Modifying 401(k) Plans


According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics around 29 percent of people with access to a 401(k) plan choose to not contribute to their plan.  In addition, The Employee Benefits Research Institute (EBRI) reports that in 2015 around $92 billion was removed from 401(k) plans prior to retirement.   The combination of people refusing to contribute to their 401(k) plans and people taking premature contributions will result in many people with inadequate retirement income. The rules governing 401(k) plans need to be changed so that fewer people choose to forego making contributions and distributions prior to retirement are limited to a certain extent.

Current rules governing contributions to 401(k) plans provide significant financial advantages to workers who contribute.   The contributions are not subject to federal or state income tax in the year they are made.  Returns on investments are not taxed until retirement.   Many firms match or partially match employee contributions.   Many financial advisors believe that workers who fail to contribute, especially those at firms that provide an employee match, are irrational.  

There are several rational reasons why some workers forego contributions to 401(k) plans. Recently reported statistics indicate that around 40 percent of households do not have enough savings to cover a $400 bill.  A person without a basic emergency fund could be late on her mortgage or rent, unable to pay for a doctor or emergency room or fix a car.  A decision to place funds in a 401(k) plan that leads to late payments on bills will lead to late fees, a bad credit rating, higher borrowing costs and other adverse financial outcomes.   

A decision to make substantial 401(k) contributions might result in a person selecting a 20-year student loan over a 10-year student loan.  Consider a married couple with $60,000 of combined student debt at a 5 percent interest rate.   Lifetime student debt payments are $19,000 lower if student debt is repaid in 10 years rather than 20 years.   Many student borrowers could only afford the shorter-term student loan by reducing 401(k) contributions.

A decision to make substantial 401(k) contributions might force a person to take out a 30-year mortgage over a 15-year mortgage.   A person taking out a $400,000 30-year mortgage at 3.9 percent would have an outstanding balance of $257.000 after 15 years.   The 15-year mortgage would have been totally repaid, and in addition the borrower would have obtained a lower interest rate.  Again, many student borrowers can only afford the shorter-term mortgage by reducing 401(k) contributions.

In some states a person with assets in a 401(k) plan are not eligible for food stamps or Medicaid for nursing home expenses.   Go here for a paper on how retirement savings impact eligibility for food stamps.   Go here for a paper on how retirement savings impact eligibility for Medicaid nursing home expenses.   The underlying assumption behind such laws is the worker who comes upon bad times must deplete her retirement account prior to receiving any financial assistance from the government.

Many people retire early often because of the loss of a job or for health reasons.   People who retire early and have all of their funds in a 401(k) plan will be worse off than people who have saved both inside and outside their retirement plans both because early distributions from a 401(k) plan are subject to a 10 percent penalty and because distributions from conventional 401(k) plans are fully taxed.

Many older workers must choose between paying off their mortgage prior to retirement or increasing the amount of funds they place in their 401(k) plan.   Financial planners tend to favor additional accumulation in 401(k) plans over more rapid paydown of mortgage debt.  This choice often fails to work out well because people with a mortgage in retirement must, all else equal, make a larger distribution than people without mortgage obligations and the entire distribution from the conventional 401(k) plan is fully taxed.   The higher 401(k) distributions due to the need to make mortgage payments is especially difficult for retirees when a market downturn occurs at the beginning of retirement.

A household that is 401(k) rich and cash poor faces substantial financial risks.  Some households with 401(k) wealth but other financial needs raid their 401(k) plan and pay a 10 percent penalty in addition to tax on their early distribution leading to inadequate funds in retirement.  These problems could be reduced by changing the rules governing distributions from a 401(k) plan.  

Three rules should be modified.  First, workers should be allowed to withdraw 30 percent of funds contributed to a 401(k) plan without financial penalty.   Second, the worker should be prohibited from withdrawing any other funds from the 401(k) plan (the other 70 percent of contributions and all returns if any) until after age 59 ½.   Third, loans from 401(k) plans would be prohibited.

This combination of rule changes incentivizes workers to make additional contributions to their 401(k) plan while assuring that they do not raid their account prior to retirement.  

The provision for penalty-free withdrawal creates an emergency fund inside a 401(k) plan.  The provision for penalty-free withdrawal will allow a worker with student debt or mortgage debt to pursue a more aggressive repayment strategy while simultaneously saving for retirement.

Under current law, workers are allowed to distribute their entire 401(k) account prior to retirement.  This outcome could be forced upon a worker who loses his job in order to obtain Medicaid or food-stamp benefits.   The new rule by prohibiting most distributions prior to retirement will leave all workers with most funds in their 401(k) funds at retirement.

A final advantage of the rule change is that it allows more workers to reduce their tax obligations in retirement.   Under current tax rules, contributions to 401(k) plans result in tax savings in working years and higher tax obligations in retirement.   Some taxpayers use Roth accounts to minimize future tax obligations.  The new rules create a simpler way for workers to minimize their tax obligation in retirement. They can simply transfer 30 percent of their funds outside of their 401(k) account and purchase either stock, which is taxed at long term capital gains rates or an inflation linked Treasury bond, which is taxed at preferential rates.

The current 401(k) rules are not working for a lot of people, especially people with limited liquidity and large debts in relation to their income.   The proposals presented here provides incentives for people who can’t contribute to start savings and also benefits current savers reduce their tax obligations in retirement.  

David Bernstein is an economist living in Colorado.   He is the author of a policy primer on student debt, health care, and retirement income titled “Defying Magnets:  Centrist Policies in a Polarized World.”

Policy Question on Payroll Tax Holiday

This post will be updated sporadically with a policy question that troubles me. People who want to follow these thoughts need to either check this blog or my groups Policy & Politics and Finance Memos on Facebook.

The payroll tax holiday in the 2.0 trillion pandemic stimulus bill includes a requirement that businesses repay payroll tax relief in the future. A previous payroll tax holiday created in 2010 had the Treasury reimburse the Trust fund with general tax revenue.

Many defenders of Social Security thought the 2010 approach was bad policy because historically only payroll taxes and not general tax revenue was used to fund the trust fund. They though this approach might, by increasing deficits, reduce support for Social Security.

My view is that no one cares about the deficit anymore. Trump increased the deficit during a prosperous economy and the new stimulus bill is 50 percent of the budget without meaningful offsets.

My concern is that small companies will be unable to simultaneously pay back payroll taxes and new tax on ongoing payrolls. The double payments after the payroll tax ends will bankrupt some companies and slow the economy.

Should the Treasury reimburse the Trust funds for revenue lost from the payroll tax or should the government require companies make extra payments in the future to make up for this lost revenue?

My vote is that the Treasury should use general tax revenue to shore up the Social Security system both now in this emergency and in an ongoing basis. Hard for Republican budget hawks to argue for cuts to Social Security when every single one of them voted for Trump’s corporate tax cuts in relatively prosperous times.

Put your vote in the comment section of Policy & Politics.

The Politics of Student Debt

The Politics of Student Debt

There are two distinct lanes in the Democratic party. The progressive lane gravitates towards big ideas, which if implemented would transform society and the economy. The centrist land proposes modest changes to existing programs, which often would not substantially change the status quo. Most of the focus of the political discussion centers on the big proposals offered by participants in the progressive lane often leading to their rejection. Proposals offered in the centrist lane receive much less scrutiny. Problems and limitations of centrist proposals are often ignored.

The debate among candidates on student debt closely follows this pattern. The progressive lane advocates for free college and for immediate and substantial debt forgiveness for all or almost all people currently with student debt. The centrist lane advocates additional assistance for community college, and expansion of existing programs including Pell grants, Income Driven Loans, and Public Service Loans. The discussion centers on the economic and political feasibility of proposals offered by the progressive lane and does not consider the adequacy or potential problems with solutions offered by centrists.

An objective analysis of the progressive agenda suggests that its enactment requires a complete transformation of the U.S. economic, political, education, and tax systems. The consensus from this discussion is that a solution that works in a high-tax high-regulation European economy cannot be easily or quickly transferred to the United States. Moreover, many people argue that large subsidies for student borrowers are unfair to workers and taxpayers who do not attend school and are unfair to previous cohorts of student borrowers who paid off their student debt.

Centrist plans for making college more affordable and alleviating student debt burdens get far less scrutiny than progressive plans. In recent decades, there has been a substantial increase in the number of student borrowers, average student debt and the number of people entering retirement years with outstanding student loans. Centrist proposals, while more generous than policies espoused by the Trump Administration, are unlikely to reverse these trends.

