Improving Health Savings Accounts & High Deductible Health Plans

Abstract:  The increased use of High Deductible Health Plans and Health Savings Accounts has created substantial financial risks for low-income and mid-income households and has caused many people to decline essential medical procedures and regimens, a practice which can increase future medical costs.  These problems can be rectified through a new tax credit for contributions to health savings accounts and changes in rules governing high-deductible health plans.  Improvements to health savings account and high-deductible health plans are a more effective way to reduce financial risk for people with comprehensive health insurance coverage than ideas under consideration by President-elect Biden and his team.

Introduction:

Most of the focus of healthcare reform proposals is on providing health insurance to the uninsured.   However, low-income and mid-income households with comprehensive high-deductible health insurance face substantial financial exposure.  This memo identifies problems with the use of high-deductible health plans combined with health savings accounts and proposes improvements to this type of insurance.

High-Deductible Health Plans coupled with Health Savings Accounts are growing in market share and are currently the only health plan offered by around 40 percent of employers. Contributions to Health Savings Accounts result in significant tax advantages and the combination of a high-deductible health plan coupled with a health savings account is a sensible health insurance product for many households.  The combination can reduce premiums, incentivizes some people to economize on health care and creates a new source of retirement savings.

However, there are problems with the growing use of health savings accounts and high-deductible health plans.  

The combination of a health savings account and high-deductible health plan is much better suited for high-income households than for low-income households.  The use of health savings accounts has resulted in low-income and middle-income people with relatively low marginal tax rates paying more after taxes for health services than higher-income people with higher marginal tax rates. Low-income and mid-income households have an incentive to fund health savings accounts by reducing contributions to 401(k) plans because they may not have enough income or liquidity to take advantage of both tax deductions.

The use of health savings accounts and high deductible health plans encourage people to economize on health care, which can lead to a reduction in wasteful spending and a decrease in premiums.  A decision to economize on the use of health care can also result in bad health outcomes and higher future health expenditures.  

A high deductible and a lack of funds often causes people to forego necessary health care procedures and regimens.  This problem is most pronounced for the use of prescriptions for chronic diseases. Studies have shown that 20% to 30% of prescriptions are never filled and that around 50% of prescriptions for chronic diseases are not taken as prescribed.  The research indicates that a lack of adherence to prescription drug prescriptions contributes to 125,000 deaths, at least 10 percent of hospitalizations, and increased annual health costs ranging from $100 billion to $289 billion.  The decision to decline necessary treatments like prescription drugs for the treatment of diabetes will cause severe complications and often results in people leaving the workforce early with little retirement savings.

The rules governing contributions to and the use of funds in health savings accounts make funds in 401(k) plans and health savings accounts highly substitutable especially for older households.  Often people will reduce contributions to 401(k) plans in order to fund a health savings account.  The greater use of health savings accounts and high deductible health plans will result in sicker people having lower levels of retirement savings than healthy people.  

Finally, some healthy young adults with high levels of debt may choose to go uninsured or seek short-term health plans that do not cover many essential health services.  This problem is most pronounced for people seeking state-exchange insurance who are ineligible for the premium tax credit.  (A person making $50,000 year seeking self-only health insurance coverage pays 100 percent of the health insurance premiums on state exchanges.)  Young adults in this situation are unlikely to receive substantial benefits from a high-deductible health plan and may decline comprehensive coverage.  This decision can lead to potentially catastrophic outcomes.

Potential Policy Responses:

Three policy changes designed to mitigate problems associated with health savings accounts and high deductible plans are proposed and discussed.

Modification One: Taxpayers with family income less than 400 percent of the federal poverty line would be offered a refundable tax credit of $750 for individual plans or $1,500 for family plans to fund their health savings account.   Higher income households could continue to make untaxed contributions to their health savings accounts

Comments on modification one:

This modification directly reduces the economic disparities associated with tax deductions.  High-income people, with high marginal tax rates, receive a more generous tax deduction than low-income people taxed at lower marginal tax rates.

