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

Art of someone gaining weight

Our Parents Were Healthier at Ages 54-60

Baby boomers aren’t as healthy as their parents were at the same age.

This sobering finding comes out of a RAND study that took a series of snapshots over a 24-year period of the health status of Americans when they were between the ages of 54 and 60.

The researchers found that overall health has deteriorated in this age group, and they identified the specific conditions that are getting worse, including diabetes, pain levels, and difficulty performing routine daily activities.

Obesity is an overarching problem: the share of people in this age group with class II obesity, which puts them at very high risk of diabetes, tripled to 15 percent between 1992 and 2016.

In addition to declining health, the study for the Retirement and Disability Research Consortium uncovered strong evidence of growing health disparities among 54 to 60-year-olds: the poorest people are getting sicker faster than people with more wealth.

The increase in women’s pain levels has been starkest over the past 24 years. The wealthiest women have seen an increase of 6 percentage points in the share experiencing moderate to severe pain from conditions like joint or back pain. But the poorest women saw a 21-point leap. The disparity for men was also large: up 7 points for the wealthiest men versus 15 points for the poorest men.

The bottom line: today’s 54 to 60-year-olds are not as healthy as their parents were, and the study suggests that the disparities between rich and poor will continue to grow.

To read this study, authored by Peter Hudomiet, Michael D. Hurd, and Susann Rohwedder, see “Trends in Health and Mortality in the United States.”Learn More

Art of a thumbs up and heart

1st Quarter: Our Most Popular Blogs

People born smack in the middle of the baby boom wave, including many of this blog’s readers, are now in their mid-60s and have retired – or, at least, they were planning to retire before the stock market crashed.

Some of your favorite articles in the first quarter, based on the blog’s traffic, were about the nuts-and-bolts of retirement, including one that ranked retiree living standards by state.

The 10 most popular blogs listed below ran before the coronavirus changed our lives but they may still hold kernels of wisdom that will be useful in these trying times.

For example, one article reported on the $38 million in misplaced retirement funds from prior employers. If you think you have a long-lost retirement plan, search the unclaimed property account in the state where you worked.

Or, if you’d already committed to retiring before the market drop, it’s become more important to fashion a satisfying lifestyle. One blog explores how to prepare for retirement.

Our readers’ most popular blogs in the first quarter were:

Have You Misplaced a Retirement Plan?

Can’t Afford to Retire? Not all Your Fault

Mapping Out a Fulfilling Retirement

Most Older Americans Age in their HomesLearn More

Art saying Now what?

Boomers Facing Tough Financial Decisions

For baby boomers who thought they were on the path to retirement, the road is shifting beneath their feet.

Danielle Harrison, a financial planner in Columbia, Missouri, sees a raft of problems stemming from the COVID-19-induced economic slowdown.

Many older workers getting close to retirement age are taking big hits to nest eggs that were already too small. Some boomers who lacked pensions and were behind on saving tried in recent years to make up for lost time with a riskier portfolio in the rising stock market – now they’re experiencing the downside of that risk. Others are scrambling to pay expenses or maintain debt payments as their income drops, altering their financial security now and changing their calculations for the future.

“It’s really going to hurt people,” said Harris, who believes that some baby boomers who had planned to retire in the near-term may be rethinking those plans.

And she’s talking about the boomers who still have jobs. The layoffs have already begun and will continue. Economists estimate GDP will contract in the second quarter at an unprecedented 10 percent to 24 percent annual rate.

Evan Beach, a financial planner in Alexandria, Virginia, predicted that “People are going to get fired, and the people who get fired are not the 25-year-olds making $60,000. They’re going to be the 50- and 60-year-olds making $120,000.”

The economic stimulus package Congress passed last week could help, because it was designed to mitigate some job losses by extending loans to businesses that preserve their payrolls. It will do nothing to repair investment portfolios, however.

Beach and other financial advisers worry that panic decisions in this tumultuous time will only make things worse for boomers who, now more than ever, need to preserve their retirement resources.

Just as they did in the years after the 2008 financial market crash, some unemployed boomers will pound the pavement for a job and will scrape by – through odd jobs, short-term contracts, and unemployment benefits – rather than be forced into a premature retirement.

But Beach anticipates that many of them may have no other option than to claim their Social Security – the program’s earliest claiming age is 62. The problem with starting Social Security now is that it would permanently lock in a smaller monthly check. This goes against a central tenet of retirement planning, which is that many people would be better off delaying the date they sign up to increase a retirement benefit they will need for the rest of their lives.

Beach conceded, however, that claiming the smaller benefit now is not irrational for a couple with one laid-off spouse, only $2,000 in income, and $3,000 in expenses. If the laid-off spouse can start getting $1,000 from Social Security, he said, “that’s not irrational. That’s desperate.” …Learn More

A sculpture looking shameful

Money Shame Surfaces in Tough Times

It’s easy to overlook the emotions that swirl around money. But they often come to the surface when our financial security is thrown into question.

The spread of the coronavirus has kicked Americans’ financial anxieties into high gear, a Kaiser Family Foundation poll found last week. More than half of the workers who were surveyed fear they will lose income when their workplace is closed or their hours are reduced.

Reduced income is hitting low-wage, part-time and hourly workers hardest and fastest. But even among people with more financial resources, more than half are concerned they’ll have to dip into retirement savings or college funds.

Even when financial problems stem from events that are outside of an individual’s control, a feeling of shame can take over. Shame is the thread running through three TED videos that explore the emotions around money.

With economists increasingly predicting a recession in the wake of the virus, it might be useful to keep in mind the insights and coping mechanisms discussed by the speakers in these videos.

Shame is that “intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed … based on our bank account balances, our debts, our homes, or our job titles,” Tammy Lally explains in the first video.

Lally, a financial coach, believes her brother was driven to suicide by his shame about his bankruptcy filing earlier that same day. She said she was judgmental at first but, after encountering financial problems of her own, came to a better understanding of the intense pressures her brother was feeling.

Lally’s and her brother’s shame around money was rooted in their childhood, she said: the siblings learned from their parents that money would make them happy. “We internalized that into the money belief that our self-worth was equal to our net worth.”

As the coronavirus pummels the stock market and slows the economy, many workers are feeling under enormous financial pressures. But Thasunda Duckett, who runs the consumer division of a major bank, said in a second video that people only compound the pressures when they blame themselves.

“We have a fraught relationship with money, because it comes with judgment,” she said.

Duckett and Lally both recommend one thing people can do if they’re experiencing money issues. To overcome some of the shame and anxiety requires letting the burden go by talking openly with others about money – you will quickly learn that you are not alone.

“Money can no longer be a taboo topic,” Lally said.

In 2007, a year before the financial crisis hit, Elizabeth White, a Harvard Business School graduate and one-time international consultant, was tumbling into “economic freefall.” …Learn More