A major education policy goal for many politicians in the centrist lane is on assuring an adequate supply of workers in hard to fill positions. Klobuchar in her New York Times interview on education spoke about the lack of shortage for MBAs or CEOs and the need to fill positions for home health care workers. The financial incentives in her proposals and the proposals offered by other centrists would steer many students away from academic four-year colleges towards two-year schools emphasizing practical career choices. The argument that people with substantial talent need to gravitate towards practical career choices early in their life because of economic reality is not highly inspirational or consistent with the view that education can lead to upward mobility.

The emphasis on education for practical positions leads centrists to support substantial increases in funds for community colleges. A policy that decreases the relative price of community college to four-year college could lead to fewer students from low-income households at four-year colleges. This approach could create a two-track academic structure where students from low-income households are slotted towards community college and students from households with more financial resources are slotted towards more prestigious four-year institutions. The student from the low-income and mid-income household may have enough talent to become a CEO or an MBA or a doctor. It is not clear whether the increased emphasis on community colleges will keep these doors open.

The centrist plan also includes increases in the budget for Pell grants. Pell grants target relatively low-income households and would have a relatively small impact on student debt for the typical student borrower. It would be extremely difficult and expensive to expand the Pell grant program to reduce debt burdens on students from middle-income households. Funds for Pell grants are part of the annual budget and subject to the whims of Congress.

Two additional ways to assist students from low-income households deserve consideration.

The first method involves free tuition or substantially reduced costs for the first year of four-year colleges. A free first year of college would decrease student debt for all student borrowers. Benefits would be especially large for students who fail to ever complete their degrees or students who take a long period of time to graduate, two populations that often experience repayment problems.

A free first year of college would allow for private grant funds to be allocated across a smaller population. (First year students would theoretically not need private grants if the first year was free.) An increase in grant funds per student after the first year of college would further reduce student debt burdens.

The second method involves the creation of additional two-year degrees at major four-year institutions. This approach allows more students access to major universities. The availability of more two-year degrees at four-year colleges could reduce the number of people who leave school without a degree. There may also be some students ready for graduate school after two years of undergraduate work.

The debate over debt relief options also centers on extremely ambitious proposals offered by candidates in the progressive lane. Less attention is focused on options favored by candidates in the centrist lane including the expansion of income driven loan programs and the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program.

A proposal offered by Senator Warren would discharge $50,000 of student debt for people with income less than $100,000 and a reduced amount of debt relief for borrowers with income above that threshold. Senator Sanders has offered universal discharge of student debt for student borrowers.

These broad debt relief programs are not economically efficient because they divert scarce resources away from more pressing problems. Many of the student borrowers who would receive assistance under these proposals are able to repay their loans without government assistance. The proposals are also unfair to workers who don’t benefit from higher education and to previous students who repaid their loans.

The candidates in the centrist lane favor expanding Income Driven Loan programs and the Public Service Loan Forgiveness programs. There are major problems with loan programs that link student loan payments to income and programs that offer debt relief for public service. However, problems with these programs and potential improvements are barely addressed because all of the attention is focused on the more ambitious progressive proposals.

Income Driven Loan programs link loan payments to annual income and allow for the possibility of loan discharges after a number of years. There are many problems with this approach. Student borrowers must choose to enter an Income Driven Loan program or remain in a conventional loans program when leaving school. Whether a student borrower is better off under an Income Driven Loan program or a conventional loan program depends on income and marital status over the lifetime of the loan and is often impossible to predict when students make their loan selection.

Moreover, student borrowers must reenroll annually in income driven loan programs. Errors by loan services could result in the denial of loan discharge applications for some student borrowers. The loan discharge is contingent on student borrowers making 240 on-time loan payments. Income driven loan programs may fail to provide debt relief to student borrowers who fail to make payments because of financial hardship. This is the group most in need of assistance.

The Public Service Loan Forgiveness program does not have a great track record. The program makes loan discharges contingent on an applicant staying in a public service position for 10 years. Some applicants lose debt relief when they switch careers. Over 99 percent of people in the first cohort of applicants to apply for a loan discharge under the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program had their discharge applications denied, even though the applicant had made loan payments for 10 years. There are several reasons for the large rejection rate on loan discharge applications. Some applicants were informed that they were employed at firms in positions, which were not eligible for the public service loan program. Some applicants were informed after 10 years or payments they had chosen a payment plan that was not consistent with the public service loan forgiveness program. Problems involved with administering the public service loan program are documented in this report written by the Consumer Finance Protection Board.

There are superior alternatives to Income Driven Loan programs and Public Service Loan Forgiveness programs that are not even currently being considered.

A provision in a loan contract eliminating interest charges near the end of the loan term would be simpler to administer and fairer to both borrowers and the taxpayer than a program offering loan discharges after 20 year of payments. A loan discharge provision creates an incentive for some students to increase the amount they borrow and discourage quick repayment of student debt. Students with a loan that allows interest rate reductions near the end of the loan term will always repay more if they borrow more and are not discouraged from entering a short- term payment plan.

The elimination of interest near the end of the loan term also offers some debt relief to student borrowers who miss payments and are ineligible for a loan discharge.

The Trump Administration and Congress propose to eliminate the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program because of its cost to taxpayers. In order to obtain debt relief from a public service loan program, applicants must stay in a public service career for 10 years. Some applicants may choose to eschew more productive positions to obtain a debt discharge.

A narrower Public Service Loan Forgiveness program that provided less debt relief for a short period of time when student borrower begin repayment could increase loan repayments when people are starting their careers and salaries are relatively low. This program would be easier to administer and less expensive than the current Public Service Loan Forgiveness program. More importantly, the revised shorter-term benefit would not create job lock.

The discussion and the energy in the Democratic party revolves around support for or opposition to big ideas. The potential and problems associated with modest proposals are not fully evaluated. Not surprisingly, this debate is not leading to the formation of practical policies that would actually reduce student debt burdens. We need a third lane offering pragmatic progressive policies, which could lead to real change.

Observations on the 2020 Economic Crisis — March 18, 2019

I have several comments about the severity of the current situation and prospects for bailouts.

  • Many financial analysts believe the stock market is oversold and will rebound quite quickly once the pandemic ends.  However, many companies with debt are likely headed towards bankruptcy.  The economic fallout could result in an economic downturn that leads to a long recession and a sustained downturn in stock prices.
  • Many politicians in the “center” are going to want to bailout Boeing, airlines, hotels and other industries.  A distinction has to be made between bailing out companies and bailing out shareholders.   Hard for me to justify unconditional bailouts of companies that issued a lot of debt and used cash to buy back stock to reward shareholders and CEOs with large bonuses.  Taxpayers should receive an equity stake in businesses receiving financial assistance as they did for bailing out companies like GM and AIG in 2009.   There should be restrictions on management salaries and dividends at companies accepting federal funds.  Some bailouts will occur through a chapter 11 bankruptcy process and reorganization that impacts creditors and shareholders.  I suspect Congress will eventually bail out some firms but there must be conditions and the process towards a bailout may not be a smooth one.
  • One way to structure a bailout so that the American people obtain some financial benefit is to give each household shares of companies receiving financial assistance.  Another way for American taxpayers to benefit from a bailout is to give the Social Security Administration ownership of share in companies purchased with general Treasury funds.
  • The tax code needs to be modified to reduce incentives for companies to issue debt and purchase company shares. 
  • Bank stocks are cratering even though bank analysts argue that banks are in good financial shape.   The banking sector is likely to realize large losses from loans to oil sector on top of losses related to the pandemic.  
  • The 10-year U.S. government bond interest rate is rising rapidly going from 0.65 on Monday 3/16 to 1.26 on Wednesday 3/18.  Rate was even lower last week.  The Fed does not have much control over long rates and may be out of ammo.  Typically, investors count on increased bond prices to coincide with and offset downturns in stock prices.   This result is unlikely this time because interest rates are starting at such a low level and people are selling all assets, including bonds, to get cash.  

WarrenCare vs BidenCare

WarrenCare vs BidenCare

Introduction:

The 2020 health care debate has centered on two basic types of plans – (1) the Medicare for All Proposal championed by Senator Sanders and Senator Warren and (2) Modifications to the Affordable Care Act championed by Vice President Biden, Senator Klobuchar, and Mayor Buttigieg.  