The modification makes a high-deductible health plan more palatable to low-income people. The additional cash given to low-income households should encourage adherence to prescribed medical procedures and treatments.

The tax credit would only be available to people who have active qualified plans.   The loss of the tax credit from a lapse in insurance coverage encourages continuous health insurance coverage.

A generous tax credit for health savings accounts could encourage some young adults to take out their own health insurance and claim the credit rather than remain on their parent’s plan.   This could strengthen state exchange marketplaces.  

This modification could be enacted through the tax reconciliation process, which only requires a majority of the U.S. Senate.

Modification Two:  Contributions to health savings accounts would be allowed for people with higher coinsurance rate plans even if their plan had a relatively low deductible.

Comments on modification two:

The current laws governing health savings accounts only allow contributions from people with a high deductible health plan even though health plans with a relatively low deductible and high coinsurance rates after the deductible may be more effective at encouraging people to economize on health care than high-deductible health plans.

Consider a simple example comparing incentives to economize for a high deductible health plan and a high coinsurance rate health plan.

The first plan has a $5,000 deductible and no coinsurance for expenses over $5,000.   The insured individual may be reluctant to spend anything on health care unless he believes that total expenses will go over $5,000.   Once expenses exceed $5,000 the person has no reason to economize on covered expenses.

The second health plan has a $0 deductible and a 50% coinsurance rate.   The person has a partial incentive to economize on health care starting with the first dollar of expenditure.    The person does not lose this incentive to economize on health care until al health expenses exceed $10,000.

People with high deductibles may refuse to or be unable to fill their prescription until after their deductible is met.   The low deductible but high coinsurance plan provides a partial payment for prescription medicine throughout the year.  The low-deductible high coinsurance rate health plan might reduce the number of people who decline necessary prescription medicines.     

High deductible health plans do have one important advantage.   High deductibles tend to be a highly effective way to reduce premiums.  In most cases, the high-deductible plan will be less expensive than the high coinsurance rate plan because the insurance company does not make any benefit payments until the deductible is met.  

The choice between a high coinsurance rate plan and a high deductible health plan may depend on who pays the premium.   When employers or government subsidies pay for the premium households are likely to prefer the more expensive plans.  Individuals may be indifferent or prefer the less expensive plan when they are responsible for premium payments.

This change could be enacted through the tax reconciliation process, which only requires a majority vote in the U.S. Senate.

Modification Three:  Regulations governing prescription benefit formulas for high-deductible plans should be modified to require partial payment on prescription drugs for the treatment of chronic diseases prior to the deductible being met. 

Comment on modification three:

Most health care plans have some deductibles.   Today many low-deductible health plans pay most costs for prescription drugs even prior to the deductible being met.  However, many of the new high-deductible health plans do not pay for any prescription drug treatments prior to the deductible.

Patients who receive no prescription drug benefits until a very large deductible is met have a strong incentive to forego prescribed medicines.  This incentive is especially large for people with diseases like diabetes where the patient does not have immediate symptoms.  However, the failure to control chronic health problems can lead to bad health consequences and more expensive health services in the long or medium term.  For example, the failure by diabetics to control blood sugar can lead to kidney problems, eye problems, amputation and heart issues.

One way to reduce the tendency for patients with high deductible health plans to economize by foregoing the use of prescription drugs is to treat these prescriptions as preventive treatments that are currently exempt from the deductible.   The current law allows high-deductible health plan to make payments for some preventive treatments prior to the deductible being met.  The Department of Health and Human Services could mandate coverage for some prescriptions treating chronic diseases as a preventive method under current regulations.   This goal might also be achieved with an executive order signed by the new President. 

Financial Impacts:

The proposed modifications to rules governing health savings accounts and high-deductible health plans have potential financial impacts. 

The proposed modifications are more generous than current rules.   Typically, more generous tax rules result in a loss of revenue to the Treasury.

