How to minimize the impact of 401(k) fees

  • Retirement plan fees vary substantially across firms.
  • Annual fees appear trivial but small differences in the annual fee have a substantial impact on retirement wealth.
  • A median-wage worker at a firm with a high-cost retirement plan can pay more than $100,000 in retirement plan fees over her lifetime.
  • Workers can reduce lifetime retirement fees by moving to a job at firm with a low-fee plan, moving retirement funds to a low-cost IRA when changing jobs, greater use of IRAs, and greater use of investments outside retirement plans.

Background on impact of high retirement plan fees:  A report by the Center for American Progressrevealed that 401(k) fees are a substantial expense and drain on retirement income for many workers.  On average, annual 401(k) fees are 1.0 percent of assets.   

There is substantial dispersion in the annual fee percentage across firms.   A 2011 survey cited in the report found the average annual 401(k) fee for firms with fewer than 100 participants was 1.32%.   The report found that a well-managed retirement account could have a fee as low as 0.25%. 

The report calculates lifetime 401(k) fees for workers at three different annual fee rates – 0.25%, 1.0%, and 1.3%.   The scenarios assumed the worker contributes 5% of salary and receives a 5% employer match. The findings indicate that relatively small annual differences in fees as a percent of asset leads to large differences in lifetime fees paid by workers to the sponsor of their retirement plan.

  • Lifetime 401(k) fees for a median-wage worker starting her career are $42,000 at a 0.25% annual fee, 138,000 at a 1.0% annual fee, and $166,000 for a worker at 1.30% annual fee.  

The report also contained lifetime fee calculations for a higher wage worker.  Results were proportionate to income.

Higher retirement fees were associated with a higher likelihood of ending up with insufficient retirement income.

  • An increase in retirement plan fees from 0.5% of assets to 1.0% of assets will reduce the likelihood a worker will have sufficient retirement income from 69% to 57%.

The reported annual fee as a percent of retirement plan assets appears to be small, almost trivial.   However, the fee is applied each year.    The annual fee becomes large for older workers with larger amounts accumulated in the account.   

High retirement fees are an especially important issue when interest rates are low.  When the fee percentage is larger than the bond interest rate, the de-facto interest rate is negative. This is currently the case with a two-year Treasury rate stands at 0.16% below the level of even a low-cost retirement fund.

The Center for American Progress argues that a key solution to problems created by high retirement plan fees is better information about the fees.  Workers are not explicitly billed for retirement fees.  The retirement plan fee is an indirect charge deducted from investment returns.   Workers would be much more cognizant of retirement fees if they were directly charged the service.

Investment managers charging high fees claim their fees are justified because their fund realizes higher returns.  The finance literature indicates that passive funds with low returns tend to outperform active funds with higher fees.  Moreover, Warren Buffet, arguably the best active stock picker of all time, argues sticking with the S&P 500 will lead to better returns than active management.

Workers would be better served if they were automatically placed in low-cost funds unless they opted out.  The current default retirement plan is the plan chosen by the worker’s employer.   However, workers at firms that choose a high-cost retirement plan with inadequate options can and should take several steps to reduce fees and work towards a secure retirement.

Mitigation of the adverse financial impact on high retirement fees:

A worker who is aware that a retirement plan at her current or prospective job imposes high fees can take several steps to reduce fees.   These steps include, moving to a job with a better retirement plan, rolling over funds from the high-cost plan to a low-cost IRA when changing jobs, greater use of individual retirement accounts, and increased savings outside of retirement plans.

Moving to a firm with a better retirement plan:  A person with multiple job offers should consider the quality of the retirement plan when weighing different offers.  Factors determining the quality of a firm’s retirement plan include – whether the firm matches employer contributions, the level of the match, whether the firm offers a Roth 401(k) option and as shown above the level of fees.

Change jobs and rolling over retirement funds:  The existence of high retirement fees should motivate a person with assets in a retirement plan to look for a new gig.  Preferably the new job would have a retirement plan with a lower-cost plan; however, even if it does not the worker can take her funds out of the high-cost plan and place them in a low-cost IRA.   

Consider, a 45-year-old worker with $300,000 in a retirement plan charging a 1.3 percent annual fee.   The person is paying $3,900 in retirement fees in her current year.  She could quit her job and move the retirement funds to a low-cost IRA with a fee at perhaps 0.5 percent.   The current-year annual fee would be $1,500.