The two approaches differ starkly.   Both plans have advantages and problems.       Neither side of the debate has recognized potential problems with their plan or has proposed compromise.   The only candidate that attempted to bridge the gap between the two camps is Senator Kamala Harris.

Warren has a much more detailed discussion of funding issues than Sanders but both candidates have a similar world view.   I have not detected any major differences among the three centrist candidates.   This lack of debate and innovation weakens the case for Buttigieg or Klobuchar replacing Biden in the centrist lane. 

The contest between the two plans should narrow to two candidates. My shorthand attributes the Medicare for All approach to Warren and the Modification of the ACA approach to Biden, although, polling data suggests it is equally likely that the race will narrow to Sanders versus Buttigieg.

Warren’s Plan:

Senator Sanders, the first champion of Medicare for All  has written a detailed bill.  Senator Warren has a paper describing how she would finance her plan.  The main features of Medicare for All include the following:

  • Creation of a national single-payer health insurance plan,
  • Automatic enrollment for life with no annual or lifetime cap,
  • Prohibition of private plans from competing with the new national health insurance company,
  • Elimination of all cost sharing with the exception of some cost sharing for pharmaceutical subject to a fairly low cap,
  • Funding obtained from a tax applied to employers and other taxes,
  • Expansion of benefits beyond the current Medicare program,
  • Annual negotiation of drug prices,

The approach taken by Senator Warren and Senator Sanders is aspirational but appears unrealistic.  The most controversial aspect and most unrealistic aspect of the Medicare for All is the elimination of all private insurance.

The main potential achievements and problems with Warren’s plan include:

  • Warren approach with low or zero premiums and automatic enrollment would do a good job at reducing the number of uninsured and reducing financial costs for people with insurance.  The Medicare for All provision contains low deductibles and low coinsurance rates for the entire population.
  • Warren’s plan would lead to the total elimination of surprise medical bills caused by unintentional use of out-of-network providers because all providers would be in the same network.   A Medicare for All proposal that allowed for a small private insurance sector would also substantially reduce surprise medical bills.      
  • Warren’s plan would eliminate the need for short term health care plans, which do not provide all essential health benefits.
  • Warren’s plan would require substantial new tax revenue.  Warren’s team does a reasonably good job in describing her approach to funding but her budget estimates like most estimates for such proposals are fairly optimistic.
  • Warren’s plan would result in both politics and the budget process substantially impacting health care provider compensation, benefits, and timely access to specialists.   The Warren approach would lead to lower compensation rates for health care providers, an increase in the percent of doctors not seeing new patients, and longer wait times to see specialists.
  • Warren’s approach, if modified in the future, could lead to political restrictions on all insurance payments for abortion services.  

Biden’s Plan:

Biden offers a description of his approach on his web site and Congressional Democrats have created a bill modifying the Affordable Care Act that is likely to be part of Vice President Biden’s initiative.  Parts of this bill, summarized here, are likely to become part of Biden’s plan.

Biden’s plan outlined on the web site contains three major elements 

  • the addition of a public health insurance option on state exchanges,
  • an expansion of the premium tax credit on state health care exchanges 
  • modifications to rules governing the affordable care act

Vice President Biden presents some ideas on how to help lower-income households obtain health insurance, however, many aspects of his proposal including the scope and cost of the public option are not clearly defined.

My main findings on the advantages and disadvantages of Biden’s plan include:

  • Biden’s plan and the Congressional bill modifying the ACA are silent about a possible revision to IRS rules that would fix problems caused by this tax changes.    This is a very large oversight given recent litigation on this question is jeopardizing the legal status of the entire ACA.
  • Biden’s plan does not include a precise discussion of whether he is repealing or proposing changes to the affordability rule determining whether taxpayers are eligible for the premium tax credit on state exchanges.  A bill endorsed by Congressional Democrats will modify but not repeal the current affordability rule.
  • Biden’s proposed expansion of the premium tax credit will cause some small firms to eliminate their offers of employer-based coverage.  Many younger adults will end up paying substantially higher premiums because of this change.   This issue is discussed in a recent Tax Notes paper – Potential Modifications to the Premium Tax Credit.
  • Biden’s proposed ACA modifications will reduce cost sharing on some health plans sold on state exchanges by linking premium tax credits to a more expensive gold plan.   However, under Biden’s plan households obtaining their health insurance through state exchanges would still have to tradeoff higher premiums versus higher cost sharing.  Biden does not state whether he will eliminate short term health plans, which do not provide essential health benefits.   His proposed changes may reduce demand for such health plans.  
  • Biden’s proposed modifications have no clear impact on cost sharing or premiums for employer-based health insurance.   (Approximately 94 percent of the working age population and their dependents get health insurance through an employer.) 
  • Biden’s approach would not do anything about surprise medical bills.   Congress has recently failed to fix this problem.
  • Biden’s plan would not substantially expand the role of the annual budget process on health care decisions.  Biden’s plan would not increase government control over private health insurance benefits or compensation to doctors and other health care providers or access to specialists for people insured by employer-based insurance.
  • Biden’s plan would continue to insulate private health insurance from political decisions on abortion.

Concluding Remarks:

Two approaches to a potential compromise between the Warren and Biden approach are possible.   The first approach involves the adoption of a health care plan proposed by Senator Kamala Harris, a plan worth reading.   The second approach involves the combination of a more detailed and substantive plan to expand state health exchanges.   In particular, the expanded ACA modification would, at a minimum, provide more details on the scope and cost of the public option and fix problems with the proposed expansion of the premium tax credit.

My paper on fixing health care will be available shortly.   Readers who want some of my policy insights now can go to my book Defying Magnets:  Centrist Policy in a Polarized World.  

Reinventing the 401(k) plan

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics around 29 percent of people with access to a 401(k) plan choose to not contribute to their plan.  In addition, The Employee Benefits Research Institute (EBRI) reports that in 2015 around $92 billion was removed from 401(k) plans prior to retirement.   The combination of people refusing to contribute to their 401(k) plans and people taking premature contributions will result in many people with inadequate retirement income. The rules governing 401(k) plans need to be changed so that fewer people choose to forego making contributions and distributions prior to retirement are limited to a certain extent.

Current rules governing contributions to 401(k) plans provide significant financial advantages to workers who contribute.   The contributions are not subject to federal or state income tax in the year they are made.  Returns on investments are not taxed until retirement.   Many firms match or partially match employee contributions.   Many financial advisors believe that workers who fail to contribute, especially those at firms that provide an employee match, are irrational.  

There are several rational reasons why some workers forego contributions to 401(k) plans. Recently reported statistics indicate that around 40 percent of households do not have enough savings to cover a $400 bill.  A person without a basic emergency fund could be late on her mortgage or rent, unable to pay for a doctor or emergency room or fix a car.  A decision to place funds in a 401(k) plan that leads to late payments on bills will lead to late fees, a bad credit rating, higher borrowing costs and other adverse financial outcomes.   

A decision to make substantial 401(k) contributions might result in a person selecting a 20-year student loan over a 10-year student loan.  Consider a married couple with $60,000 of combined student debt at a 5 percent interest rate.   Lifetime student debt payments are $19,000 lower if student debt is repaid in 10 years rather than 20 years.   Many student borrowers could only afford the shorter-term student loan by reducing 401(k) contributions.

A decision to make substantial 401(k) contributions might force a person to take out a 30-year mortgage over a 15-year mortgage.   A person taking out a $400,000 30-year mortgage at 3.9 percent would have an outstanding balance of $257.000 after 15 years.   The 15-year mortgage would have been totally repaid, and in addition the borrower would have obtained a lower interest rate.  Again, many student borrowers can only afford the shorter-term mortgage by reducing 401(k) contributions.

In some states a person with assets in a 401(k) plan are not eligible for food stamps or Medicaid for nursing home expenses.   Go here for a paper on how retirement savings impact eligibility for food stamps.   Go here for a paper on how retirement savings impact eligibility for Medicaid nursing home expenses.   The underlying assumption behind such laws is the worker who comes upon bad times must deplete her retirement account prior to receiving any financial assistance from the government.

Many people retire early often because of the loss of a job or for health reasons.   People who retire early and have all of their funds in a 401(k) plan will be worse off than people who have saved both inside and outside their retirement plans both because early distributions from a 401(k) plan are subject to a 10 percent penalty and because distributions from conventional 401(k) plans are fully taxed.