In this case, the more generous features applied to high-deductible health plans could accelerate a shift from low-deductible or high-option health plans to less expensive high-deductible plans.  The decrease in premiums from the shift toward less expensive but comprehensive insurance results in both a decrease in tax expenditures on employer-based insurance and a decrease in the premium tax credit for the purchase of state exchange insurance.   The reduced tax expenditure from the increased use of high-deductible health plans will offset the more generous benefits.

President-elect Biden’s plan to reduce problems associated with out-of-pocket health care costs involves changing a regulation governing the premium tax credit used to subsidize health insurance premiums for state exchange insurance.   His proposal would link the premium tax credit to a “gold” plan with a higher benefit ratio than the current baseline “silver” plan.  

President-elect Biden’s proposal does not benefit people with employer-based insurance.

President-elect Biden’s increases premiums on subsidized state exchange health plans.  The tax credit for low-income contributions to health savings accounts by low-income households leads premiums and the subsidy for premiums unchanged.   It is a more cost-effective way to reduce financial risk associated with high-deductible health plans than the proposal considered by President-elect Biden and his team.

Another way to partially offset the lost tax revenue stemming from new subsidies for health savings accounts and high-deductible health plans involves prohibiting all non-health related expenditures from health savings accounts prior to retirement.   (Current rules allow for distributions for non-related health expenses with a financial penalty prior to age 65 and taxed distributions without penalty after age 65.)  Restrictions on non-health care distributions prior to retirement would also increase funds late in life for long term care expenses and could reduce Medicaid long term care spending.

Concluding Remarks:   The changes to the rules governing health savings accounts considered here are beneficial for several reasons. The changes reduce financial risks associated with high out-of-pocket costs.  The new rules reduce incentives for people to forego necessary medical treatments, especially prescription medicines for chronic conditions.   This could reduce future medical expenditures from people ignoring chronic conditions.  Additional benefits encourage people to remain insured even when they are healthy and expect to receive very little in reimbursements from their health plan.   The new benefits make cost sharing more palatable, which in turn reduces premiums and tax expenditures on premium subsidies.  

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.  

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.”

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.  

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

Financial Tips:   When should a person use an Individual Retirement Account rather than a 401(k) plan?   When should a person leaving an employer convert her 401(k) plan into an IRA?

Analysis:

Most financial advisors believe that workers saving for retirement should invest in a 401(k). rather than an IRA.  Many government rules favor 401(k) contributions over iRA contributions.  First, employee contribution limits for 401(k) plans are around 3 times higher than limits for IRAs.  Second employees are allowed to make additional contributions to 401(k) plans but are not allowed to make similar contributions to IRAs.  Third, many employers routinely match employee contributions.   Fourth, the IRS imposes limits on deductibility of some iRAs but not the deductibility of 401(k) plans.   Fifth, the IRS restricts Roth IRA contributions for higher income households but does not restrict contributions to Roth 401(k) plans.   

IRS rules allow 401(k) plans to automatically enroll workers who do not opt out.  However, there are situations where people are better off investing in an IRA separate from their employer than in the firm 401(k) plan. 

The main factor favoring IRAs over 401(k) plans is the higher administrative costs of 401(k) plans.  Fees on 401(k) plans are applied to the entire 401(k) balance and are often between 1 percent or 2 percent per year.  These fees can substantially erode a workers 401(k) balance over the course of the workers lifetime. 

High 401(k) fees are more prevalent at small firms than large firms. People working at a firm offering a plan charging high 401k) fees and offering little or no employer contributions need to look at other investment options than their 401(k) plan. High 401(k) fees can substantially erode retirement savings.   These fees can largely be avoided by using an IRA rather than a 401(k) plan to save for retirement.

I constructed a spreadsheet to estimate the impact of high 401(k) fees at retirement savings.   The assumptions in a baseline analysis involved a person with a starting salary of $50,000 who works for 35 years and realizes wage growth of 2% per year over her entire career.  This person contributes 10 percent of her salary to a 401(k) plan and earns an annual return of 7%.

When fees are 2 percent of the end-of-year 401(k) balance the total fees over the entire 35-year career are slightly more than $153 k compared to an ending balance of slightly less than $600 k.   

