Posts Tagged "financial"

balancing balls

Social Security: Time for an Update?

The option to start Social Security benefits at any age from 62 to 70 – with an actuarial adjustment – is a key feature of the program. However, the adjustments – reductions in the monthly benefit for claiming early and increases for waiting – are decades old and do not reflect improvements in longevity or other important developments over time.

The option to claim early was introduced just over 60 years ago, when Congress set 62 as the program’s earliest eligibility age. The option to claim between 65 and 70 on an actuarially fair basis stems from the 1983 Social Security amendments, which gradually increased the annual “delayed retirement credit” from 3 percent to 8 percent. Also in 1983, reductions for early claiming were changed in tandem with the gradual increase in the full retirement age from 65 to 67.

The goal of actuarial adjustments to the monthly benefits has always been to ensure that retirees with average life expectancy could expect to get the same total lifetime benefits, regardless of when they started. But calculating lifetime benefits requires assumptions about how long people will live and assumptions about interest rates. The current calculations are based on life expectancy and interest rates in the early 1960s or 1980s.

Much has changed since those dates: life expectancy has increased dramatically and interest rates have declined. Longer life expectancy and, to a lesser extent, lower interest rates would each call for a smaller penalty for early claiming and a smaller reward for delaying claiming.

Consider what this means for baby boomers whose full retirement age is 67. Under the current system, if they claim at 62, they receive 70 percent of their age-67 benefit. However, to reflect decades of increasing life spans and falling interest rates, the researchers calculated that the accurate monthly benefit would be 77.5 percent of the age-67 benefit. That is, early claimers are penalized too much.

For workers who delay claiming, a discrepancy also exists between the current and accurate delayed retirement credits, though the difference is smaller since the credit was initially too small. Specifically, workers who wait until 70 to start Social Security today receive 124 percent of the benefit they would’ve gotten at 67, whereas 120 percent of the age-67 benefit would be more accurate. …Learn More

401k Plans Evolve to Boost Workers’ Savings

Many employees in the private sector, when left to their own devices, either save very little in the company retirement savings plan or don’t even sign up for it.

But a growing number of companies have revamped their 401(k)-style plans over the past two decades to strengthen the incentives for employees to save. While progress has been gradual and uneven, the companies are moving in the right direction.

In a new study, researchers have compiled a unique nationally representative data set that tracks the changes employers have made to their 401(k)s and 403(b)s. The findings describe three important areas in which they are making progress:

  • About 41 percent of the largest 4,200 U.S. employers in this study automatically enrolled workers in a savings plan in 2017 – up sharply from 2 percent in 2003. Workers can still opt out but the vast majority remain in the plans.
  • Similar improvements were also evident in the study’s broader sample of employers of all sizes. In 2017, about a third of all companies had auto-enrollment, compared to virtually none in 2003.
  •  Among companies with auto-enrollment, about 44 percent of the large employers and half of the overall sample are automatically increasing their workers’ contributions.
  • Contributions to the plans are generally rising too.

The researchers credited some of the improvements to the Pension Protection Act. The 2006 law explicitly allowed companies to automatically enroll employees in savings plans and also established a minimum standard for the level of employer contributions made by companies that adopt auto-enrollment. …Learn More

Silhouette of a detective with glasses

$4 Billion in Pension Payments Returned

It’s the employer’s responsibility to find former employees and keep them apprised of any retirement benefits they left behind.

But that hasn’t always worked out. Some employers don’t have former workers’ current contact information, and others don’t bother to track them down. Worst-case scenarios are often fallout from a merger: the company being acquired has kept shoddy pension plan records and the acquirer doesn’t update them.  Some companies have even deleted a participant’s name from the records.

Tyler Compton, an attorney with the Pension Action Center, which connects workers with lost pensions and 401(k) savings plans, said people frequently contact a former employer because they think they might have a plan. But if the worker is told he’s not in the records, he might drop the matter, she said.

The U.S. Department of Labor decided several years ago that employers’ efforts weren’t good enough. The department’s Employee Benefits Security Administration (EBSA) began investigating the problem and pushing companies to improve their methods for finding workers who had quit or been laid off but were owed pension benefits or had savings sitting in an old 401(k).

EBSA has gotten results. Since 2017, more than $4 billion in past due defined benefit pension payments have been returned to millions of plan participants.

By making clear what is expected of employers, regulators “put a lot of pressure, in a good sense, on plan administrators to really up their games,” Jeffrey Holdvogt, a legal partner with McDermott Will & Emery, said in a recent webinar hosted by the Pension Action Center at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. …Learn More

No-Benefit Jobs Better than Retiring Early

Woman in taxiMany workers in their 60s lose some of their stamina. Either their bodies start showing signs of wear, or they don’t tolerate on-the-job stress like they used to.

People who find themselves in this situation but can’t afford to retire will appreciate the findings in a recent study: older workers who transition to a new job – and perhaps a less demanding one – have greatly improved their retirement finances, even if the new job lacks health and retirement benefits.

The starting point for the analysis was to identify 61- and 62-year-olds employed in career jobs and follow the changes in their retirement finances over time, as they break into three groups. Some retired, some remained in longstanding jobs with benefits, and some found no-benefit jobs, whether with an employer or as an independent contractor.

