March 3, 2020
Pre-Retirement Debt is Rising Over Time
Baby boomers have a lot more debt than their parents did.
By all accounts, the parents were in pretty good shape for retirement because they held their debt levels down to a mere 4 percent of their total assets in the years immediately before retiring – ages 56 to 61 – according to a new study.
At those same ages, the typical baby boomers’ debt has ranged from 19 percent to 23 percent of their assets, thanks in large part to the 2008 drop in stock portfolios and in the housing market.
Generational trends in debt levels are difficult to analyze, and the issue is far from settled among researchers. This study notes, for example, that the situation might not be as grim as the rising debt indicates.
The broad numbers hide the positive step boomers have taken – just as earlier generations did – to reduce their debt as they moved through their 50s. And although the younger boomers have fewer assets than older boomers had at that stage of life, the younger boomers are also working to improve their finances by paying down their mortgages at an accelerated pace.
But the analysis also uncovered another troubling trend for the baby boomers born in the middle of the demographic wave: about 10 percent of them had more debt during their late 50s than their assets were worth. When their parents were that age, some of the most indebted of them still had more assets than debts.
In his study, Jason Fichtner of Johns Hopkins University compared debt-to-asset ratios for five different age groups, starting with the boomers’ parents, who were born during the Great Depression, and running through the people who were born toward the tail end of the baby boom. The chart above is a financial snapshot of rising debt-to-asset ratios for each group when they were between ages 56 and 61. …Learn More
October 15, 2019
Does Increased Debt Offset 401k Savings?
Roughly half of U.S. employers with a 401(k) plan enroll their workers automatically, deducting money from their paychecks for retirement unless they explicitly opt out of this arrangement. This strategy is widely viewed as a good way to get people to save.
But auto-enrollment might not be as effective as it seems, if individuals are compensating for a smaller paycheck by borrowing more.
A new study of civilian employees of the U.S. Army used credit and payroll data to gauge whether debt increased for employees who were automatically enrolled in the federal government’s retirement savings plan. The researchers compared changes in debt levels for people hired after the government’s 2010 adoption of auto-enrollment with hires prior to 2010.
The good news is that since the broadest debt category, which includes high-rate credit cards, did not increase, it did not offset the employees’ accumulated contributions. Their credit reports showed no increase in financial distress either, the study concluded.
However, the findings for car and home loans were ambiguous, so auto-enrollment “may raise these latter types of debt,” said the researchers, who are affiliated with NBER’s Retirement and Disability Research Center.
If workers are, in fact, borrowing more, the question, again, is whether the new debt is offsetting the additional savings under auto-enrollment. Auto and home loans – in contrast to credit cards – are used to finance an asset that has long-term value. Whether these forms of debt improve or erode net worth depends on the asset’s value and whether the value rises (say, a house in a growing city) or falls (a car after it’s driven off the lot).
The researchers did not have access to data on federal workers’ assets, which they would need to see what’s happening to their net worth. This remains an important question for future research. …Learn More