By contrast, when 401(k) fees are 0.5 % (a reasonable fee structure that exists at many firms) total fees over the 30-year career are around $48 k and the ending balance is around $830 k.

Note the difference between ending balances of the two scenarios is much larger than the difference in fees because additional 401(k) income from the lower fee compounds at the average rate of 7 percent per year.

One possible strategy for a worker at a firm that match some employee 401(k) contributions is to make a small contribution to the 401(k) to take advantage of the employer match and then invest additional funds in an IRA. This strategy may or may not be feasible depending on IRS rules governing IRA contributions, deductibility of IRA contributions, and the individual’s household Adjusted Gross Income.

The 401(k) fees are applied to all assets in the 401(k) plan.   In the current low interest rate environment, the expected return on government bonds adjusted for 401(k) fees is negative.   In this circumstance, it may make sense to place more 401(k) funds in equity and accumulate debt investments outside of a 401(k) account where they are not subject to 401(k) fees.  One alternative, which many people overlook, is direct investment in Treasury bonds and bill at Treasury Direct.

https://www.treasurydirect.gov.

Firms like Fidelity, Schwab, and Vanguard aggressively ask people who leave their employer to convert their 401(k) plan to an IRA.   This is the rare case where aggressive solicitation from financial firms is actually sound advice.  Fees on well-designed IRAs are often near 0.2%.  The decision to maintain funds in a dormant high-fee 401(k) plan could lead to a substantial loss in retirement savings.

One of the key selling points of conventional 401(k) plans is the ability of these plans to reduce current year tax obligations.   By contrast, Roth 401(k) plans and Roth IRAs do not reduce current year tax obligation but do reduce taxes in retirement.  A person with low current year tax obligations and the ability to reduce taxes through other means such as contributing to health savings account may choose to reduce or eliminate contributions to a conventional 401(k) plan.   This person might instead invest through a Roth 401(k) plan if available at her firm or through a Roth IRA.  The lack of a Roth 401(k) option may lead some investors who are concerned about tax obligation in retirement to consider a Roth IRA over a conventional 401(k) plan.

The issue of deciding between a 401(k) plan and an IRA is related to several other issues including – the choice between debt reduction and mortgage savings, the choice between investing in a health savings account or a retirement account, and the choice between a conventional and Roth IRA.    Other financial tips on these related issues will follow shortly.

Four Free Books on Kindle June 10, 2019


Innovative Solutions to the College Debt Problem

Discusses existing policies and proposals on college financial aid and student debt and comes up with several new solutions that promise to reduce the number of overextended borrowers without imposing large burdens on taxpayers.

Defying Magnets:  Centrist Policies in a Polarized World

This generation of workers is getting screwed – higher student debt, multiple problems with health insurance coverage, and difficulties saving for retirement.   Three policy primers discusses these inter-related problems.

Things to Consider Before Purchasing Long Term Care insurance

Most people can’t afford long term care insurance.     Insurance companies often raise premiums and cut benefits, years after a policy is purchased.   The possibility of needing Long term care is a major risk.  But you need to solve other problems first.  Best to minimize debt, increase 401(k) savings, buy life insurance ahead of covering this troubling risk. 

Statistical Applications of Baseball

Book teaches introductory statistics through baseball.  A bit dated but baseball is and statistics are constants and book has a number of Interesting real world examples.  

A Centrist Health Plan

Introduction:

Most of the current health care debate in the Democratic party revolves around the adoption of a single-payer health care plan or the addition of a public option to the current system.

The Medicare for-all-option offered by Senator Sanders is on paper a comprehensive solution fixing all health insurance problems.   While many countries have high-quality public health insurance, there has never been an example of a country with an advanced private system abruptly replacing it with a public system

The proposals to expand Medicaid or Medicare currently circulating in Congress could help certain communities or groups.  The provision of Medicaid on state exchange market places would be useful in several rural counties where few private insurance companies choose to compete.   A reduction in the Medicare age or a Medicare buy-in option would benefit older workers who do not have access to employer-based health insurance coverage. 

