Relevant and even prescient commentary on news, politics and the economy.

$6.6 Trillion Retirement Saving Shortfall Shows Failure of 401(k)’s

Last week the Washington Post ran a story on the weaknesses of 401(k) retirement accounts, focusing on the the fact that 1/4 of Americans with 401(k)’s have used them to meet current income needs. Among people in their forties, the share rises to 1/3,  an astounding figure considering how close this group is to retirement. In the wake of the Great Recession and continuing job market problems, it is perhaps not surprising that 28% of 401(k) account holders presently have loans against their accounts.

As the Post delicately puts it,

Many employers have embraced 401(k) and other defined-contribution accounts as a way of helping workers save for retirement while relieving themselves of the financial risks that come with managing a traditional pension plan. In theory, 401(k) accounts are better suited to an economy in which workers are changing jobs more frequently than ever because the accounts can be rolled over from previous employers.

A more accurate way of saying this would be that employers have embraced 401(k) plans because they are less expensive than providing pensions, thereby “cut(ting) overall employee compensation,” and that 401(k) plans don’t take into account the stagnation of real wages, points well made by commenter “Sean2020.”

Moreover, as I reported before, 49% of private sector worker have neither a 401(k) or a defined benefit pension plan. Thus, they have no supplement to their eventual Social Security benefits unless they are able to save outside of a 401(k).

And they aren’t saving. At least, they’re aren’t saving nearly enough to maintain their standard of living after retirement. As a report from the Senate’s Health, Education, Labor, and Pension (HELP) committee states, there is a  $6.6 trillion gap (methodology here) between what people need to maintain their current standard of living and what they’ve actually saved for retirement. This is equal to the combined assets of defined benefit pensions and 401(k) type plans, more than total state/local/federal government retirement plans, and more than twice as much as the Social Security Trust Fund. There’s a reason I’ve been using the word “crisis”!

Total Assets

Social Security Trust Fund      $2.7 trillion (12/31/2012)
Defined benefit pensions         $2.3 trillion (9/30/2012)
Defined contribution 401(k)    $4.3 trillion (9/30/2012)
State/local gov’t employee      $3.1 trillion (9/30/2012)
Federal employee retirement  $1.5 trillion (9/30/2012)
IRA’s                                    $4.9 trillion (6/30/2011)

Sources: Social Security Administration; Federal Reserve, tables L-116, L-117, and L-118 (financial assets only), for DB, DC, and government employee programs; Investment Company Institute for IRAs

This gigantic hole shows that the current model, based on 401(k)’s rather than true pensions, is not working. In a future post I will discuss ways to fix the crisis.

Cross-posted from Middle Class Political Economist.

Comments (33) | |

US already has high elder poverty rate, so why are Social Security cuts even on the table?

In the recent debate over the so-called “fiscal cliff,” President Obama was reportedly at one point offering to raise the eligibility age for Medicare from 65 to 67 and Social Security. However, in view of the coming retirement crisis due to the decline in defined benefit plans guaranteeing a specific retirement income, this is a terrible idea. Given that proposals to cut Social Security and Medicare will be repeatedly floated in the coming debt ceiling and related budget fights, we need to understand just how bad an idea this is.

First, let’s look at what Social Security and Medicare have done to elderly poverty in the U.S. over time, using the standard poverty line as our measure. Daniel R. Meyer and Geoffrey L. Wallace of the University of Wisconsin have published data on official poverty rates for those over 65:

Official poverty rate for the elderly by year

1968          25.0%
1990          12.1%
2006            9.4%

1968, of course, is just three years after the enactment of Medicare and Medicaid. We can see that elder poverty was halved between 1968 and 1994, and dropped at a slower pace through 2006. In the bad old days, one in four of the elderly lived in poverty: why would we want to go back to that when we are a much richer society today than we were in 1968?

Moreover, before we pat ourselves on the back for how well we have done, we need to consider alternative measures of poverty and the experience of other industrialized democracies. As Arthur Delaney and Ryan Grim report, the Census Bureau has developed a “Supplemental Poverty Measure” (SPM) that includes items such as out-of-pocket medical expenses, which affect seniors more than those under 65. Thus, while the SPM was only slightly higher for all individuals in 2009 than the official poverty measure (15.7% vs. 14.5%), for seniors the increase was from 8.9% to 16.1%.

