May 21, 2020
Lost Wealth Today vs the Great Recession
For older workers starting to think about retiring, the economic maelstrom the coronavirus set in motion is a reminder of that sinking feeling they experienced just over a decade ago.
In 2008, the stock market plunged nearly 40 percent, accelerating the steep decline that was underway in U.S. house prices. The unfolding 2020 recession is playing out differently. But both downturns have one thing in common: Social Security as a stabilizing influence on older workers’ retirement finances.
A 2011 study of the change in baby boomers’ finances during the Great Recession found that total wealth dipped by 2.8 percent, on average, between 2006 and 2010 for households between ages 51 and 56.
The 2.8 percent decline in wealth at the time was a significant setback for baby boomers. In more normal times, earlier generations had increased their wealth by 3 percent to 8 percent at comparable ages.
Nevertheless, things could have been so much worse for baby boomers were it not for the substantial wealth they had built up over several decades in their future Social Security benefits – an amount that is unaffected by the collapse of financial and housing markets. The average value of these future Social Security benefits was 30 percent of boomers’ wealth.
Wealth in the study also included home equity and retirement plan accounts.
This time around, it’s too early to determine the severity of the downturn’s effects on older workers. Unlike the previous recession, though, this one has had little impact on house prices so far, and the stock market, after sinking in March, has regained about half of its losses thanks to aggressive action by the Federal Reserve.
The major worry is unemployment. The jobless rate approached 15 percent in March – well above the 2009 peak of 10 percent – and economists expect it to keep rising.
But, in any recession, Social Security is a stabilizing force. Today, it represents a large share of older workers’ wealth just as it did a decade ago. And lower- and middle-income workers’ benefits are a much larger share of wealth, because they are far less likely to have substantial assets in 401(k)s. …Learn More
March 31, 2020
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
November 5, 2019
401k Balances are Far Below Potential
If a 60-year-old baby boomer started saving consistently at the beginning of his career back in the 1980s, he would have some $364,000 in his 401(k)s and IRAs today.
How much does he actually have? One-fourth of that, according to a new study from the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College (CRR).
One obvious explanation for the enormous gap is that the 401(k) system was in its infancy in the 1980s, and it took time for employers to widely adopt the plans and for young adults to get into the habit of saving for retirement.
Another likely reason is the large share of workers who do not have any type of employer-sponsored retirement plan. This coverage gap, which predates the introduction of 401(k)s, persists today and leaves about half of private-sector workers without a plan at any given point in time.
And this gap isn’t just a problem for baby boomers. A majority of young workers are not saving in a retirement plan, despite their advantage of having entered the labor force after the 401(k) system was more mature. …Learn More
August 1, 2019
A Proposal to Fill Your Retirement Gap
David and Debra S. both had successful careers. In analyzing their retirement finances, the couple agreed that he should wait until age 70 to start his Social Security in order to get the largest monthly benefit.
But he wanted to sell his business at age 69 and retire then, so the North Carolina couple used their savings to cover some expenses over the next year.
Waiting until 70 – the latest claiming age under Social Security’s rules – accomplished two things. In addition to ensuring David gets the maximum benefit, waiting guaranteed that Debra, who retired a few years ago, at 62, would receive the maximum survivor benefit if David were to die first.
Other baby boomers might want to consider using this strategy. As this blog frequently reminds readers, each additional year that someone waits to sign up for Social Security adds an average 7 percent to 8 percent to their annual benefit – and these yearly increments spill over into the survivor benefit.
Delaying Social Security is “the best deal in town,” said Steve Sass at the Center for Retirement Research, in a report that proposes baby boomers use the strategy to improve their retirement finances.
Here’s the rationale. Say, an individual wants a larger benefit. Instead of collecting $12,000 a year at age 65, he can wait until 66, which would increase his Social Security income to $12,860 a year, adjusted for inflation, with the increase passed along to his wife after his death (if his benefit is larger than his working wife’s own benefit). The cost of that additional Social Security income is the $12,000 the couple would have to withdraw from savings to pay their expenses while they delayed for that one year.
Social Security is essentially an annuity with inflation protection – and the payments last as long as a retiree does. So the $12,000 cost of increasing his Social Security benefit can be compared with cost of purchasing an equivalent, inflation-indexed annuity in the private insurance market. An equivalent insurance company annuity for a 65-year-old man, which begins paying immediately and includes a survivor benefit, would cost about $13,500. …Learn More
June 20, 2019
Index Fund Rise Coincides with 401k Suits
Employee lawsuits against their 401(k) retirement plans are grinding through the legal system, with mixed success. Many employers are beating them back, but there have also been some big-money settlements.
This year, health insurer Anthem settled a complaint filed by its employees for $24 million, Franklin Templeton Investments settled for $14 million, and Brown University for $3.5 million.
More 401(k) lawsuits were filed in 2016 and 2017 than during the 2008 financial crisis, and the steady drumbeat of litigation could be affecting how workers save and invest. For one thing, the suits have coincided with a dramatic increase in equity index funds, according to a report by the Center for Retirement Research. Last year, nearly one out of three U.S. stock funds were index funds, double the share 10 years ago.
Some see this change as positive. Many retirement experts believe that the best investment option for an inexperienced 401(k) investor is an index fund, which automatically tracks a specific stock market index, such as the S&P500. Federal law requires employers to invest 401(k)s for the “sole benefit” of their workers, and index funds usually charge lower fees and carry less risk of underperforming the market than actively managed funds – two issues at the heart of the lawsuits.
To avoid litigation – and to comply with recent regulatory changes – employers are also becoming more transparent about the fees their workers pay to the 401(k) plan record keeper and to the investment manager. This transparency may have had a beneficial effect: lower mutual fund fees, which translate to more money in workers’ accounts when they retire. The average fund fee is about one-half of 1 percent, down from three-fourths of 1 percent in 2009, according to Morningstar.
In short, these lawsuits appear to be changing how people invest and how much they pay in fees for their 401(k)s. …Learn More