The adoption of a public option, unlike single-payer proposals does not purport to be a comprehensive solution.  The task of fixing health care system without simply blowing up the current system is difficult.   President Trump, famously observed “Nobody knew that health care can be so complicated.”     There are multiple inter-related  health problems with our current health care system.  A policy that fixes one problem (say high premiums) can worsen another (say high out-of-pocket costs).

A centrist health care plan must do more than shore up state exchange market places through new public options.  The ACA expanded coverage to millions of people but even after the enactment of the ACA many Americans lacked health insurance and under the Trump Administration the number of Americans without health insurance has increased.

This article reports that the uninsured rate went from 10.9 percent in late 2016 to 13.7 percent in December 2018.

https://www.vox.com/2019/1/23/18194228/trump-uninsured-rate-obamacare-medicaid

Moreover, even after the enactment of the  ACA many Americans saw higher premiums, higher out-of-pocket expenses, and reduced access to specialists.  Increasingly, many Americans covered by insurance choose to forego procedures rather or prescription drugs because of high out-of-pocket costs.  Simply adding a public option does not fix these problems.

The remainder of this essay outlines health care problems and centrist solutions.

Health Care Problems and Solutions

Problem One  The Erosion of the Individual Mandate:   The ACA individual mandate was repealed in a recent tax law.  As a result, some people with pre-existing conditions have an incentive to delay the purchase of health insurance until they become sick.  The repeal of the individual mandate undermines state exchange market places and increases health insurance premiums.

Potential Solution:   There are two potential solutions to this problem. 

The first potential solution involves the reinstatement of the individual mandate.  Politically, this is a difficult option because the individual mandate is unpopular and strongly opposed by libertarians and other conservatives who believe that government has no right demanding people spend money in  a particular way.

The second  approach involves creating new financial incentives in the form of tax credits and other subsidies contingent on people holding continuous health insurance coverage.

Subsidies that could be made available only to people with continuous health insurance coverage include:  (1) a tax credit for contributions to health savings accounts, (2) a partial subsidy for high cost out-of-network treatments, and (3) subsidies for some prescription drugs.   Note that a tax credit for health savings account contributions would not even require an additional explicit linkage between the tax credit and health coverage because under current law contributions to health savings accounts are only available to people who have health insurance coverage.

Problem Two: Distortions caused by growing use of health savings accounts and high deductible health plans:   The growing use of health savings accounts coupled with high deductible plans has exacerbated three problems – (1) higher out-of-pocket health care costs, (2) increase in patients forgoing prescribed medicines and medical tests, and (3) reduced funds placed in 401(k) retirement plans.

Potential Solutions:   The distortions caused by the increased use of health savings accounts and high deductible health plans can be mitigated by several policy changes.

First, lower income households would benefit from a refundable tax credit for contributions to a health savings account.  (Current law only allows deductibility of contributions to health savings account, a feature that provides less benefit to low-income low marginal tax rate households.)

Second rules governing contributions to health savings account could be altered.   Current rules only allow contributions by people with a high-deductible health plan.  The revised rule would allow health savings account contributions by people who have a plan with a lower deductible but a high coinsurance rate.   (People with high coinsurance rate plans can have substantial cost sharing obligations but may be less likely to forego needed treatments prior to the deductible being met.)

Third, many existing high deductible health plans now forego all payments on prescription drugs until health expenses exceed the deductible.   By contrast, many traditional health plans with lower deductible pay some prescription drug costs prior to the patient paying the deductible.   The combination of high deductible and absolutely no reimbursement for prescription drugs until the deductible is met results in many people with chronic health conditions like diabetes forgoing needed medicines.  This worsens health conditions and increases costs. 

A rule requiring partial reimbursement for prescription medicines needed to prevent expansion of certain diseases would reduce the incentive for people to forego prescribed medicines.  It might be possible for HHS to adopt this rule change without input by Congress because the current ACA allows high-deductible health plans to reimburse patients for certain preventive health care measures prior to the deductible being met.    