Matt Rutledge and Gal Wettstein at the Center for Retirement Research compared each group’s retirement prospects in their early 60s with where they ended up years later, after the majority of them had retired. The focus was on the people who, at 62, were falling short of what they would need to retire comfortably.

The financial assessments were based on so-called replacement rates – estimated retirement income as a percentage of employment earnings. The average target required for financial security in old age is about 75 percent of past earnings, though the precise number depends on how much the individual earned.

The researchers estimated replacement rates for the 62-year-olds who fell short of the targets and estimated the rates again when they were 67 or 68. Retirement security improved over time for the under-prepared people who continued to work – in contrast to an erosion in security for the people who, despite falling short, had retired at 62 and locked in a small Social Security check.

The most interesting finding concerned the older workers who had extended their employment by switching to no-benefit jobs. Their retirement income in their late 60s replaced 68 percent of their past earnings, on average – still less than what they need but up dramatically from 52 percent if they had retired early. …Learn More

Tapping Home Equity – Retirees’ Relief Valve

Woman getting a prescriptionOne telling indication that retirees are in serious financial straits is when they take less of their medications or don’t fill prescriptions.

Nearly one in four low-income retirees has difficulty paying for medications, despite passage of Medicare Part D in 2006, which reduced out-of-pocket drug costs. Between 2011 and 2015, the average Medicare beneficiary spent $620 to $700 a year on prescriptions, and people with diabetes, lung disease, and cardiovascular disease spent more than $1,000 a year.

One way retirees can address such hardships would be to tap some of the equity in their homes. Although a homeowner probably wouldn’t use this strategy just to cover drug copayments, new research finds that older Americans who tap equity significantly increase their adherence to their medications – and this finding has broader significance for improving their retirement security.

Most older homeowners are, on the one hand, reluctant to pull cash out of their homes – often their largest asset – through a home equity loan, mortgage refinancing, or reverse mortgage. Yet many of them don’t have enough income to live comfortably and could put this asset to good use to reduce their debt or pay medical bills if they become seriously ill.

To test how home equity might help retirees, the researchers used a series of surveys between 1998 and 2016 that have data on older people’s finances and ask whether, at any time in the past two years, they took “less medication than prescribed … because of the cost?” The analysis controlled for various influences on financial well-being, including education, marital status, and cognitive health, as well as financial resources.

Extracting home equity improved adherence to medications in the short term, particularly for homeowners over 65 who have little wealth outside of their homes. Separately, the researchers showed that retirees who tapped home equity were significantly more likely to take their medications at a critical time – after experiencing a serious illness.

“Housing wealth can play an important role in reducing economic insecurity,” concluded the study, which was funded by the U.S. Social Security Administration. …Learn More

College grad drowning

A Lot of Student Debt May Never Be Paid Off

student loan chartFor half to two-thirds of the college loans made over the past decade, the former students owe more than they initially borrowed.

This is the result of a federal program that bases monthly student loan payments on the borrowers’ income if they aren’t earning enough to afford the standard payments. But the monthly payments in these much-needed Income Driven Repayment (IDR) plans are often less than is required to fully service the principal and interest on the loans. So instead of getting ahead, borrowers are perennially behind and never chip away at the balances.

People who go into the repayment plans are “trying to bail out a boat with a bucket that has a hole in it,” said Betsy Mayotte, president of The Institute of Student Loan Advisors, a non-profit that gives free information and advice to people needing help with their loans.

Marshall Steinbaum, an economist with the University of Utah, estimates that at least half of all student loans might never be repaid, based on his back-of-the-envelope calculation. That share is also growing, he said in an email, because more and more former students are enrolling in IDR programs.

The inability to pay “is baked into the system,” Steinbaum wrote in The Appeal. …Learn More

brain and money

Retirees Who Tested Well Added More Debt

A new study finds that debt burdens have grown for older workers and retirees in recent decades. But this isn’t the first research to reach that conclusion.

What is new is whose debt burden is increasing the most: the people who score higher on simple memory and math tests.

Across the three age groups the researchers examined – 56-61, 62-67, and 68-73 – the high scorers on the cognitive tests were more likely to have debts exceeding half of their assets in 2014 than the high scorers who were the same ages back in 1998.

They also added disproportionately more mortgage debt than people with lower cognition during the study’s time frame, a period when house prices were rising.

The upshot of this study is that people who have retained more of their memory and facility with numbers are “more financially fragile” than the high scorers were in the past, the University of Southern California researchers said.

The findings run counter to a common belief that financial companies in recent years have had more success selling their increasingly complex products to unwitting borrowers – a belief perhaps fostered by the subprime mortgages targeted to risky borrowers in the mid-2000s that triggered the global financial collapse.

Older Workers taking on more debtThe share of the older people in the study who were carrying debt increased between 1998 and 2014 regardless of their cognitive ability. The biggest jump occurred after 62 – a popular retirement age pegged to Social Security eligibility.

The heart of the analysis, however, is exploring the connection between cognitive ability and financial vulnerability. The researchers found the opposite of what one might expect: debt problems have loomed larger over time for those with higher scores on survey questions testing word recall and cognitive ability using simple subtraction and backward-counting exercises. …
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