Many older workers must choose between paying off their mortgage prior to retirement or increasing the amount of funds they place in their 401(k) plan.   Financial planners tend to favor additional accumulation in 401(k) plans over more rapid paydown of mortgage debt.  This choice often fails to work out well because people with a mortgage in retirement must, all else equal, make a larger distribution than people without mortgage obligations and the entire distribution from the conventional 401(k) plan is fully taxed.   The higher 401(k) distributions due to the need to make mortgage payments is especially difficult for retirees when a market downturn occurs at the beginning of retirement.

A household that is 401(k) rich and cash poor faces substantial financial risks.  Some households with 401(k) wealth but other financial needs raid their 401(k) plan and pay a 10 percent penalty in addition to tax on their early distribution leading to inadequate funds in retirement.  These problems could be reduced by changing the rules governing distributions from a 401(k) plan.  

Three rules should be modified.  First, workers should be allowed to withdraw 30 percent of funds contributed to a 401(k) plan without financial penalty.   Second, the worker should be prohibited from withdrawing any other funds from the 401(k) plan (the other 70 percent of contributions and all returns if any) until after age 59 ½.   Third, loans from 401(k) plans would be prohibited.

This combination of rule changes incentivizes workers to make additional contributions to their 401(k) plan while assuring that they do not raid their account prior to retirement.  

The provision for penalty-free withdrawal creates an emergency fund inside a 401(k) plan.  The provision for penalty-free withdrawal will allow a worker with student debt or mortgage debt to pursue a more aggressive repayment strategy while simultaneously saving for retirement.

Under current law, workers are allowed to distribute their entire 401(k) account prior to retirement.  This outcome could be forced upon a worker who loses his job in order to obtain Medicaid or food-stamp benefits.   The new rule by prohibiting most distributions prior to retirement will leave all workers with most funds in their 401(k) funds at retirement.

A final advantage of the rule change is that it allows more workers to reduce their tax obligations in retirement.   Under current tax rules, contributions to 401(k) plans result in tax savings in working years and higher tax obligations in retirement.   Some taxpayers use Roth accounts to minimize future tax obligations.  The new rules create a simpler way for workers to minimize their tax obligation in retirement. They can simply transfer 30 percent of their funds outside of their 401(k) account and purchase either stock, which is taxed at long term capital gains rates or an inflation linked Treasury bond, which is taxed at preferential rates.

The current 401(k) rules are not working for a lot of people, especially people with limited liquidity and large debts in relation to their income.   The proposals presented here provides incentives for people who can’t contribute to start savings and also helps current savers reduce their tax obligations in retirement.  

David Bernstein is an economist living in Colorado.   He is the author of a policy primer on student debt, health care, and retirement income titled “Defying Magnets:  Centrist Policies in a Polarized World.”

Should Big Tech be Broken Up?

This post evaluates Senator Warren’s plan to break up big tech firms.  The analysis presented here supports the view that some of her proposals would assist large established firms and would reduce choices for consumers.  Google and Facebook have monopoly power in search and social media, but other large tech firms are capable of contesting these markets, the two firms compete with each other for ad revenue and face substantial competition in many markets from Apple, Amazon, Walmart and other firms. 

Introduction:

Senator Warren proposes major changes to anti-trust law and increased enforcement against big tech firms in her article  “It’s Time to Breakup Amazon, Google and Facebook.” 

Warren’s approach includes the following

She wants large companies with major Internet marketplaces to either sell only third-party goods or its own goods.   Marketplaces serving third-party sellers would be set up as a regulated platform utility.   The rule would require Amazon to separate Amazon Basics from Amazon marketplace, could prevent Amazon Prime and Netflix from selling the movies it produces and would require changes to the Apple Istore.  

She wants the newly created platform utilities to follow a standard of fair, reasonable, and nondiscriminatory dealing with users.  She also wants to restrict data transfer to third parties by platform utilities.

Separately, she would require Google to separate Google Ad sense from Google Search.

She would reverse some previous Tech mergers and make future tech mergers more difficult.  Previous mergers to be reversed include – Amazon’s purchase of Whole Foods and Zappos, Facebook’s purchase of WhatsApp and Instagram, and Google’s purchase of Waze, Nest and DoubleClick.

Warren has a really clear and simple vision of the world.  Google, Apple, Amazon, and Facebook all have monopoly power.   All four companies use their monopoly power to obtain large profits from consumers. The solution to this problem is to break up existing firms, reverse previous mergers, prevent future mergers and increased regulation.  

My view of the world is less black and white than Warren’s view.   Some of the major tech firms have high market shares potentially creating substantial monopoly power.  Some of the previous mergers were anti-competitive and need to be reversed but in some cases the advantages of the previous merger outweighed costs.  Moreover, some future mergers and acquisitions by competitors of Google and Facebook could increase competition and expand choices for consumers. 

In some cases, on-line regulation of Internet marketplaces is desirable but in other cases the regulation would leave the Internet firm at a significant disadvantage compared to traditional retailers. 

Analysis:

The theoretical case for applying antitrust procedures to Internet firms differs greatly from the theoretical case associated with applying antitrust to traditional industries like steel or oil.  Traditional firms attempt to get monopoly power in order to increase price and get large profits.  Many Internet firms like Google and Facebook do not charge anything for their services.  These firms get profit from ad revenue and from the use of their data on consumers.   They are willing to spend money to attract customers because an increase in the size of their network increases the scope and value of their network.  

Google and Facebook are not like swimming pools where at some point (typically pretty quickly on a hot day) additional swimmers make the pool less attractive.   There is no real cost of additional users to Google and Facebook.   Also, since the basic purpose of these networks is to allow people to interact and work together an increase in the size of the networks increases their value.  Why are Google Docs and Microsoft Office so popular?   People share documents.  An increase in the number of people sharing stuff or interacting can increase the value of the software or network.   

Google and Facebook have overwhelming market share and monopoly power in search and social media respectively.  Both firms have higher profitability levels than they would if the industry was competitive.  Google’s dominance in search allows it to manipulate results and favor certain sellers or merchants over other sellers and merchants.   The unchecked and unregulated power of Facebook has led to privacy violations, misuse of data and political manipulation of Democratic elections by bad actors.  The manipulation of consumers by Facebook may have resulted in Donald Trump being elected president and may similarly impact the 2020 presidential race.

High market share is an important indicator of potential monopoly power and is of great concern to industrial organization economists.   However, high market share does not automatically lead to monopoly power when markets are contestable.   The theory of contestable markets created by William Baumol asserts that high concentration may not lead to problems associated with monopoly if there are low barriers to entry and exit.  The implication of this theory for Big Tech is that the way to deal with the potential search and social media monopolies is to facilitate the entry of additional competitors.

One of the reasons why Google has a monopoly position in search is that both Google Android and Apple phones default to the Google search engine.   Google pays Apple a whole lot of money to make google search the default on its phone.  This side payment is basically an incentive to not compete and is in my view illegal collusion under existing antitrust law.  Warren did not flag this problem in her article.  Anti-trust authorities should end this arrangement.  This change would make the market for search not only contestable but actively contested.

The problem of Google’s monopoly power in search cannot be resolved by separating Google search from Google ads.  Google makes no money from search.   Virtually all of Google’s entire revenue is from its ad division.   A separate Google search division with no ad revenue would probably not be financially viable.

Believers in the theory of contestable markets assert that the key to taking on the Google and Facebook monopolies is to encourage entry and greater competition from existing tech firms. Microsoft with its unsuccessful Bing search engine and with its LinkedIn social network is already in competition with both Google and Facebook.     Ironically, Microsoft could more actively compete with both Google and Facebook by purchasing firms an activity that would be restricted by the adoption of Warren’s approach.  

For example, Microsoft could more easily compete with Google by purchasing Yelp and integrating Yelp with its search engine Bing.  Yelp may be receptive to a partnership with Microsoft because it has accused Google of anticompetitive behavior.   Microsoft would also have to purchase or develop a mapping company to compete with Google Maps, Waze and Apple Maps. 

A useful search engine must be complemented by mapping software for cases where the customer needs to move towards the item or business being searched.  The primary purpose of Google’s purchase of Waze was to prevent another firm from integrating Waze with their search algorithm.  Waze is now experiencing a slow death.  I agree with Warren that Google’s purchase of Waze was anti-competitive and should be reversed.  This type of antitrust action might prompt Apple or Microsoft to start competing with Google on search.  

Microsoft’s ability to compete with Facebook would similarly be enhanced if it purchased the blog platform Medium and integrated it with is social network LinkedIn.   This move would increase the number of LinkedIn members and would also increase activity by current users.