The annual leakage from high fees grows over time in tandem with the growth of assets.  One of the worse mistakes a person can make preparing for retirement is to leave assets in a high-cost plan once you move to a new position or retiring.

Investment related fees at reputable firms like Vanguard, Fidelity and Schwab have fallen in recent years and with a little research you can roll funds into a low-cost IRA when you leave your current position.    The impact on your retirement wealth is considerable and I see no advantages in keeping funds with a high-cost retirement funds after you move to a new position.

Use of IRAs to replace or complement firm retirement plan savings: The person who accepts a job at a firm with a high-fee retirement plan must decide whether to contribute to the retirement plan, contribute to an individual retirement plan instead of the IRA or contribute to both the firm retirement plan and an IRA.

There are some limitations with IRAs.  Contribution limits are lower for IRAs than for 401(k) plans.  The contribution limit for IRAs in 2020 is $6,000 for people under 50 and $7,000 for people 50 and over.  The contribution limit for 401(k) plans in 2020 is $19,500 for people under 50 and $26,000 for people 50 and over.   

Tax rules link eligibility for Roth IRAs to household income.  Tax rules also link the tax deductibility of traditional IRAs to both household income and whether a person and/or spouse contributes to a 401(k).  These rules limit but do not eliminate advantages associated with a strategy of complementing investments in a firm-sponsored retirement plan with investments in a lower-cost IRA.

A person at a firm with a high-cost retirement plan might choose to contribute to the plan if the firm matches employer contributions.   The employee could take full advantage of the matching contribution and divert any additional savings to accounts outside the retirement plan. The employer match will lead to a generous return in the year the contribution is made, however, the annual fee will erode the fund over time.  The use of the IRA for contributions over the match can result in increased retirement wealth if the IRA has lower fees.   

The employee contributing to both the firm 401(k) plan and an IRA may have to place funds in a non-deductible IRA rather than a Roth or deductible IRA depending on her household income.  This allows for deferral of tax.  The worker may be able to convert the conventional IRA to a Roth IRA in a future year but this is a topic for another day.

Once the worker leaves the firm, the entire retirement fund should be rolled over to a low-cost IRA.  Brokerage firms may allow you to combine funds in the two accounts.

A person with at a firm with a high-cost retirement plan that does not match employer contributions should consider and should probably choose a low-cost IRA instead of the firm’s high-cost retirement plan.   This strategy limits contributions and retirement income for some workers because as noted contribution limits are substantially higher for firm-sponsored 401(k) plans than for independent IRAs.  However, the difference between IRA and 401(k) contribution limits may not matter for most workers because many companies, in. a response to IRA non-discrimination rules, limit contributions to a 401(k) plan to a percent of income.

Use of Low or No-Fee Bond Purchases Directly from the U.S. Treasury:  The current market environment is challenging.  The valuations of popular stocks like Microsoft and Apple are at historic highs.  Interest rates are low and for some maturities below the annual 401(k) fee. The actual investment return on many bonds in 401(k) accounts after accounting for the annual fees is negative.

Investors improve outcomes by purchasing I and EE Bonds directly from the Treasury.  The purchases can be done inside or outside of retirement accounts.

There are several advantages associated with the greater use of I-Bonds and E-Bonds directly from the U.S. Treasury.

  • There are no fees on bonds purchased through Treasury Direct and no fees on the purchase of I and EE bonds as stated in these FAQs.  
  • Tax is deferred on I and EE bonds until the instrument is sold.   
  • The tax on matured bonds is limited to deferred interest or capital gains while all funds distributed from conventional retirement accounts are fully taxed as ordinary income.  
  • Individual bonds can be redeemed at maturity at their par value while the value of the bond fund is determined by the prevailing interest rate.

Advantages of use of bonds as part of an overall retirement strategy and advantages associated with the purchase of bonds from Treasury Direct deserve and will get future analysis.

The point stressed here is that investments in bonds at Treasury Direct can reduce lifetime retirement fees.

Concluding Remarks:   Virtually all financial planners emphasize the importance of taking full advantage of retirement plans.  The advice starts as soon as a person enters the workforce even if the person has substantial student debt and a strategy of rapid repayment of student loans would substantially reduce costs, financial risk and stress for the new worker.  The financial planners often don’t worry nearly enough about paying off the mortgage prior to retirement.