As Meyer and Wallace relate, when the poverty line was first defined in the United States in 1963, it was approximately equal to 50% of median household income. Today, according to Smeeding et al., it is approximately just 30% of median household income. Meanwhile, the European Union has gone in the opposite direction, defining poverty as 60% of median income. Researchers comparing poverty cross-nationally generally use a 50% of median income standard. How does the U.S. stack up?

Here are Smeeding et al.’s figures for poverty rates in 2000 for all over 65 (figures eyeballed from Figure 1; no table provided):

Country                        Poverty rate

United States                 25%
Australia                        23%
United Kingdom            18%
Italy                              14%
Germany                       10%
Sweden                          8%
Canada                          6%

I guess we can take solace in the fact that Ireland has a substantially (20 percentage points) higher elder poverty rate for households only comprised of the elderly, as Smeeding reports in a separate paper. Otherwise, the comparison is pretty grim.

Yet what do the Very Serious People, as Paul Krugman calls them, want? At the very least, they want to cut Social Security by changing how inflation is calculated, and they want to raise the Medicare eligibility age from 65 to 67. At some points, it appeared the President would go along.

This is lunacy. As David Rosnick and Dean Baker (via David Cay Johnston) show, cuts to Medicare, such as Paul Ryan’s plan, shift far more costs to beneficiaries than what government saves through the cuts. In fact, while the Ryan cuts save the government $4.9 trillion over 75 years, the elderly will pick up $34 trillion in new costs. As Johnston puts it, for every dollar in saving for the government, there will be approximately $6 in net losses to the country as a whole.

Where are seniors supposed to find $34 trillion? Fewer and fewer people will have real pensions, 401(k) plans are vulnerable to market swings, and the Very Serious People want to cut Social Security. The simple answer is that seniors will be worse off than seniors today, yet 47% of the electorate voted for people who would have cut Medicare now.

It’s time to take these cruel cuts off the table permanently. What we will need in the future is an augmentation of Social Security, not cuts. We’ve got to make sure politicians get this through their heads.

Cross-posted at Middle Class Political Economist.

Comments (11) | |

The "Fiscal Cliff" and the Coming Retirement Crisis of the Middle Class

On January 1, Congress approved a tax and spending bill to avert the so-called “fiscal cliff” combination of tax hikes and spending cuts that would have created deflationary pressure on the United States (though Yglesias questioned the conventional wisdom of whether it would necessarily cause a recession). Let’s take a look at the deal in some detail, then proceed to the gruesome details of what will happen around the Ides of March.

From Think Progress, here are some of the more critical parts of the deal.

1) The Bush tax cuts expire on only about 0.7% of households, those earning more than $400,000 per year as an individual or $450,000 for a couple. This brings in $600 billion over 10 years. Since rich people don’t spend as much of their income as the poor and middle class do, this is less deflationary than a tax increase on the middle class, as I discussed in November.

2) With the expiration of the temporary 2% payroll tax cut, 77% of households will see their taxes go up. Indeed, every single income group will, on average, see their taxes increase, as shown below (via Matt Yglesias):


Since this hits the middle class more directly, the deflationary consequences are larger than they would be for an increase in taxes on the rich. On the other hand, this strengthens the long-run funding of Social Security, an issue I will return to shortly.

3) Unemployment insurance is extended for two million workers. This will get spent and have a definitive stimulative effect on the economy.

However, the second shoe of the fiscal cliff, the automatic cutbacks known as the “sequester” was simply postponed for two months, which is the same time that the Treasury Department will run out of creative ways to keep the country from exceeding the debt ceiling, which it hit on December 31.

Combining these two negotiations, the debt ceiling and the sequester, will be an extremely high-stakes battle where the middle class has a lot to lose. The big problem here is that some Tea Party Republicans really do want to use the debt ceiling to take the economy hostage and force cutbacks in Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. Despite the fact that Republicans lost the Presidency as well as both Senate and House seats (with a majority of the votes cast for the House going to Democrats), they see their gerrymandered House majority as giving them license to wreak havoc.