Problem Three:  The limited role of state exchange market places.   State exchange health care markets are much smaller and much less robust than the employer-based health insurance markets.  Around 8 million people are covered by state exchange market places compared to around 155 million people covered by employer-based insurance. 

 Household receiving health coverage from state exchange markets tend to be less affluent than people obtaining health insurance from employer based market.   Go to this post on my math blog for statistics on this point.

http://www.dailymathproblem.com/2019/05/comparing-employer-sponsored-and-state.html

There are relatively few young adults under age 26  in state-exchange markets compared to employer-based markets.  Go to this post in my finance blog for a discussion of this issue.

There is less choice and fewer high quality products in state exchange markets than in employer-based markets.   In some counties few health insurance companies offer coverage and often there is concern that no health insurance companies will offer health insurance in a county.  There is evidence that state exchange insurance policies are more likely to restrict access to certain hospitals and specialists.

Potential Solutions:   It should not be a surprise a small health insurance market with relatively few young adults, and relatively few affluent households will provide less desirable outcomes than a larger health insurance markets with more younger adults and a lot of affluent people. 

The characteristics and limitations of ACA state exchange market places are largely a result of the rules laid out in the ACA.

First, the ACA contains an employer mandate, which provides a financial penalty on employers with more the 50 full time equivalent employees who do not provide health insurance to their employees. The employer mandate could be modified to allow and encourage employers to pay for health insurance on state exchange market places rather than offer a company-specific plan.

Second, the ACA eliminates tax credits to people once they obtain a position offering employer-based insurance coverage.  The rule eliminating tax credits for people with employer-based health plans would be eliminated.

Third, state exchange market places do not provide any preferential tax treatment for the 41 percent of American households with income greater than 400 percent of the federal poverty line.  Households in this income group receive untaxed health insurance from their employer.  This rule reduces political support for state exchange marketplaces.   Support for state exchange marketplaces could be increased through an expanded tax credit.

A Political Note on the Role of State Exchange and Employer-Based Health insurance Marketplaces:

The introduction of state exchange market places to compete with employer-based health insurance is the central aspect of the ACA, a law that was strongly opposed by conservative economists and Republican politicians.   However, the provision of health insurance through private markets separate from the employer was an idea originated by conservative economists and supported by Republican politicians.   To be fair, there were major differences between Republican proposals, which allowed underwriting of premiums and denials of insurance for people with pre-existing conditions and the ACA.  

Republicans are on record of supporting reductions in the use of employer-based health insurance.  In fact, a health care plan offered by Senator McCain replaces the entire current employer based tax preference with a tax credit for the purchase of health insurance through state market places.   

The protections for pre-existing conditions and the limitations on underwriting of premiums increase access to health insurance for many people who would otherwise be uninsured.   (The election results of 2018 indicate the Democrats largely won this debate.)   There is some Republican support for moving the purchase of health insurance from the employer to private markets.   Could Republicans support proposals that move more people from employer-based insurance to current ACA state exchanges?

Problem Four  The introduction of short-term bare-bones health plan has increased household financial risk and undermined state exchange market places.  The  Trump Administration has enacted rules that allow use of short term health plans.   These health plans often do not cover many services that are considered essential health benefits in an ACA plan. The coverage gaps result in unanticipated bills and financial exposure.  The short term option reduces demand for ACA policies.

Potential Solutions:   There are two way to address problem caused by the introduction of ACA plan.

The first approach is to repeal the Trump era regulation and return to a system where short term health plans are prohibited.   Repeal creates a situation where people who took out short term health plans will either lose coverage or purchase an ACA plan with a higher premium.

The second approach involves modifying short term plans to allow for an annual cap but to require coverage of all essential health benefits.  People with expenditures over the annual cap would get automatic Medicaid coverage once the cap was reached.