Financial planners often don’t mention or stress the importance of high fees, which as discussed here have a large impact on retirement wealth and the likelihood a worker will have a secure retirement.   

The message presented in this post is that workers need to be aware of the retirement plan fees and the overall quality of the plan and come up with an alternative solution if the firm’s plan is inadequate.

Paying off the Mortgage Prior to Retirement

Financial Tip:   Pay off all debt, including the mortgage, prior to retirement.   This requires planning, the use of 15-year mortgages on the last purchased home, and prioritization of debt payments over additional contributions to 401(k) plans.

Discussion:   According to CNBC, experts differ on whether you should retire mortgage debt in retirement.  My view is that the retirement of debt in retirement is too little too late.  Mortgage debt has to be eliminated prior to retirement to reduce taxes and the risk of outliving your resources.

The goal of mortgage elimination prior to retirement is most important for people with most or all of their wealth inside a conventional retirement account because funds disbursed from 401(k) plans are taxed as ordinary income.  People with a mortgage and all funds in a 401(k) plan must disburse funds to cover the mortgage payment and tax on the disbursement.  Moreover, the increase in reported income from the larger 401(k) disbursements will subject a greater portion of Social Security income to tax.  (A portion of Social Security income is subject to federal income tax for single individuals for income starting at $25,000 and for married individuals for income at $34,000.)

The elimination of all mortgage debt prior to retirement requires some financial planning.  The goal could be achieved by the selection of a shorter-term mortgage for the final home purchase, refinancing from a long-term to short term mortgage, or by making additional payments towards the mortgage when nearing the end of your career.   A person over the age of 50 should, at a minimum, prioritize additional mortgage payments over catch-up contributions to 401(k) plans in order to meet this goal.   The worker might even consider further reductions in 401(k) contributions to eliminate the mortgage.

Action must be taken to eliminate the mortgage prior to retirement. A person already in retirement with a substantial mortgage and with most funds inside a 401(k) account does not have many good choices.

Consider, the case where a retired person has all of her wealth in a 401(k) plan.  She took out a 30-year $450,000 mortgage 25 year before retirement and has five more years of mortgage payments before the mortgage is retired.  The interest rate on the loan is 4.0%. Her mortgage payment, principal and interest, add up to $2,148.  (This was obtained from the PMT function in Excel.)   The annual payment on her mortgage is $25,780.   The outstanding balance on her mortgage is $116,654. (This was obtained from the FV function in Excel.)  

She could continue to live in her house and make her monthly mortgage payments.

She would have to withdraw funds from her 401(k) plan to cover her mortgage expense and other living expenses including her federal and state tax bills.  The larger disbursement to cover the mortgage increases her tax bill because the entire distribution from the mortgage is taxed as ordinary income.   She likely has Social Security benefits to cover some of her other living expenses.  However, the higher income from the larger 401(k) distribution to cover the mortgage increases the likelihood a portion of the Social Security benefit is subject to federal income tax.

It makes sense for people to reduce spending and 401(k) disbursements during market downturns to prevent rapid use of 401(k) funds. The person with a mortgage must withdraw funds from her 401(k) plan to meet the mortgage obligation regardless of the performance of the market.  The existence of the mortgage limits the ability of this person to reduce distributions in response to a market downturn.

The person could pay the entire outstanding mortgage balance of $116,654 in one year.  This would put her in a high marginal tax rate and would subject 85 percent of her Social Security benefits to tax in the year the large distribution was made.   

The person could sell her house, pay her entire mortgage and move.  Most elderly want to age in place.  

The viability of the downsizing option depends on the price the person could get on her current house, the amount of equity in her house and the cost of alternative housing, which depends on the price of the new house or the rent.   Hopefully, the new house would be purchased with cash not a new mortgage.

A person with a large amount of liquid assets outside of her retirement account could more easily pay off her mortgage.  The tax from the sale of assets outside a retirement account are substantially lower than taxes on funds distributed from conventional 401(k) plans because only the capital gain portion of the disbursement is taxed and under current law capital gains are taxed at a preferential rate. 

The problems described here could have been avoided by use of a Roth retirement account rather than a conventional retirement account.   A post on the potential advantages of Roth retirement accounts will be available shortly.