The consensus among most commentators (Krugman, Klein, and Yglesias, for example) is that the fiscal cliff deal will work out okay as long as the President does not cave in to the Republicans’ threats over the debt ceiling.  I agree as far as that goes. But, as Yglesias points out, there is nothing great about what Klein says is the most likely scenario, where the President gets $1 trillion in new tax revenue for $1 trillion in cuts over 10 years. That is still $2 trillion in austerity measures at a time when unemployment is barely below 8%!

The looming problem rarely mentioned, even in the context of the Republican campaign against Social Security, is that my children’s generation (Generation X, if you will) faces a retirement crisis that many of my generation will avoid, based on the end of pension plans. According to one Social Security Administration report, the percentage of private-sector workers with a traditional defined-benefit pension plan fell from 38% in 1980 to 20% in 2008. Over the same period, private-sector workers who only received defined contribution plans rose from 8% to 31%. Note that this means that 49% of private-sector workers are not covered by any pension plan at all. Moreover, while governments have more commonly provided defined-benefit plans than private employers have, they are under attack in many states.

Let’s do the math. With 49% of private workers having no pension, and another 31% having an on-average less generous defined contribution pension, how will seniors support themselves if Social Security is cut? Hint: It won’t be pretty.

Get ready for a bumpy March.

Cross-posted from Middle Class Political Economist.

Tags: , , , , Comments (28) | |

Surprise! Facebook Avoids its European Taxes

If you are as cynical as I am, I know you are not surprised that Facebook paid Irish taxes (via Tax Justice Network) of about $4.64 million on its entire non-US profits of $1.344 billion for 2011.* This 0.3% tax rate is a bit below the normal, already low, Irish corporate income tax of 12.5%.

As with Apple, Facebook funnels its foreign profits into its Irish subsidiary. As the Guardian article explains:

Facebook is structured so that companies buying advertisements on the website in the UK, or anywhere outside of the US, have to pay Facebook Ireland.

As a result, Facebook manages to slash its taxes in other countries, paying, for example,  $380,800 in British tax on estimated 2011 UK profits of $280 million, or a little over 0.1%. What is shocking is that Facebook paid so much Irish tax since it managed to convert its $1.3 billion gross profit into a net loss of $24 million.

As you’ve no doubt figured out, it’s that “Double Irish” ploy again. Facebook operates a second subsidiary that is incorporated in Ireland but controlled in the Cayman Islands. This subsidiary owns Facebook Ireland, but the setup allows the two companies to be considered as one for U.S. tax purposes, but separate for Irish tax purposes. The Caymans-operated subsidiary owns the rights to use Facebook’s intellectual property outside the U.S., for which Facebook Ireland pays hefty royalties to use. This lets Facebook Ireland transfer the profits from low-tax Ireland to no-tax Cayman Islands. For more on the arcane mechanics, see Joseph Darby’s article “International Tax Planning,” downloadable at Wikipedia.

This makes no sense of course, but is, in David Cay Johnston’s inimitable phrase, Perfectly Legal. But it shouldn’t be. And in the UK, Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne has announced 

a £154m [$246.4 million] blitz on tax avoidance and evasion, with HMRC [the British equivalent of the IRS] hiring an extra 2,500 tax inspectors to target high earners who aggressively exploit loopholes to avoid or evade tax.

The U.S. should do the same.

* Dollar figures converted from pound sterling figures in the Guardian at an exchange rate of $1.60 per pound.

Cross-posted from Middle Class Political Economist.

Tags: , , Comments (3) | |

Conservative ALEC Economic Policies Have No Benefit, Some Risks, for States

The economic policies proposed for states by the conservative American Legislative Council Exchange (ALEC) not only don’t work, but carry risks for states’ economies, according to new research by the Iowa Policy Project and Good Jobs First.

As we have seen most recently with Michigan’s passage of anti-union so-called “right to work” legislation (which lets people free ride on union contracts and makes union organization and representation more difficult), the legislative agenda of ALEC proclaims that states should follow a low-tax, low-wage, non-union route to economic prosperity. Now, you or I might wonder how creating low-wage jobs is supposed to create prosperity, but luckily for us ALEC has ranked the states by how “competitive” their economic policies were beginning in 2007, giving us the chance to see how well their recommended policies have done.