This policy essentially converts Medicaid into a reinsurance program responsible for health care costs over the annual limit.  I loosely describe this approach in a 2008 paper on SSRN.  https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1162887)

Problem Five:  Lack of access to elite out-of-network hospitals and specialists.  Typically, narrow network HMOs provide excellent health care and charge lower premiums.   However, people who get extremely sick with certain illnesses require treatment by specialists that are only offered at certain hospitals.   This is called the “breaking bad” problem as portrayed by the fictional high school chemistry teacher who chooses to make meth to pay for his cancer treatments.

Potential Solutions:  The “breaking bad” problem can be solved by having the government share part of the costs of expensive specialized out-of-network care.  Having the government pay for a portion of complex treatments that could only be handled in sophisticated out-of-network hospitals would reduce premiums for limited network HMO plans.  This reduction in health care premiums would also reduce tax subsidies on health care purchases both on the ACA state exchange subsidies and the employer-based health insurance subsidies.

This proposal offers two benefits – lower premiums on basic narrow-network health care and access to more expensive out-of-network care should the narrow network be unable to treat certain health conditions.

Problem Five:  A lack of affordable health coverage for people nearing the end of their careers who are not eligible for Medicare.

Potential Solution:    One approach to this problem is to allow the purchase of Medicare by individuals 50 or over without an offer of employer-based health.

An expanded Medicare option for people over the age of 50 could be combined with a higher (old-young) age-rate premium ratio to lower costs for younger households.    

Problem Six:   Limited State Exchange Offerings and High Premiums for Certain Counties.  Some counties have few health insurance companies offering ACA coverage.   It has been reported that in 2018 around half of counties had only  insurance company offering ACA coverage.

Heritage Foundation article on counties with limited health insurance coverage

https://www.heritage.org/health-care-reform/report/2018-obamacare-health-insurance-exchanges-competition-and-choice-continue

Potential Solution:  Senator Schatz’s health insurance bill allowing states to offer health insurance on state exchanges would create another option in many counties with only one or relatively few ACA providers

Go here for a description of the Schatz-Lujn legislation:

https://www.schatz.senate.gov/press-releases/schatz-lujn-introduce-legislation-to-create-public-health-care-option

Summarizing the Centrist Health Care Plan

A comprehensive centrist health care plan might both expand and improve health insurance coverage.   It would lower premiums and reduce out-of-pocket expenses.   The simultaneous achievement of these two goals is often difficult because many policy changes that reduce premiums increase out-of-pocket costs while policies that reduce out-of-pocket costs often increase premiums.

Here are some aspects of the plan:

  • Link all new tax subsidies and the standard deduction to a requirement that  people maintain health care coverage.
  • Change rules governing health savings accounts to allow for contributions by people who have high-cost sharing plans even if the plan has a low deductible.
  • Create tax credits for contributions to health savings accounts
  • Require partial insurance coverage for prescription drugs used to treat chronic health care conditions prior to health expenses exceeding plan deductible.
  • Modify the employer mandate to encourage businesses to subsidize state exchange insurance rather than choose and administer an employer-based policy.  
  • Modify rules governing tax subsidies for insurance on state exchanges to allow people to keep their state exchange policy after obtaining offers of employer-based coverage.
  • Repeal current short-term bare bones health plans.
  • Create health plans with an annual cap while guaranteeing Medicaid coverage once health expenditures exceed the cap.
  • Create a new subsidy for out-of-network costs for people with narrow-network plans who require procedures not covered in the narrow network.
  • Allow people over 50 without access to employer-based health plan the right to buy into Medicare.
  • Modify the age-rate premium formula to lower costs for younger households.
  • Allow states to authorize the sale of Medicaid policies on state exchanges.

Authors Note:  A lot of these ideas and proposals are discussed in greater detail in  the second chapter of my policy primer “Defying Magnets:  Centrist Policies in a Polarized World”  

Defying Magnets:  Centrist Policies in a Polarized World

The first chapter of the book examines student debt policies.   The third chapter examines retirement income.  

I believe you will find the analysis and proposals innovative, potentially useful, and drastically different than what is being offered in Washington.