Financial Priorities for New Entrants to the Workforce

  • Students entering the workforce tend to have high expenses and relatively modest income.
  • Young adults need to prioritize the establishment of a good credit rating, the creation of an emergency fund, and investments in their job search.  
  • Contributions to 401(k) plans can wait.
  • A strategy of rapid reduction of student debt immediately upon entering the workforce will substantially improve credit scores and borrowing costs and reduce lifetime student loan repayments, by tens of thousands of dollars.   
  • Student borrowers with low-cost federal loans and higher cost private loans should prioritize repayment of the high-cost loan. It may be possible to refinance the federal debt once the private loan is eliminated, further reducing lifetime student loan payments.
  • The rapid repayment of student loan debt can lead to increased contributions to retirement plans once some or all student debt is eliminated.

Many financial planners and firms with solid reputations urge new entrants to the workforce to start their career by aggressively contributing to their 401(k) plan and saving for retirement.  Fidelity, a leading investment firm, recommends young adults have a 401(k) balance equal to their annual salary by the time they are 30.  

My view is that this objective is unrealistic for the vast majority of young adults entering the workforce with limited liquidity and substantial debt.  

My financial advice to young adults entering the workforce can be summarized in three tips – (1) maintain a solid credit rating, (2) create an emergency fund, and (3) rapidly reduce student debt to a manageable level.   The achievement of these goals often requires that student borrowers entering the workforce either entirely forego contributions to their 401(k) plan during their first few years in the workforce or at least substantially reduce contributions for some time.  

The importance of an emergency fund and a solid credit rating:

The first few years after a person completes school and starts a career are often financially challenging.  People leaving school often starts their job search with limited funds in the bank.  Starting salaries are often lower than expected and relatively few students immediately get their dream job. The process of searching for a good job is expensive and time consuming.  The successful job candidate often has some moving expenses.

Student debt repayment obligations generally start 9 months after full-time student status ends.  Moreover, the proportion of students with subsidized federal loans has fallen. The increased use of unsubsidized federal loans and private student loans has increased interest costs on student debt early in the borrower’s career. 

Contributions to a 401(k) plan should be an extremely low priority for a person starting a career with a low starting salary, in full search mode for a better job, without substantial savings and with immediate student debt obligations.

The financial planner will tell the financially strapped person with no funds to take the employer match on 401(k) contributions because it is “free money.”  Employer matches to 401(k) contributions are not free money if the diversion of money from current needs results in late payments and a deterioration of the person’s credit rating

The highest, perhaps only, financial priority of the new entrant into the workforce is to build a financial buffer in order to maintain a solid credit rating.

The failure to maintain a good credit rating will lead to extremely high costs for borrowers.

A search was conducted for likely interest rates for good and poor credit risks for four different types of loans – (1) credit card loans, (2) car loans, (3) a private student loan, and (4) a mortgage.  Assumptions were made on the likely maturity and initial balance of each loan and these assumptions were used to generate estimates of the monthly cost of bad credit.

The interest rate assumption was obtained from WalletHub, the car loan assumption was obtained from Nerd Wallet, the private student loan assumption was obtained from Investopedia, and the mortgage rate assumption was obtained from this CNBC article. The differential between interest rates on people with good and bad were 9.8 points for credit card debt, 7.0 points car loans, 10.0 points for private student loans, and 1.6 points for mortgage debt.

The cost of bad credit depended on both the interest rate differential and the likely loan amount.  The analysis presented here assumes a likely loan balance of $10,000 for credit cards, $15,000 for a car loan, $20,000 for a private student loan, and $300,000 for a mortgage.

The analysis assumed the borrower only paid interest on credit card debt.   Assumed maturities were 60 months for car loans, 240 months for private student loans, and 360 months for mortgages.

Based on these assumptions, I found the monthly cost of bad credit was $82 for credit cards, $49 for car loans, $124 for private student loans, and $277 for mortgages.

The figures presented here show bad credit ratings can lead to substantial costs with costs depending on both interest differential and loan amounts.  The interest differential stemming from credit ratings is highest for credit card loans and private student loans.  

The payment differential associated with credit ratings is often highest for mortgage debt because mortgage loans are large. In today’s housing market with soaring home prices and tighter lending standards it is very difficult to purchase a home without good credit.

The cost of bad credit is not limited to one or even a few loans.   Most people take out multiple consumer loans or mortgages in their lifetime.  The lifetime cost of bad credit will be substantial for households that do not improve their credit rating. 