ALEC’s 15 recommended factors (p. 18) include taxes, debt service, public employees per 10,000 residents, “quality” of the legal system, “right to work,” minimum wage, and workers’ compensation costs. As pointed out by earlier commentaries, it says nothing about education or infrastructure, which have clear effects on a state’s economy. The new report by economist Peter Fisher with Greg LeRoy and Phil Mattera undertakes a statistical analysis of these policies, using the ALEC ranking of all 50 states as of 2007 to see how well their economies have performed since then. Fisher et al. also highlight the shoddy statistical work by Arthur Laffer in creating the ALEC index and reporting results.

Whereas Laffer frequently makes his points simply by comparing the top vs. bottom 8-10 states, Fisher et al. start with a full comparison of all 50 states via a correlation analysis, then proceed to the necessary addition of holding other potential causes constant in what is know as multiple regression analysis. Beginning with the correlations, here is what the new report finds. Correlation runs from -1 (perfect negative relationship) to +1 (perfect positive relationship); the closer to +1 below, the better the ALEC competitiveness index predicted the following outcomes. All changes are from 2007 to 2011.

ALEC Competitiveness Index ranking correlated with–

State gross domestic product:  .02 (not statistically significant)
Percent change in nonfarm employment: -.09 (not statistically significant)
Percent change in per capita income: -.27 (statistically significant)
Percent change in state and local government revenue: -.16 (not statistically significant)
Percent change in median family income: -.30 (statistically significant)
Change in poverty rate: .21 (“statistically significant” at the .1 level*)

What this tells us is that the states which were following ALEC’s preferred policies the most in 2007 saw worse performance in per capita income growth and median family income as well as a worse performance n poverty that we can almost be sure was not due to chance. The only thing ALEC’s top states did see as predicted was an increase was in  population (Fisher et al. did not report the correlation coefficient, but their discussion makes it clear that it was statistically significant). However, population growth per se is not an economic outcome, as the report points out.

The concluding regression analysis weakens the case for negative consequences, but provides no support for positive effects of ALEC’s state policies. Fisher et al. show that the most important determinants of 2007-11 GDP growth, employment growth, and per capita income growth are the components of a state’s economy, with the strongest determinants being the presence of extractive industry (primarily due to the higher price of oil during this period) and a large health care industry. Once these are controlled for, none of the ALEC variables are statistically significant, though the closest is that the top personal income tax rate is associated with higher, not lower, per capita income growth.

If none of ALEC’s policies work as advertised for job and income growth, what do they do? They are, in fact, a prescription for economic inequality. So-called “right to work” does not increase growth, but it reduces workers’ bargaining power. Reducing taxes on the wealthy increases post-tax inequality. And so on, down the panoply of ALEC policies. Fisher et al. (p. 11) put it well:

The ALEC-Laffer strategies are exclusively those that would lower taxes on corporations and the wealthy, reduce public sector revenues (and hence public investments in education, health and infrastructure), and lower wages by eliminating minimum wages and weakening the bargaining power of workers. Yet the book claims that all of these measures would make states, and their populations, richer.

The report is Selling Snake Oil to the States, and that is precisely what ALEC’s policies are.

* Technical note: I’m old school on when we should consider something probably not due to chance. For generations, the standard cutoff was that you have to be 95% certain a result was *not* due to chance to call it statistically significant. In economics, and now increasingly in political science, researchers have sometimes called a result statistically significant using a 90% cutoff instead. In my view, this shift has been due to what is called “publication bias”: it is easier to get your study published in an academic journal if you have some statistically significant result. But this is a big problem in areas like minimum wage research, where not finding a statistically significant negative effect from increasing the minimum wage actually tells you a great deal. The key analysis of publication bias in minimum wage research can be found in David Card and Alan Krueger’s book Myth and Measurement.

Comments (7) | |

NYT Series Illuminates – And Confuses – State of the Subsidy Wars

Louise Story’s series in the New York Times this week has created a substantial buzz about the issue of economic development subsidies.This is a welcome development, because it’s an issue that doesn’t get nearly enough attention in the highest profile media. Story has, in addition, appeared on shows such as MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” and NPR’s “Fresh Air,” bringing subsidies to an even wider audience.