The case for reversing previous acquisitions made by Facebook is weak.   Prior to their purchase, Instagram and WhatsApp had fairly low revenue and income.   These firms may not have been viable on their own and other social media companies including Twitter and Snap did not have the money to make these acquisitions.  

These acquisitions did expand Facebook’s monopoly in social media, but the acquisitions also increased the ability of Facebook to compete with Amazon and Google for ad revenue.   I am unsure how the courts would weigh the benefits and harm of these mergers.  I am pretty sure that prohibiting these mergers would have reduced growth in Silicon Valley, stifled innovation and reduced tax revenues and charitable giving.

The case for breaking up Amazon is also weak at best.  Amazon is huge and has disrupted many industries and firms but large size without abnormal profits is not a reason for antitrust enforcement.    Amazon, aside from the cloud computing division the company, has low profits margins.   Amazon is in stiff competition with many brick and mortgage retail firms including Walmart, Target, CVS and other drug companies. Many of these competitors have higher profit margins than Amazon.  

Sometimes it appears as though the established firm uses anticompetitive methods to prevent competition from an on-line competitor owned by Amazon.  CVS and Target are refusing to honor their customer’s valid requests to transfer prescription to PillPack and Express Scripts has removed PilPack from its network.

The acquisition of Whole Foods by Amazon resulted in a huge shakeup in the grocery industry decreasing stock prices of several firms.  However, Whole Foods only had slightly more than 1 percent of the U.S. grocery market at the time it was acquired by Amazon, hardly a reason for concern.

Warren’s plan potentially treats a large retail firm like Walmart or Kroger differently than Amazon.   Inside a Walmart and Kroger one can find name-brand products and products produced by the store side by side.  Presumably, the same arrangement would be available on the store web page.  Under Warren’s rule, Amazon would not be allowed to put its own brands up next to a competitor’s brands.   Why should it permissible for Walmart to list name and Walmart options on the same shelf or web page and impermissible for Amazon to do the same?

The growth of Amazon by increasing competition has reduced prices to consumers and has kept inflation low.  The growth of Amazon has hurt some retailers but has helped the economy in many other ways.  An antitrust action against Amazon would do more to strengthen many of Amazon’s large competitors and would not clearly benefit consumers who benefit from the low prices offered by Amazon. 

One of the most interesting and innovative aspect of Warren’s anti-trust approach involves regulation of platform utilities, companies that arrange sales from third parties to customers.    Warren, when explaining the platform utility regulation, says companies should not be allowed to umpire and play in the same game.   

The largest adverse impact of the regulation of platform utilities involves competition in the entertainment industry.  The proposal to regulate Internet marketplaces as platform utilities favors the cable industry, Disney, and network TV over Amazon Prime, Apple, itunes, and Hulu and potentially Netflix.  Many of the best current movies and television shows are now produced by Netflix, Amazon and Apple.   These streaming services have increased choices for consumers and have allowed some people to cut the cord with local cable company monopolies.  

Streaming companies are constantly looking for high quality material from independent producers.  These company gets a fixed monthly fee from consumers who buy a subscription.  They don’t appear to guide people away from independently produced shows and movies towards content they finance. I am not sure what could be gained from preventing companies from distributing their own films.

Another area where Warren’s proposal could have a large impact is in competition for Internet related devises inside a home.  Google purchased Nest but there are still several other makers of smart thermostats.   Amazon own Ring but there are still  several other makers of smart doorbells.     There seems to be plenty of competition in this area and little need for an intervention by antitrust authorities.

Concluding Thoughts:

The growth of companies on the Internet has created a lot of competition for older established companies in the brick and mortar economy.   Consumers have often benefited through lower prices and the introduction of new products.     

Two companies, Google and Facebook, have a significant monopoly position in their respective fields.  Both companies have used their monopoly power to obtain abnormal profits, have not properly safeguarded consumer information and have at times used their power to impede competitors.  

Warren’s stringent antitrust approach would curb the power of large Internet firms but would also favor large traditional established companies.  In some cases, it is the large established firm that engages in anticompetitive behavior. Some restrictions on large Internet companies could result in higher prices and fewer choices for consumers.

 A more effective strategy for expanding competition in the Internet industry involves creating incentives for existing large tech firms to compete with Google on search and incentives for existing large tech firms to compete with Facebook on Social Media.

David Bernstein is an economist living in Colorado and the author of a policy primer addressing issues pertaining to student debt, health insurance and retirement income called “Defying Magnets:   Centrist Policies in a Polarized World.”

Modifications of the Affordable Care Act


The Democrats in the House are currently proposing legislation modifying the Affordable Care Act (ACA). This post summarizes and evaluates the new bill in Congress.

Introduction:

The Affordable Care Act (ACA) created state health insurance exchanges to facilitate the purchase of private health insurance by working-age people and their families without offers of affordable health insurance from their employer. The Republicans have attempted and continue to attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act. The Democrats are considering a wide variety of health insurance reform plans some of which depend on improving state exchanges.

The state exchange marketplaces currently provide health insurance to around 8 million people, a small number compared to the 160 million people covered by employer-based insurance. The relatively small size of state exchange marketplaces partially stems from the eligibility rules and incentives written in the ACA. The size of the two markets also is impacted by the generous tax treatment of expenditures for health insurance by employers.

The Trump Administration and the 2018/2018 Congress made several changes to the ACA, which reduced demand for state exchange health insurance. Congressional Democrats are now proposing a bill, The Protecting Pre-existing Conditions and Making Health Care More Affordable Care Act of 2019, which makes small incremental changes to ACA rules and reverse some but not all recent Trump Administration changes to the ACA.

Go here for the bill:

https://energycommerce.house.gov/sites/democrats.energycommerce.house.gov/files/documents/Health%20Care%20Bill%20Text.pdf

Go here for a useful article on this bill.

https://www.healthaffairs.org/do/10.1377/hblog20190327.894190/full/

Go here for a useful summary.

https://energycommerce.house.gov/sites/democrats.energycommerce.house.gov/files/documents/Health%20Care%20Bill%20Section%20by%20Section.pdf

This paper provides an evaluation of the proposed bill modifying the ACA.

The analysis presented here shows that the proposed legislation makes some incremental improvements, which would strengthen state exchange marketplaces. However, even after the enactment of the new rules employer based health insurance would remain more affordable and probably more comprehensive than state exchange insurance for most of the working-age population. The new rules proposed in this act would still result in ACA state exchanges being a fringe marketplace to the larger employer-based health insurance market.

Summary of the Protecting Pre-existing Conditions and Making

Health Care More Affordable Care Act of 2019

House Democrats have introduced legislation to improve the Affordable Care Act. The main features of the ACA reforms offered by the Democrats are as follows:

· An expansion of tax credits used to subsidize the purchase of health insurance on state exchanges,

· Modification of the definition of “affordable” health care in the rule governing access to tax credits on state exchanges,

· Provide funds for reinsurance for high cost claims,

· Curtail Trump Administration waivers on essential health benefits,

· Reverse the Trump Administration executive order on short term health plans,

· Reverse Trump Administration rules promoting Association Health Plans,

· Several policies expanding ACA enrollment outreach and efforts by the Trump Administration to stifle ACA enrollment.

Analysis:

Issue One: Evaluating the impact of the expansion of the tax credit:

The new bill makes the premium tax credit more generous by capping the percent of income a household would be required to pay for premiums on state exchange policy at 8.5 percent rather than the current level of 9.86 percent.

The new bill also provides for an expansion of the tax credit to households with income greater than 400 percent federal poverty line (FPL) is a step in the correct direction.

The current law does not provide any premium tax subsidy for people in households with income over 400 percent FPL. Around 41 percent of households in the United States have income above this level and are ineligible for any premium tax credit.

The expanded subsidy could in theory attract some higher income households to state exchanges. This expanded subsidy should increase political support for ACA state exchange marketplaces. However, the number of higher income people affected by this change is likely to be small because most higher income people even after all the changes in this bill most high-income households will get better offers of health insurance from their employer than what is available on state exchanges.

The current elimination of the premium tax credit for people in households with income at 400 percent of the FPL leaves many household with a large unanticipated tax bill. The premium tax credit is claimed at the beginning of the year when annual income is difficult to anticipate. The allowable premium tax is based on actual end of year income. Households who earn more than they anticipate and earn more than 400 percent FPL must refund the premium tax credit to the IRS. The expansion of the tax credit could reduce (and depending on how it is structured) eliminate the subsidy cliff where some households owe money to the IRS because they miscalculated their income.