Poor credit ratings have other adverse impacts in addition to higher loan costs.   The Insurance Information Institute points out the insurance companies use credit ratings to set insurance premiums because actuarial studies have shown that credit scores are good predictors of the tendency for people to make insurance claims.  The credit rating agency Experian points out that employers can and sometimes do base hiring decisions on an applicant’s credit history.   Landlords use credit ratings to determine eligibility for an apartment.

The Importance of Rapid Student Debt Reductions Early in a Career:

Students leaving school with substantial federal and private student debt should rapidly repay the private student loan even if the rapid repayment of the private loan causes them to forego contributions to their 401(k) plan.

The rapid reduction after joining the workforce will drastically reduce lifetime student debt borrowing costs.   Rapid debt reduction may make it possible for the student borrower to refinance remaining debt at a lower interest.

Finance companies often attempt to persuade student borrowers to refinance their federal student loans to lower-interest rate private loans.   This article provides recommendations from CNBC on the best companies for refinancing student debt. 

Often student borrowers cannot refinance to a substantially lower interest rate immediately upon graduation because their work and credit history is short, and their initial salary is low.  A student borrower could improve their credit report by foregoing 401(k) contributions for a year or two and then refinance the remaining student loan at a lower interest rate.

There are advantages and disadvantages associated with refinancing federal loans to private loans.  The primary advantage is a lower interest rate, perhaps as low as 3.0%.  You must be careful when refinancing a fixed rate student loan to a variable rate loan because the student loan interest rate can rise substantially if Treasury rates rise.   In addition, the decision to refinance with a private student loan makes the borrower ineligible for forbearances in case of economic hardship and makes the borrower ineligible for income driven loan programs 

The potential financial gains from a strategy of rapidly reducing student debt upon entering the workforce are examined for two student borrowers – one with a large federal undergraduate loan and the other with a mix of federal undergraduate and graduate loans and a private loan.

Student Borrower Number One:   The first student borrow is starting her career with a $50,000 per year job and undergraduate student loans totally $30,000 with an interest rate of 5.05% around the 2019 average student debt level for undergraduates.   

A person in this situation will typically take out a 20-year student loan.   Her payments on the loan will $198.82 per month.  Her total payment over 20 years will be $47,716.   

The person could more rapidly repay her student loan if she foregoes contribution to her 401(k) plan.   Assume she currently pays 10 percent of her income to her 401(k) plan.  If she foregoes this contribution her annual income tax will increase by $600.  However, she could increase payments on her 401(k) plan by $4,400 per year to a total monthly payment of $565.48. 

Under this assumption the student borrower would totally repay her $30,000 student loan on the 61stpayment.   Her total student loan repayment costs would be $33,837, a savings of $13,879.

The strategy of rapidly repaying the student loan causes the student borrower to fall behind on her accumulation of 401(k) wealth.  However, her student loan is totally paid off after 61 months and she could now make larger 401(k) contributions than the person who immediately initiated 401(k) contributions after leaving school.

The student borrower in this example could forego 401(k) contributions and make monthly payments of $565.48 for two years and then attempt to refinance the loan at a lower interest rate for a 10-year period.

The outstanding balance after two years of payments would be $18,932.

The person after reducing the loan balance that quickly might be able to refinance at a 3.0% interest rate.  The total student debt payments from this strategy, rapid repayment for two years followed by a 10-year loan at 3.0%, is $35,509 or $12,207 less than under a 20-year term.

The rapid reduction of student debt will lower the probability the person experiences debt payment problems and will substantially reduce expenditures on student debt.   

The results are even more dramatic for a student borrow that has a combination of federal debt and high-rate private loans.

Student Borrower Number Two:   The second borrower has three student loans, a $35,000 undergraduate loan at 5.05%, a $40,000 graduate loan at 6.66% and a $25,000 private student loan at 10.00%.    Intuitively, it makes sense for this student borrower to prioritize rapid repayment of the higher interest rate private loan.  In most instances, the strategy of rapidly repaying the private student loan necessitates the borrower forgoing contributions to a 401(k) plan early in her career.

The student borrower who chooses to set the standard 20-year maturity on all three student loans has a monthly payment of $775 for 20 years leading to total student loan payments of $200,633 over 20 years.

The student borrower who chooses to set the standard 20-year maturity for the federal undergraduate and the federal graduate loan and set a 5-year term for the private loan will initially have monthly student loan payments of $1,065.   