She crafted a number of stories that highlighted the big picture issues: imbalance in bargaining power between city governments and giant multinational corporations, the blatant conflicts of interest on display in Texas subsidy procurement, and a border war between Kansas and Missouri involving multimillion dollar incentives to move existing facilities across the state line, with no net benefit for the Kansas City metropolitan area, let alone for the U.S. as a whole.

The last few days have given me time to absorb the articles and the database Story created, as well as surveying the commentary on the web from well-known experts on subsidies. Several tentative conclusions seem in order.

First, as I pointed out in my last post, and backed up by Timothy Bartik’s detailed analysis of Michigan, 5/8 of the national total is in the form of sales tax breaks, and probably the overwhelming majority of those sales tax reductions should not be considered subsidies. Here is what Bartik says about Michigan:

For example, in my own state of Michigan, the New York Times database identifies $6.65 billion in annual state and local business incentives. Of this total, $4.83 billion is in “sales tax refund, exemptions, or other sales tax discounts”.  Of this $4.83 billion, almost all of these refunds come from two provisions of Michigan tax law. First, Michigan does not apply the sales tax to most services, including business services, which saves businesses $3.88 billion annually. Second, for manufacturing, Michigan does not apply the sales tax to goods used as inputs to the manufacturing process, which saves manufacturers about $0.92 billion in sales tax.

For those keeping score at home, that means that $4.80 billion of the $4.83 billion in sales tax breaks should not be considered subsidies, unless you consider manufacturing “specific” enough that this aid constitutes a subsidy, in which case only 80% of the sales tax breaks should be excluded from the subsidy tally.

Second, changes of this magnitude mean that the Times estimates are not sufficiently accurate to use in a statistical analysis, as Richard Florida attempts in The Atlantic Cities. Finding out if incentives affect outcomes like wages, employment, or poverty is precisely the type of analysis we would like to do, but the fragility of the data makes this premature. The good news is that since the data on these state programs are all in one place, it should be possible to get a better handle on state incentives by cutting out those programs which should not be considered subsidies. Different analysts will no doubt have different judgments about what should be counted as a subsidy, but since the database is so inclusive, it should be useful no matter what your definition of subsidy is.

Third, there are some smaller errors in the program database as well. The one I have identified so far is that it counts net operating loss (NOL) tax provisions as subsidies in Illinois and New Hampshire, but not in other states, even though all states with a corporate income tax will have an NOL provision. In any event, this should not be considered a subsidy at all, but a part of a state’s basic macroeconomic framework. In addition, Timothy Bartik pointed out to me in correspondence that the program database does not include single sales factor apportionment (only counting what percentage of a multi-state firm’s sales take place in a given state, rather than standard three-factor apportionment that uses percentages of payroll and property as well) as a subsidy, which it should.

Fourth, the program database does not distinguish between investment incentives (subsidies to affect the location of investment) and subsidies more generally, which may or may not require an investment to obtain them. This is an important distinction I have tried to make clear by providing separate estimates in Investment Incentives and the Global Competition for Capital: $46.8 billion in incentives, and $65 or $70 billion in subsidies, depending on whether or not you count non-specific accelerated depreciation as a subsidy.

Finally, as Phil Mattera at Good Jobs First points out, the deals database misses a number of large awards, leaving out Tennessee’s $450 million (present value) subsidy to Volkswagen and an even bigger package for ThyssenKrupp in Alabama. It also underestimates other awards, including Apple in North Carolina and Boeing in South Carolina. I also found that it underestimated subsidies to Dell and Google in North Carolina by omitting the local subsidy portion of the awards, a problem Ms. Story is aware of, as I noted in my last post.

The Times series has been great for the spotlight it has put on state and local subsidies and the sometimes vulgar politics surrounding the process of awarding them, and for compiling a great database of programs all in one place. However, its interpretation of the sales tax breaks, which are 5/8 of the national total but largely not subsidies, confuses the issue of total impact on state and local budgets and makes statistical analysis premature. This will require some work to fix, but it appears like most of the raw material is there to do it.

Cross-posted at Middle Class Political Economist.

Tags: , Comments (4) | |