Bars of gold

Billionaires Got Much Richer in Pandemic

In the COVID-19 downturn, this blog has had a steady supply of stories and statistics about the damage being done to low-income and middle-class families.

That’s one perspective on the pandemic. The growing billionaire class is another one.

Top 10 US billionairesSince last March, the nation’s 660 billionaires have added more than $1 trillion to their wealth – a 39 percent increase. Their combined net worth is now $4 trillion, which is nearly double the $2 trillion held by the 165 million Americans in the bottom half, according to the Institute for Policy Studies’ new report.

“It’s a troubling sign that too much of society’s wealth and income is flowing upwards to that small group of people,” Chuck Collins of the Institute for Policy Studies said during an interview on NPR’s Fresh Air.

The institute’s report is based on Forbes magazine’s annual estimates of the net worth of the world’s richest people.

Inequality has always been with us, but economists say it has grown as billionaires’ wealth has hit stratospheric levels.

To be sure, inequality would’ve been worse without the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. The $500 billion in direct assistance to families last spring prevented a surge in poverty, and the relief bill passed in late December is sending more aid to unemployed and under-employed people who need it.

The billionaires are getting richer for a couple reasons, starting with a surprisingly strong stock market in 2020. Despite the worst public health crisis in a century and a struggling economy, the Standard & Poor’s 500 stock index shot up 18 percent.

But some billionaires were also in the right place at the right time – a pandemic. …Learn More

Mortgage Paid Off

Readers See Pros, Cons to Paid-off Mortgage

Baby boomers love to discuss this age-old question: Should I pay off the mortgage before retiring?

Our blog readers fell into two camps in their comments on a recent article.

Some made an emotional argument – that a mortgage-free retirement makes them feel secure. The other camp argued that paying off the mortgage does not make financial sense.

The article, “Boomers Repairing their Mortgage Finances,” described research showing that boomers have sharply cut what they owe on their mortgages by paying extra in the years since the housing market bust. People naturally pay more of this debt as they age. But the boomers’ rapid payoffs partly explain why 40 percent to 50 percent of Americans in their 60s no longer have a mortgage, wiping out what is often a retiree’s largest single expense.

Despite the recent payoffs, boomers still trail their parents. Roughly 80 percent of the homeowners born in the 1930s had paid off their home loans by the same age, according to Jason Fichtner’s analysis for the Center for Financial Security at the University of Wisconsin.

As for whether to pay off the mortgage, many boomers don’t have that luxury. After the wave of foreclosures a decade ago, Fichtner found, the homeownership rate for 60-something boomers quickly slid more than 10 percentage points, to around 65 percent. The U.S. homeownership rate has increased in recent years but is still below the pre-recession peak.

The financial argument against paying off the mortgage was made in a blog comment by Tony Webb, a research economist at The New School. “At current interest rates and anticipated inflation rates, mortgage borrowing is almost free,” he wrote.

“All but the most risk-averse should load up on money while it’s on sale,” he said. [Full disclosure: Webb used to work at the Center for Retirement Research, which sponsors this blog.]

Another reader, Beth, said paying off the mortgage “is one cornerstone of a worry-free retirement.” However, she knows “several financially savvy people who for various valid reasons have not paid off their homes.” …Learn More

The Cares Act

CARES Act’s Loan Forbearance is Working

As the pandemic was sinking into our collective consciousness a year ago, Congress, fearing economic calamity, allowed Americans to temporarily halt their mortgage and student loan payments.

By the end of October – seven months after President Trump signed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act – Americans had postponed some $43 billion in debt, including car loans and credit cards, which many lenders deferred voluntarily. Billions more are still being added to the total amount in forbearance.

Fast action in Congress “resulted in substantial financial relief for households,” says a new study by researchers at some of the nation’s top business schools. Their recent analysis found that the assistance went where it was needed – to “financially vulnerable borrowers living in regions that experienced the highest COVID-19 infection rates and the greatest deterioration in their economic conditions.”

When lenders grant forbearance they agree to waive their customers’ debt payments for a specified period of time. For example, Congress said borrowers could request that their payments on federally backed mortgages be deferred by six months to a year.

Although forbearance was less visible than the checks taxpayers also received under the CARES Act, the financial lift was equally potent. Customers who received loan forbearance saved an average of $3,200 just on their mortgages last year – this compares with $3,400 in stimulus checks for a family of four.

Congress also automatically suspended all payments on federal student loans, saving borrowers an average $140 last year, and President Biden has just extended the forbearance until at least Oct. 1. Lenders, in an attempt to prevent massive loan defaults on their books, voluntarily gave consumers a break last year on two types of loans that weren’t part of the CARES Act: automobile loans ($430 saved) and credit cards ($70 saved).

Forbearance is only temporary relief, because the missed payments will eventually have to be made up. But in a telling indication that borrowers didn’t want to fall behind, just a third of the people who asked for debt relief actually used it. In these cases, forbearance “acts as a credit line” borrowers can draw on – if they really need it. …Learn More

The Cares Act

Wisconsin Finds Owners of Lost Pensions

Some people lose old retirement accounts because they forget about them. Others don’t want the hassle required to retrieve small amounts. And workers who change jobs fairly often can leave a lot of small accounts in their wake.