The monthly payment will fall to $534 after the private student loan is totally repaid, which is lower than the $775 payment that exists if the person kept to a 20-year term on all loans.  This means the person who chose the rapid private student loan repayment strategy could after 5 years make larger 401(k) contributions for the next 15 years than the person who chose a 20-year private loan term.

The total lifetime student loan debt payments for the person who repaid her private student loan in 5 years instead of 20 years is $146,271, which is a total lifetime savings of $54,362. 

This student borrower is in a good position to refinance her federal student debt to a private lower interest rate loan after repaying her private loan.  The cost savings estimates presented here may understate potential benefits from a strategy of rapidly reducing private student debt.

Concluding Thoughts:  The student borrower entering the workforce is often under intense pressure from financial advisors to immediately contribute part of their salary to a retirement account.  This approach can lead to financial disaster.   

The young adult with a modest salary and high student debt payments who prioritizes saving for retirement can fall behind on her bills, which can lead to poor credit ratings.   The deterioration in credit ratings will lead to high borrowing costs and other problems including difficulties renting an apartment, loss of job offers and higher insurance costs.  

Eventually, many people who choose to aggressively save for retirement will raid their 401(k) and maybe even sometimes pay taxes and penalties.  Increasingly, young and middle-aged adults are tapping 401(k) funds prior to retirement to meet current needs.  A CNBC article reveals that nearly 60 percent of young workers have taken funds out of their 401(k) plan   

The wiser course of action for young adults entering the workforce saddled with student debt is to rapidly repay student loans, especially but not exclusively high-cost private loans.  This approach will secure a solid credit rating and will reduce lifetime student loan payments by tens of thousands of dollars.

This post is part of a series comparing the traditional financial plan, stressing 401(k) investments and house purchases with 30-year mortgages to an alternative financial plan, which prioritized debt reduction, use of Roth accounts and use of 15-year mortgages.   The first post provided an overview of the alternative financial plan.  The next post, available in a week or so, will look at some problems with conventional retirement accounts starting with high fees on some plans.

Outline of an Alternative Financial Plan for the New Generation

  • Traditional financial strategies, which prioritize accumulation of wealth in a conventional retirement plan, as soon as people enter the workforce are not working for many households.
  • The alternative financial strategy outlined here involving — aggressive elimination of student debt, greater use of 15-year mortgages, the use of Roth retirement accounts instead of conventional accounts, and additional investments outside of retirement accounts — will reduce financial stress and lead to a more secure retirement than the traditional financial plan.

Many households are struggling with historic levels of debt.

Average student debt for college graduates in 2019 was 26 percent higher in 2019 than 2009.  Around half of bachelor’s degree recipients in 1992-1993 borrowed to finance their education, compared to around 65 percent today.

Increasingly, young and middle-aged adults are tapping 401(k) funds prior to retirement to meet current needs.  A CNBC article reveals that nearly 60 percent of young workers have taken funds out of their 401(k) plan. A study by the Employment Benefit Research Institute (EBRI) reveals that 40 percent of terminated participants elect to prematurely takeout 15 percent of plan assets. A poll of the Boston Research Group found 22 percent of people leaving their job cashed out their 401(k) plan intending to spend the funds. 

Statistics presented in a recent Business Economics article show that people who tap 401(k) plans prior to retirement were more likely to have taken out consumer loans, were more likely to have a poor credit rating and were more likely to be underwater on their mortgage than people who did not tap their 410(k) plans prior to retirement.   

A CNBC portrayal of the financial status of millennials nearing the age of 40 found many members of the age cohort highly leveraged struggling to pay down student debt, using innovative ways to obtain a down payment on a home and barely able to meet monthly mortgage payments.

2019 Congressional Research Service Report found that the percent of elderly with debt rose from 38% in 1989 to 61% in 2021.   The Urban Institute reported that the percent of people 65 and over with a mortgage rose from 21% in 1989 to 41% in 2019.  A 2017 report by the Consumer Finance Protection Board found that the number of seniors with student debt increased from 700,000 to 2.8 million over the decade.

The standard financial plan, proposed by most financial advisors, emphasizing large contributions to traditional 401(k) plans instead of aggressive reduction of consumer and mortgage debt often fails to provide a secure financial outcome.  Future outcomes will be worse, barring a change in strategy in financial strategy, because people are starting their careers with higher debt burdens.

The aggressive pursuit of long-term investments in stocks and bonds instead of rapid reduction in debt is especially problematic in the current market environment where stock valuations are stretched, and interest rates are at historic lows.   The purchase of expensive securities inevitably leads to subpar returns when valuations return to more normal levels.