Issue Two: Evaluating changes in the definition of “affordable” in the rule governing eligibility for the premium tax credit.

The affordability rule applied to the premium tax credit is arcane.

Current ACA rules allow taxpayers to claim the premium tax credit if employer-based health insurance is not “affordable.” However, the affordability test is based on the cost of an individual health plan even if the household is larger than one individual.

This interpretation of the ACA was made by the IRS during the Obama Administration because of the exact wording of the statute even though the ACA required the taxpayer provide health insurance to everyone in the household. The IRS ruling is inconsistent with the clear intent of the individual mandate, which involves covering all people in the household.

This change in the definition of premium affordability used to determine eligibility for the premium tax credit will have a different economic impact for small versus large firms because only large firms are subject to the ACA employer mandate. The ACA employer mandate imposes a fine on large firms with more than 50 full time equivalent employees where the fine is based on the number of workers claiming the premium tax credit. Large firms in response to the new definition of affordability would have an incentive to change their insurance policies to assure their ESI offer is affordable under the new law. This might be accomplished by increasing their subsidy of the workers share of the premium payment or by decreasing premiums perhaps by increasing out-of-pocket expenses.

The new affordability definition for employer based insurance increases the number of people eligible for premium tax credits on state exchanges. However, some people who are newly eligible for the tax credit due to the change in the definition of eligibility might still prefer their employer’s health insurance offer to state exchange insurance. This would happen if the “unaffordable” employer offer was better than the state exchange insurance.

People often change jobs during the course of the year. A person with state exchange insurance who gets a new job with an offer of affordable health insurance would still under this proposed bill lose eligibility for the premium tax credit.

Currently, around 8 million people have state exchange health insurance compared to around 160 million with employer-based coverage. I have not seen an analysis of the impact of the expansion in premium tax credits and the new affordability definition on the size of these markets. The discussion presented here suggests the impact of this bill may be small. It would be a fun exercise to merge databases and get an estimate of this impact.

The original definition of affordability based on the IRS interpretation always troubled me. I hope it is replaced with a more rational definition.

Issue Three: Discussing an Omitted Issue the Elimination of the Individual Mandate.

The ACA includes a provision requiring most taxpayers in the United States have continuous health insurance or pay a fine to the IRS. One of the most notable “achievements” of the Trump Administration was the repeal of the individual mandate. The individual mandate was considered vital by many health care economists because it forced people to purchase health insurance prior to becoming sick and helped stabilize health insurance premiums. The individual mandate was unpopular and strongly opposed by conservatives and libertarians who considered it an assault on freedom.

The issue of the repeal of the individual mandate is not addressed in this bill. The omission of a remedy for this problem is most likely due to political considerations.

There are other less politically abrasive ways to facilitate continuous health insurance coverage, which could substitute for the repealed mandate. The existence of a tax credit for the purchase of health insurance and/or a tax credit for contributions to health savings accounts, contingent on continuous health coverage would also increase the size of the insurance pool.

Issue Four: Evaluating a Reinsurance Program

The ACA modification bill includes a provision for reinsurance payments to insurance companies for high-risk and high-cost health care cases. Reinsurance payments are generally structured as payments from the government to private insurers or as transfers among insurers. Direct payments from the government to insurance companies are often attacked as corporate welfare. The Republican Congress has refused to fund risk corridor payments approved as part of the ACA. Litigation on these risk corridor payments has moved to the Supreme Court.

Another more politically attractive way to reduce risks associated with high health care costs would have the government make direct payments to patients who need high-cost care. The government could pay part of the cost of an endocrinologist to reduce expenses associated with chronic diabetes. The government could also pay part of the share of cancer treatments, which often occur out of network. Direct government payments to patients for high cost services that are often out of network could lower the cost of health insurance on narrow network plans and reduce lost revenue from the premium tax credit, which is linked to the cost of premiums.

These direct payments, like reinsurance payments, reduce risk for the insurer and reduce out-of-pocket costs for the patient. Payments for some treatments of a particular disease could reduce the incentive for insurance companies to cherry pick and design plans that would discourage enrollment by individuals with certain diseases.

Issue Five: Trump Executive Orders Undermining ACA State Exchanges

The Trump Administration has issued three executive orders — (1) state waivers for essential benefit coverage in health insurance policies, (2) the creation of short term health plans with substantial coverage gaps, and (3) the creation of Association Health Plans — which undermine the ACA.

Waivers of Essential Health Benefits:

The waivers for insurance covering essential health benefits lowers premiums for some healthy people but worsens the risk pool and increases prices for people seeking health insurance with essential health benefits. Health plans with waivers for essential benefits can lead to coverage gaps for routine procedures and conditions. Narrow network HMOs are a better way to obtain lower premiums than plans that curtail essential health benefits. Again, one way to motivate growth of narrow-network health plans is to provide a government subsidy for limited out-of-network benefits when such services are needed.

Short Term Health Plans:

The primary advantage of short term health plans is their lower premiums. However, coverage is often inadequate with many common procedures not covered. The policies also do not cover pre-existing conditions even though critics of the ACA have acknowledged a need to maintain protections for people with pre-existing conditions. This article does a good job in documenting problems with short term health plans.

Article on Problems with Shot Term Health Plans

https://familiesusa.org/product/seven-reasons-trump-administrations-short-term-health-plans-are-harmful-families

The Democratic bill simply repeals short term health plans.

An alternative approach would allow private short term private health insurance in partnership with Medicaid. The private plan would cover people with pre-existing conditions and cover all essential health benefits up to a $50,000 expenditure limit. This approach would authorize automatic Medicaid enrollment once the $50,000 limit was breached. This new approach essentially converts Medicaid into a reinsurance program. This proposal for a private insurance/Medicaid partnership was outlined in a 2008 paper.

Medicaid Spend Down Rules and a Health Care Reform Proposal

https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1162887

The private health insurance/Medicaid partnership approach would be combined with repeal of existing inadequate short term health plans.

Association Health Plans:

The proposed Association Health Plans would allow small businesses to purchase their health plans from an industry group that creates an Association. Association health plans have been tried in the past and have resulted in a lot of fraud and insolvency.

Commonwealth Fund Article on Insurance Scams:

https://www.commonwealthfund.org/publications/issue-briefs/2003/aug/health-insurance-scams-how-government-responding-and-what

Commonwealth Fund Article on Muti-employer Plan insolvency

https://www.commonwealthfund.org/publications/issue-briefs/2004/mar/mewas-threat-plan-insolvency-and-other-challenges

These Trump Administration executive orders by undermining ACA state exchanges assure that employers must play a larger role in providing health insurance to their employees. The Republican party backed by conservative economists was at one point interested in replacing employer sponsored health insurance with market places where workers could directly purchase private health insurance policies. In 2008, Senator John McCain offered a plan where employer tax preferences associated with the provision of insurance were replaced with an individual tax credit for private insurance purchases.

The Republican party no longer appears interested in reducing the role of employer in the provision of health insurance to the public.

Issue Six: The Cost of Annual Re-enrollment

The ACA requires people to reenroll each year. By contrast, people with employer-based insurance remain enrolled until they change jobs.

The annual reenrollment requirement results in state exchanges having large reenrollment costs. This bill seeks more funds for annual reenrollment efforts.

A more effective approach would involve changes to ACA rules that would allow for permanent enrollment. One impediment to permanent enrollment in ACA policies involves the loss of premium tax credits for people once they obtain an offer of affordable employer based health insurance. A second issue leading to annual reenrollment is the fact that premium payments by the individual change with annual income.

Further alterations in the premium tax credit and rules governing eligibility for the credit might be needed to facilitate permanent enrollment in ACA state exchange health plans.

Concluding Remarks:

The concept of state exchange market places for health insurance policies was originally a Republican idea. The Trump Administration is vigorously undermining state health exchanges created by the ACA. Many of the plans offered by the Administration including Associated Health Plans and Health Reimbursement Accounts will result in small businesses playing a larger role in the provision of health insurance to their employees. This creates costs both in terms of time and money for small business owners.

The proposal analyzed here takes some good steps in reversing these Trump Administration policies and includes some other provisions strengthening the ACA. However, even after enactment of these proposals, state exchange marketplaces will represent a small fraction of the market for health insurance. Even after enactment of these proposals, many people will remain ineligible for premium tax credits on state exchanges and the tax advantages associated with employer based insurance will remain substantially better than tax advantages associated with state exchange insurance.