As a result, millions of dollars of retirement wealth – in pensions, 401(k)s, IRAs, profit-sharing plans, and annuities – sit in state repositories of unclaimed property.

So how can workers and retirees be united with their long-lost money?

To answer this question, a new study contrasts what has happened to unclaimed retirement accounts in two states with vastly different approaches to handling them: Wisconsin and Massachusetts.

Wisconsin in 2015 began to use Social Security numbers to automatically match up and return misplaced retirement accounts to their owners. As long as the account has a Social Security number attached to it, the state can find a resident’s current contact information in Wisconsin’s taxpayer records.

Under this system, two-thirds of the accounts were returned in 2016 and 2017, the researchers found.

Over the same two years in Massachusetts, only 3.4 percent of unclaimed retirement accounts were returned to their owners. Massachusetts takes the same passive approach used in most states: individuals must initiate the process by locating an account in the state’s unclaimed property database and then retrieve it themselves.

The University of Wisconsin study also uncovered an explanation for why some people are motivated to track down accounts on their own. …Learn More

Teacher teaching a class

Smaller Pensions Don’t Spur More Saving

Most state and local governments provide their employees with traditional pensions, which are nice to have. But not all pensions are equally generous.

The monthly benefits vary from one place to the next, and some governments have cut costs by reducing pensions for their newest hires. Further, one in four public-sector workers aren’t currently covered by Social Security, because their employers never joined the system.

A logical back-up plan for these workers would be to contribute money to the supplemental savings plans that most public-sector employers provide. When the workers retire, they can add the money saved in their accounts – a 401(k), 401(a), 457 or 403(b) – to their pension benefits.

But researchers at the Center for Retirement Research (CRR) find that workers are only slightly more likely to participate in a savings plan if they work for government employers with less generous pensions – a criterion based on how much of the worker’s current income will be replaced by the pension after they retire.

This lackluster response may not be surprising. Workers can see what’s deducted from their paychecks every week but don’t necessarily understand how these deductions – combined with their employer’s contributions – will translate to a pension.

Public-sector workers are probably more aware of whether their employers are part of the Social Security system. But apparently workers don’t consider that either. …Learn More

ACA Eased the Financial Burden on Families

Woman and baby at the doctors

The Affordable Care Act (ACA) has reduced families’ medical costs significantly.

The ACA’s main goal was to provide coverage for the first time to workers who lack employer health insurance. But the expansion of free or subsidized health care to millions of parents with low and modest incomes has improved their financial stability and freed up money for their families’ other critical needs, concluded a new University of California at Davis study.

The main way the ACA expanded coverage was by giving states the option of providing Medicaid to workers earning up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level. The law also increased the number of children with health insurance, because federal and state outreach during the Medicaid expansion raised parents’ awareness of two separate insurance programs that had long been available to children: Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program. To help families with modest incomes, the health care law put a cap on their annual medical spending.

Prior to the ACA’s passage, out-of-pocket medical costs were a high financial burden for 15 percent of U.S. families. That has fallen to about 10 percent of families in the years since passage, the researchers said.

What qualifies as a high cost burden depends on the family’s income. One example: the researchers determined that a family earning $75,000 had a high cost burden if they paid more than 8.35 percent of their income for out-of-pocket deductibles and copayments.

However, the study is not a current picture of the situation, because it was based on data from health care spending surveys in 2000 through 2017, prior to the pandemic. During the past year, millions of people were laid off and lost their employer health insurance when they may need it most.

But the ACA’s benefits are clear, the researchers said. Another aspect of the reform was to allow workers who earn too much to qualify for Medicaid to purchase subsidized private health insurance on the state exchanges. The law capped the total that workers spend on health care – once they reach the cap, their care is fully covered. …Learn More

New York during COVID-19

Struggling Workers’ Financial Woes Mount

The COVID-19 economy is really a tale of two worlds.

The stock market and housing market have largely shrugged off the economic slowdown. But severe financial problems are brewing for millions of workers who have lost their jobs or are earning less in a lackluster economy.

The assistance passed by Congress will certainly help. Still, half of all workers reported in a Transamerica Institute survey late last year that they are experiencing at least one employment disruption, whether a layoff, reduced work hours, shrinking paychecks and commissions, or an early retirement. A crisis also looms for thousands of renters if the Centers for Disease Control allows its eviction moratorium to expire at the end of this month.

Paying taxes is another big worry. When the pandemic struck and unemployment spiked last spring, the IRS postponed the deadline for filing federal taxes by three months, to July 15.

COVID-19 hasn’t gone away – and neither has concern about paying taxes. More than half of taxpayers said they might have to borrow money to pay their 2020 taxes this April, according to a LendEdu survey last month.

Other aspects of Americans’ financial problems were captured in two more surveys about the pandemic’s impact:

The Millennials who are still saddled with student loans have struggled for years to pay their other living expenses. The COVID-19 relief bill gave them a respite by suspending their monthly payments for most of 2020, and the U.S. Department of Education extended that at least through January. But one financial problem has been replaced by others for the young adults who are unemployed or earning less.

About one in five people in their late 20s and 30s reported in a 2020 survey by Georgetown University’s business school that the pandemic forced them to take a variety of stopgap financial measures. These have included dipping into retirement funds, delaying or reducing credit card payments, and getting food and rental assistance from non-profits. …Learn More