The alternative financial strategy proposed here differs from the traditional financial strategy in four important respects.   

First, the alternative approach prioritizes the establishment of a solid credit rating, the creation of an emergency fund and the rapid reduction of student debt for individuals leaving school and entering the workforce.  The achievement of these goals usually requires new entrants to the workforce delay or reduce 401(k) contributions for a number of years when starting their careers.

Second, the alternative financial strategy places a high priority on the growth of house equity and the elimination of all mortgage debt prior to retirement. 

Many households with less than stellar credit purchase a home with a subprime mortgage.  Subprime mortgages tend to have high interest rates, adjustable rates with short adjustment periods, a balloon payment, and restrictions on prepayments.  The alternative financial strategy opposes the purchase of a home with an unfavorable interest rate or subprime features.

Most households currently use a 30-year fixed rate mortgage.   The alternative financial strategy recommends the use of 15-year mortgages, either through the original home purchase or through a refinancing, to reduce lifetime mortgage payments and to accelerate growth in house equity.  

Many financial advisors currently recommend additional catch-up payments to 401(k) plans for workers nearing retirement even when the worker will retain a mortgage in retirement.   The alternative financial strategy prioritizes mortgage payoffs over additional 401(k) contributions.

Third, the alternative financial strategy utilizes Roth retirement accounts instead of conventional retirement accounts. 

The decision to use Roth rather than conventional retirement accounts can increase tax burdens in working years; however, there are multiple other ways for working-age households to reduce current tax obligations.  In particular, contributions to health saving accounts linked to high-deductible health plans reduce current-year tax obligations, reduce insurance premiums and like retirement accounts increase income during retirement.

The use of Roth rather than conventional retirement accounts directly reduces tax obligations in retirement, reduces the marginal tax rate for people with other sources of income and indirectly reduces tax on Social Security benefits for some households.

The use of Roth rather than conventional retirement accounts reduces the amount of money a person must park in stocks inside a retirement account because the investor no longer needs to save for taxes on disbursements.  The lower taxes from use of Roth accounts reduces financial exposure to market downturns.   

Retirement account fees will be lower on Roth accounts because the total annual fee is a percent of total invested assets, which is lower because tax on Roth accounts is paid prior to contributions.   

The use of Roth rather than conventional retirement accounts will substantially reduce tax on inherited IRAs.   This savings is larger today because of recent changes in tax rules governing inherited IRAs.

Fourth, the alternative financial strategy makes greater use of investments outside of retirement accounts including investments in stocks and investments in inflation linked bonds. 

Retirement accounts are an effective way to defer taxes until retirement.  However, the existence of assets outside a retirement account reduces tax obligations during retirement years.  

Disbursements from conventional retirement accounts are taxed as ordinary income while taxes on capital gains and dividends are currently taxed at preferential rates.   (The tax preferences for capital gains and dividends may be reduced by the Biden tax plan.) 

The availability of funds outside a retirement account are especially important when retirement accounts have high annual fees and interest rates are low.  The effective interest on some bonds held in retirement accounts is negative when the retirement account has a high annual fee. 

There are no fees associated with the purchase bonds directly from the U.S. Treasury.  These bonds have relatively low market risk.  The purchase of Treasury bonds with specific maturity dates is an effective way to hedge against market down turns impacting consumption during retirement.

The traditional approach to retirement often centers on the question – How much money should be placed in a 401(k) plan in order for you to retire?   There are even calculators that create estimates of the amount people need to place in a 401(k) to retire with adequate income.

The actual amount of wealth you need to place in your retirement account is indeterminate.  The amount you need to save depends on several factors including whether the retirement account is Roth or conventional, retirement account fees, amount of debt, whether you plan to downsize, the quality of your health insurance and the tax status of assets outside your retirement account.

The alternative financial strategy outlined in this introductory memo recognizes that financial security cannot be summarized by the dollar value of a 401(k) plan.  A person with large net worth dominated by large equity holdings in a conventional 401(k) plan is faced with large future tax obligations and is perpetually exposed to a market downturn, especially if she has a monthly mortgage bill to meet.  The person could be better off with a lower 401(k) balance if she had paid off her mortgage, put money in a Roth rather than a conventional retirement account, and purchased some inflation-indexed bonds.  