Not all Democrats are in favor of saving and strengthening ACA state exchanges. Both Medicare for all and Medicare for America (a version of Medicare for all with an opt-out provision) would eliminate state exchanges and the need for this bill. This bill and further expansions of state exchanges would be essential if the Democrats chose to add a public option to state exchanges because the public option would decrease the already relatively low demand for private insurance on state exchanges.

Authors Note: David Bernstein retired from the U.S. Treasury in 2012 and became a freelance writer and consultant. He is the author of “Defying Magnets: Centrist Policies in a Polarized World,” https://www.amazon.com/Defying-Magnets-Centrist-Policies-Polarized/dp/179668015X

Six Reasons 401(k) Contributions Should Not be Your Top Priority

Many financial advisors believe contributions to 401(k) investments should almost always be their client’s top priority.   They sort of recognize that people who can’t pay their current bills on time and have no funds for basic emergencies need to limit or even forego contributions to illiquid retirement accounts.  However, in almost all other circumstances financial advisors favor expanding 401(k) contributions over other financial priorities.  

My view is that financial advisors tend to overprioritize the importance of 401(k) contributions at the expense of several other financial priorities. Many households should lessen the accumulation of 401(k) growth when it leads to higher borrowing costs, increased lifetime debt burdens, and outstanding mortgage obligations in retirement.  Households need to evaluate the impact of excessive reliance on 401(k) savings on tax obligations in retirement, the impact of 401(k) fees on retirement savings, and how use of alternative assets outside a 401(k) account might reduce financial risk in retirement.

Six goals – (1) Improved liquidity, (2) reduction of lifetime debt payments, (3) accumulation of house equity and mortgage reduction, (4) reduction of tax obligations in retirement, (5) reduction of 401(k) fees, and (6) management of financial risks — can lead a person to delay or reduce 401(k)  contributions. We consider circumstances where these six financial goals might override the need to increase 401(k) contributions.

Improved Liquidity:   

Many young adults are leaving college with substantial debt and little or no funds saved for emergencies.   These individuals need to reduce debt, create a fund for emergencies.  They are not in a position to tie up funds in an illiquid retirement account. 

Failure to create an emergency fund and eliminate credit card debt could lead to a deterioration in a borrower’s credit rating, which could result in much higher interest rates and a lifetime of higher borrowing costs.  A person with good credit could obtain an interest rate around 60 less than a person with bad credit for a private student loan or an auto loan.   A mortgage rate could be 40 percent lower for the person with good credit.

  • I considered the impact of credit quality on lifetime interest payments for a person with good credit and a person with bad credit.   My example involves people with three loans – a $15,000 auto loan, a $40,000 student loan and a $300,000 mortgage.   The person with good credit pays $159k less than the person with bad credit over the life of the three loans.  The largest potential savings from good credit is associated with the mortgage because it is the largest loan.

Low liquidity and high debt could lead to a great deal of discomfort and distress. In the case of a natural disaster, this could involve the difference between staying in a public shelter or flying away to a vacation.  Many people without credit or cash will find it difficult to move to a new city even if the move will lead to a higher paying job.  Bad credit can make it difficult to be approved for an apartment, may result in required down payments on utilities or cell phones, may result in the denial of a job opportunity, and higher insurance premiums.

A person who decides to tie up funds in an illiquid retirement account and allows her credit rating to deteriorate will have high borrowing costs and a more stressful life.   These adverse impacts could be avoided through the following steps. 

  • Establishment of a substantial fund for emergencies prior to tying up funds in an illiquid 401(k) account.
  • Evaluate the likely impact of contributions to your 401(k) plan on your ability to repay your loan. Make sure all bills will be paid on time prior to starting 401(k) contributions
  • Reduce 401(k) contributions and make additional debt payments as soon as debt payment problems occur.

Lifetime Debt Reduction:  

Some financial analysts acknowledge that reduction in high-interest rate credit card debt should be a high priority but are okay with long term student loan or mortgage obligations because these loans have lower interest rates.  The problem is that student loans and mortgages are often huge and lead to large lifetime debt burdens. 

  • Lifetime debt payments can be reduced by around 18 percent by selecting a 10-year student loan over a 20-year student loan and by around 20 percent by selecting a 15-year mortgage over a 30-year mortgage.

Many people can only afford the payment on the shorter-term loan by reducing payments to their 401(k) plan.  People need to consider actions that minimize lifetime debt payments even if these actions result in lower contributions to a 401(k) plan.

Here are some options.

  • Young adults who take their first job after college but plan to reenter school should almost always save for their graduate school tuition rather than tie up funds in a 401(k) plan. 
  • Student borrowers should attempt to take a 10-year student loan rather than a 20-year student loan if at all possible.  Income based replacement loans and public service loans that offer the possibility of loan forgiveness exist; however, the Department of Education has refused to discharge some of these loans and reliance on these loan programs is a risky financial strategy.  A 10-year loan may be the most effective way to limit your lifetime student loan payments. 
  • Borrowers should consider repaying their student loans in fewer than 10 years to further reduce interest payments.
  • The use of a 15-year mortgage rather than a 30-year mortgage probably requires total elimination of the student loan and may require that you delay purchasing your first house.   One problem with this approach is that when housing prices rise a delay in the first house purchase will result in a higher house price.

Mortgage Debt Elimination:

More and more older people must pay mortgages during retirement.   One study using Census Department data found that people over 60 were three times higher to have a mortgage in 2015 than they were in 1980.  

Many financial advisors are okay with their clients taking a mortgage into retirement and recommend additional catch-up 401(k) contributions over additional mortgage payments.  This is often terrible advice.

Stocks tend to have higher returns over other asset classes over long term investment horizons.   However, stock returns over a 5-year to 10-year time frame are often quite low.   By contrast, a dollar invested in reducing the mortgage balance results in a certain return.

During working years contributions to 401(k) plans are exempt from income tax.   However, during retirement all disbursements from traditional 401(K) accounts are fully taxed as ordinary income.  A person with an outstanding mortgage in retirement will, all else equal, have to disburse a larger amount than a debt-free person.  The larger disbursements lead to a higher tax obligation in retirement.  

Moreover, a person with a large mortgage balance in retirement may not be able to reduce 401(k) disbursements during a market downturn, which may lead an increased risk of the person outliving her savings.

People who pay off their mortgage on or before the date they retire tend to have planned for that outcome.   Often this outcome entails taking out a 15-year mortgage when purchasing their final home.   The simplest comparison involves a person planning to retire in 15 years who takes out either a 15-year or 30-year fixed rate mortgage.  For purposes of illustration assume the loan amount is $450,000 and the interest rates are 3.8 percent for the 30-year loan and 3.3 percent for the 15-year loan.  This is similar to current mortgage rates.   The outstanding loan balance after 15 years of payments is $0 for the 15-year loan compared to $287k for the 30-year loan.

People need to make the elimination of mortgage debt prior to retirement a high priority in their financial plan.  The following steps should be considered.

  • Taking out 15-year mortgage rather than 30-year mortgages on all homes purchased during their lifetime, even if higher mortgage payments result in the borrower having to reduce 401(k) contributions.
  • Rolling over all funds received from the sale of a home into the down payment on the purchase of the subsequent home.
  • Foregoing 401(k) catch up contributions at age 50 in order to accelerate mortgage payoff prior to retirement.

The decision to take a 15-year mortgage rather than a 30-year mortgage and the decision to reduce your 401(k) contribution could increase your current year tax liability.  However, the tax reform act of 2017 reduced the number of homeowners who claim the mortgage deduction on their tax return.  My view is that financial advisors and clients often place too high a priority on immediate reductions in tax obligations and should be more focused on reduction of risk and long-term financial objectives.   

Tax Considerations:  

There are two major tax benefits associated with 401(k) contributions. Contributions to conventional 401(K) plans are exempt from tax in the year the contribution is made.   All capital gains and investment income accumulate tax free until the income is disbursed from the 401(k) account.  As a result, contributions to a 401(k) plan are a highly effective way to reduce current year taxes and to forego taxes until disbursements in retirement. 

During retirement all disbursements from conventional 401(k) plans are taxed as ordinary income, which for most people is a substantially higher rate than the tax on capital gains on assets held outside a 401(k) plan.    

