh, and the University of Texas, Austin. Splitting the money evenly is how we cope.

“We just don’t have enough capacity to sift through the options that are out there,” Nenkov explained in an interview. Employees aren’t financial experts, and asking them to make these decisions is often “too much,” she said, and may even be “making us unhappy.”

The focus is on 401(k) choices in this study, recently published in the Journal of Marketing Research, But the argument may apply to the proliferation of all kinds of complex financial products, including credit cards charging different rates for balance transfers, purchases and cash advances, as well as debit cards with hidden fees and mortgages with complicated terms.

Multiple products act to prevent consumers from comparison shopping. But the demise of the defined benefit plan and the sudden responsibility thrown on employees to manage tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars in their personal investment portfolios is clearly more than many of us can handle. Don’t feel bad either – Nenkov, who has a PhD in marketing, admits to feeling overwhelmed by the choices. (As does this blog writer.) …Learn More

It Pays More Than Ever To Delay

Single people can receive tens of thousands more from Social Security over many years of retirement and couples can receive nearly $125,000 more by waiting until their late 60s to sign up.

The most common age for starting up Social Security is 62, when individuals first become eligible, even though monthly benefit checks would rise sharply if they’d wait. But it’s becoming increasingly worthwhile financially to hold out, according to economist Sita Nataraj Slavov of the American Enterprise Institute, who presented her research findings at the Retirement Research Conference in Washington last month.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This contradicts the conventional wisdom that no matter when people file, they’re going to essentially receive the same total amount over their entire retirement. The trade-off has always been between filing early and receiving a smaller check for a longer period of time, or filing later and receiving a bigger check for fewer years. Financially, it’s a wash.

But an economic fluke has changed all that: historically low interest rates. Slavov and co-author John Shoven, a Stanford University economist, have determined that, increasingly, there’s a payoff to holding out in this unusual rate environment. (More later on how that works.)

“There’s real money at stake here. This is not a trivial amount for most people,” Slavov said in a telephone interview. “What we’re trying to communicate is, it’d be good to think more about what you’re giving up when you claim early.”

At Squared Away’s request, Slavov calculated the present values for retirees who file for Social Security at the age at which they would maximize their benefits – she did so for the average single man, single woman, and two-earner couple. The payoff is largest for married couples who delay filing for benefits: …Learn More

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401(k) Tax Break May Be Weak Incentive

The typical American household approaching retirement age had just $42,000 saved in its 401(k) in 2010. This raises the question: Does the federal tax incentive designed to spur savings even work?

In what one retirement expert called “landmark” research, a new study has found that employers’ automatic enrollment and other employee mandates are far more effective ways to increase retirement savings than the federal tax exemption granted for retirement-fund contributions.

Harvard University Professors Raj Chetty and John Friedman, together with Soren Leth-Petersen and Torben Nielsen at the University of Copenhagen, tested the impact of both types of incentives on an enormous sample of 4.3 million people in Denmark. Chetty said the findings also hold implications for the United States.

They found that every $1 increase mandated for retirement savings – in this case, by a temporary Danish policy that required workers to contribute 1 percent of their earnings to government pension savings accounts – spurred 86 cents in additional savings by individuals. In contrast, the Danish government’s tax subsidy, which is very much like our own 401(k) tax break, spurred only 20 cents more in savings.

“This is a landmark study,” Dartmouth College professor Jonathan Skinner said about the paper, presented during the Retirement Research Consortium’s conference in Washington in early August. “I can’t emphasize enough how important this study is in terms of how retirement policies work.” …Learn More

Less Smoking Trumps More Obesity

Smoking cigarette

Since the 1950s and 1960s, the number of cigarettes smoked in the United States has plummeted by one-half but the number of obese Americans has tripled.

So which megatrend has a greater impact on U.S. health and life expectancy? Remarkably, the winner is the positive effect of the decline in smoking. And the additional longevity, as fewer Americans light up, will continue to play out at least through 2040, according to new research.

“The advantages of smoking reductions are expected to outweigh the disadvantages of increases in obesity for both sexes,” according to findings by University of Pennsylvania sociologist Samuel Preston and his colleagues at UPenn’s Population Studies Center and at Emory University’s Department of Global Health.

The declining popularity of smoking has driven down deaths due to lung cancer to 18 percent of all U.S. deaths. But currently obesity is nearly running neck and neck, causing 16 percent of all deaths.

“We have a horse race going on,” said Christopher Ruhm of the University of Virginia’s Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy, who commented on Preston’s paper at the Retirement Research Consortium’s conference in Washington earlier this month. “The winner of the horse race is that the smoking effect is going to dominate.” (The Center for Retirement Research, which sponsors this blog, is a consortium member.)

Estimates of longevity, in this particular case, should be viewed with caution. The mortality impact isn’t easy to calculate, Ruhm and Preston said, because many conflicting things are going on at the same time. For example, although obesity is rising, cholesterol-lowering statins and blood pressure medications are reducing the risk that any individual will die from obesity. …Learn More

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