Posts Tagged "COVID-19"

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 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

Art of a large group of people

Privilege in the Age of the Coronavirus

I appreciate how privileged my husband and I are that we are able to remain in our home, where we feel fairly safe.

He is a retired Boston high school teacher. I have a good job that also provides me with some degree of flexibility when needed, and my boss didn’t resist, because of my autoimmune condition, when I asked to work at home early last week.

A young couple in my condo building with a new baby fled last weekend to a relative’s house in rural Connecticut, where the husband will be able to telecommute to his high-paying job in Boston.

Yes, our 401(k)s are getting pummeled. But this national crisis is immediate and far more consequential for the millions of Americans who must work even in a pandemic. Workers have two concerns, and they are intertwined: health and money.

Think about the first responders, service-industry workers, or post office employees who are in contact with the public, constantly exposing themselves and, as a result, their families to the coronavirus.

Low-income people are also very vulnerable. Research shows that they are less healthy for reasons ranging from less access to employer health insurance to higher rates of smoking and obesity. Diabetes is more pervasive in low-income populations too.

Yet public health officials tell us that people with underlying conditions are far more vulnerable to getting seriously ill if they contract the virus – and these are the same people who usually don’t have the luxury to telecommute. Many low-income workers also live in crowded conditions, often with older relatives in fragile health.

Many workers are grappling with the realization that the economy is starting to slow down – and they will be the first to feel it. Consider the cleaning ladies or dog walkers whose clients are asking them not to come to the house this week or the servers at the restaurants shutting down in Manhattan, Massachusetts, Illinois, and across the nation. …Learn More

Market Drops Hit Those Who Don’t Invest

Photo of the cast of Sweat

Photo by T. Charles Erickson

How fitting that I would see the play “Sweat” on Feb. 28 – a Friday night at the end of a week in which the stock market dropped 12 percent and the specter of recession reared its ugly head.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning “Sweat” – I saw the Boston revival – is about the havoc the boom-bust economy and falling financial markets wreak on working people’s employment security and their personal lives. In fact, the timeline of the play is bracketed by 2000, when the stock market crashed, and 2008, when it crashed again.

At the beginning of each scene, a voice-over broadcasts the day’s bad financial news. The stock market never crosses the lips of the characters in the play, which is set in a local bar that is the social center of the working class town of Reading, Pennsylvania. Their chief concern is the fate of their jobs at the steel tubing plant. But the unspoken stock market is an invisible character shaping their plight.

Playwright Lynn Nottage got her inspiration for “Sweat” during visits to Reading over 2½ years. Two female characters and each of their sons work at the plant – very typical of a factory town. The bartender used to work there until he injured his leg. An immigrant who is a busboy at the bar briefly gets a shot at the American dream as a scab worker when the company locks the union out of the plant. There is tension between the immigrant and the long-time residents, and between the assembly line workers and the one worker who is promoted to management. But in the end, all of their lives are tragically upended by the plant closing.

Factories began shutting down in the 1980s, in part because U.S. manufacturers learned they could hire workers at much lower wages overseas. But manufacturing’s long-term decline was perpetuated by the 2001 recession, which was triggered by a market drop, and a second recession that began with the 2008 market collapse.

Which brings us to 2020. …Learn More