Increased 401(k) contributions decrease current year taxes and delay tax obligations.   People with a high concentration of their wealth in 401(k) accounts have higher tax obligations in retirement.   People must consider the tradeoff between immediate tax reduction and future tax obligations.

Several recent tax changes have reduced the importance of the exemption of 401(k) contributions from taxes for some middle-income household.  First, the increase in the standard deduction established in the 2017 tax law reduced potential tax saving from 401(k) contributions for some households with lower marginal tax rates.   Second, households have increased contributions to health savings accounts, which are also exempt from federal and state income tax.  These recent changes may have resulted in a decrease in 401(k) contributions. 

There are several different ways you might minimize tax obligations during retirement.   All of these techniques involve investing more funds outside your conventional 401(k) plan.

  • Funds placed in Roth accounts are fully taxed in the year they are contributed but are never taxed in subsequent years.  Roth 401(k) accounts are a relatively new innovation not available at all firms.  People with income above certain levels are not allowed to contribute to a Roth IRA.   Financial advisors tend to do a good job analyzing the relative merits of Roth versus conventional retirement accounts.
  • The elimination of a mortgage prior to retirement will reduce required 401(k) disbursements, which are fully taxed.
  • Capital gains on stock not in a retirement account are taxed at a lower rate than the ordinary income tax rate.  There are significant tax advantages with holding I-bonds issues by the Treasury and municipal bonds instead of bond funds inside a 401(k) plan.

It is important to consider both current year and future tax obligations when evaluating different investment opportunities and retirement savings options.

The importance of 401(k) fees

Many small firms with 401(k) plans charge fees of more than 1.5% per year of total assets.  Fees exceeding 2.0 % per year are not uncommon.

Fees at this magnitude can substantially erode retirement savings. In a recent blog post I calculated lifetime fees for a worker who contributes to a 401(k) fee with an annual fee of 2 percent of assets.   I found lifetime fees were roughly 25 percent of the 401(K) balance on the date of retirement.   

Should you invest in a 401(k) plan, an IRA or both?

https://medium.com/@bernstein.book1958/should-you-invest-in-a-401-k-plan-an-ira-or-both-finance-memos-3d5047c1b87b

High 401(k) fees pose significant challenges to investors in the current low-interest rate environment.  The current 10-year rate is around 1.5 % and the annual fee on some plans is over 2.0 %.  This results in a negative return on bonds invested inside a 401(k) plan.

Experts argue contributions to a high-fee 401(k) plan are still appropriate when there is an employer match. Perhaps this is correct but there is something wrong with a system that provides people incentives to save in high fee accounts.  

There are steps you can take to minimize the impact of high 401(k) fees.

  • Limit contributions to the amount needed to take full advantage of the employer match.
  • In the current low-interest rate environment, decrease 401(k) investments inside bond funds. Retain a balanced portfolio by purchasing bonds directly through the Treasury at Treasury Direct where there are no transaction costs.
  • On the day you leave your present employer convert your high-cost 401(k) plan to a low-cost IRA offered by Schwab, Vanguard, or Fidelity.

People need to fully evaluate fees charged by their firm’s 401(k) plans and adopt appropriate steps to reduce the impact of these fees on the erosion of their retirement savings.

Financial Risks:

I am concerned about two types of financial risks in 401(k) plans – (1) inappropriate investments options and (2) Interest rate exposure.   

Inappropriate Investment Options:

There is a substantial finance literature indicating that low-cost index funds outperform high-cost actively managed funds.   Some firm managers ignore this literature and choose actively managed funds.  Often this choice leads to poor results and litigation.  Below is a link to an article on litigation over 401(k) investment performance.

https://www.marketwatch.com/story/401k-lawsuits-are-surging-heres-what-it-means-for-you-2018-05-09

The optimal strategy for a person working for a firm with a 401(k) plan that has poor investment options may be to only contribute enough funds to take full advantage of the employer match.  Employees at such firms need to consider opening an IRA instead of contributing to the firm 401(k) plan.   The employee should then rollover their 401(k) funds into an IRA as soon as they leave the firm.  (Some 401(k) plans may allow current employees to rollover funds into an IRA.  I don’t know the rules on this.)

Interest Rate Exposure:

Interest rates remain below historical levels and central bank interest rates are actually negative in some countries.   This situation will not last forever.  When interest rates rise the price of bonds and the price of bond funds will decrease leading to losses.

Most 401(k) plans allow for investment in broad funds but do not allow for investments in government bonds with a specific maturity date.   The advantage of investing in a government bond with a specific maturity date is the holder of the bond will receive the full par value of the bond on the day the bond matures.   By contrast, the value of shares in a bond fund will be below the purchase price of the bond fund should interest rates rise and remain high.

Most 401(k) plans include a fixed income fund as an investment option and many 401(k) investors allocate a substantial share of their funds to the fixed income funds.   These households could result in large financial losses once we return to a more normal interest rate environment.   

My only recommendation on this problem is to consider investments in zero coupon Treasury bonds that are guaranteed to have a specific value on their maturity date.

The financial exposure associated with the eventual rise in interest rates is a scenario that keeps me up late at night.  I don’t see an obvious solution.

Concluding Remarks:

Financial advisors have always stressed the importance of investing in 401(k) plans.  This advice is better suited for people with high income, abundant funds for emergencies, and little or no debt than for the typical highly leveraged young adult.   

Even after a young adult gets a decent job, eliminates onerous credit card debt and builds up a decent emergency fund there is a need to balance competing financial objectives.  Often it makes more sense for a person to minimize lifetime debt payments and increase the accumulation of house equity than to increase contributions to a 401(k) plan.  Many people can also obtain better financial results (reduced tax obligations in retirement, lower fees, and better investment opportunities) by reducing their wealth holdings inside a 401(k) account and increasing holdings outside a 401(k) account.

The author is an economist living in Colorado.   He is the author of “Defying Magnets:   Centrist Policies in a Polarized World.”  This book can be obtained on Kindle or Amazon.  

2020 Policy Questions: Health Care

Progressives believe that revisions to the ACA would not substantially improve health insurance.  Centrists believe Medicare for All is fiscally unsustainable and could lead to unforeseen outcomes.  Guess What! They both might be right.

Questions for Centrists:  State health exchange markets created by the Affordable Care Act provides health insurance to roughly 5 percent of the working-age population.  Employer-based health insurance remains the dominant provider of health insurance to this segment of the population.   Do you favor reforms that would substantially expand the role of state exchanges in providing health insurance to more workers, especially workers at small firms? Would you acknowledge that a reform program that modestly increases the role of state exchanges but leave employer-based insurance as the dominant health insurance market will have a relatively modest impact on health insurance problems?

Many people have inadequate health insurance. Many health insurance policies have high deductibles and high out-of-pocket limits.  Many health insurance policies only provide benefit in a narrow geographic area have narrow networks and often do not cover services rendered by an out-of-network provider working in an in-network facility. These problems with existing health care plans leave many people with unanticipated health care debt, cause some people to reduce retirement savings and cause other people to forego necessary medical procedures and prescribed medicines.  What does your health plan do to improve coverage for people who currently have a comprehensive health plan?

Questions for Progressives:

The Medicare for All bill is entirely tax financed.   Under Medicare for All, health care expenditures directly impact the budget.  How would this program be insulated from budgetary pressures?

  • The Medicare for All bill creates a universal Medicare care trust fund?  What is the purpose and what are the limitations of this trust fund?  Have there been simulations of the long-term solvency of the universal health care trust fund?
  • Would general tax revenue and funds raised from bonds be automatically used to cover health care expenditures if funds in the trust fund did not cover all benefits?
  • Won’t future Congresses consider adjustments to health care expenditures and provider compensation rates based on the annual budget?   Shouldn’t Congress be more concerned about the overall deficit and the trend of the debt to GDP limit than the status of the trust fund?
  • Could the Secretary of HHS in a fiscally conservative Administration reduce benefits and compensation rates?
  • What would happen to Medicare for All benefits when there is a government shut down or a debt limit problem?    Who gets paid first people who need health care or people who own government debt?  

The current bill exempts Medicare for All from the Hyde amendment. What would prevent a future Administration and Congress from applying the Hyde Amendment to Medicare for All; thereby eliminating all insurance payments for abortion services?

People who want to learn more about how these issues are playing out in the 2020 contest should go here.

https://medium.com/@bernstein.book1958/how-should-centrists-respond-to-senator-warren-on-health-care-e82967734384?source=friends_link&sk=26049a4353e9ac170e9ec0323cef64aa