Several features of the alternative plan presented here will reduce the amount that you must contribute to a retirement plan and the amount you pay over your lifetime in retirement plan fees.  Fees charge by retirement accounts are not a trivial matter.  This report by the Center for American Progress reveals a median-wage worker might pay $138,000 in retirement fees over her lifetime.

The traditional goal of financial planners is the construction of a portfolio that will allow retirees to initially distribute 4 percent of the 401(k) balance and maintain that distribution level though out retirement.   The 4 percent rule often fails to provide a sustainable level of consumption in retirement with the largest failures occurring when portfolios are closely tied to the market and the market takes a downturn early in retirement. 

Some financial advisors advocate a more flexible distribution rule that mandates reductions in distributions during market downturns.  It seems as though a strategy calling for sharp reductions in distributions during retirement is an admission that the financial strategy planning for retirement was a failure.  An alternative financial strategy which includes alternative investment including, I-Bonds, E-Bonds and perhaps annuities, will lead to more stable consumption patterns in retirement.  The alternative financial strategy would include a more stable and sustainable rule determining monthly distributions of funds.

The upcoming blog posts presented here and a larger formal paper will describe the potential benefits of the alternative financial strategy in greater detail.  A detailed discussion on how to best rapidly reduce student debt and the potential advantages of the debt elimination strategy will be available at this blog soon.

Roth vs Conventional Retirement Accounts: Impact of the Biden Tax Plan

The CNBC article makes the case the Biden tax plan will make Roth accounts more desirable than conventional accounts.  The article understates the benefits from choosing Roth over conventional accounts, which pre-date the Biden administration.

The article states that Roth accounts are generally more desirable than conventional accounts if you expect your marginal tax rate to be lower in retirement than during working years.

Actually, the decision between Roth and conventional accounts largely determines your tax bracket in retirement.   Roth distributions are not part of your taxable income.   People with other income, an annuity, interest, dividend or capital gain income, and wage income for a part-time job or from a spouse can keep their income and tax bracket down if they have funds in a Roth account rather than a conventional account.   The advantage of Roth over conventional accounts during retirement is not just that distributions from the Roth are untaxed but also that distributions from Roth reduce the taxpayers marginal and average tax rates.

The article points out that distributions from Roth rather than conventional accounts will reduce the amount of Social Security that is taxable income for taxpayers with income above a particular threshold.   This is also huge because the exclusion of both the Roth distribution and the Social Security benefit from taxable income both reduces tax and taxable income and moves the taxpayer into a lower tax bracket, thereby, reducing marginal and average tax rates.

The exclusion of contributions to conventional accounts from current-year taxable income is a key benefit of conventional retirement accounts.   However, there are many other ways to reduce taxable income and tax during working years, including, contributions to health savings accounts, newly enacted child tax credits, and deductions on mortgage interest and other housing deductions.

Many people with scarce funds and medical expenses should choose contributing to a health savings account over contributing to a 401(k) if they have a high-deductible health plan.  Health savings accounts and conventional retirement accounts are highly substitutable because both reduce current year taxable income and excess funds in health savings accounts can be used for non-health purposes in retirement.   People who lower their marginal tax rate by contributing to health savings accounts or through other means should place whatever funds they have remaining in a Roth rather than a conventional retirement account, especially if their tax reduction strategy was successful.

A lot of working-age people pay no or very little income tax.  But for some reason, financial advisors really like to push the tax advantages in working years associated with contributions to conventional retirement accounts.   This decision can be extremely costly in retirement years.  Household with a disproportionate amount of wealth in a retirement account, who also have mortgage debt, must distribute funds to pay the debt and funds to pay tax on the distribution to pay the debt.

The article mentions the new tax provision discussed here that requires many people with inherited IRAs to make distributions within 10 years.   This tax change was enacted in 2019 prior to the Biden presidency.  Heirs of a conventional account will pay tax, at the ordinary income tax rate, on these distributions.   This could be quite painful if distributions are forced during peak-income years.  Heirs of Roth accounts will not pay tax on these distributions.   Do your heir a favor and convert your traditional accounts to Roth account before you die.

The CNBC article states that lower estate tax thresholds proposed by Biden will cause Roth conversion.   Perhaps.  But there are already a lot of reasons to convert and even if the Biden administration succeeds in getting a sizeable expansion in the base subject to the estate tax most wealth in households impacted by the estate tax will not be associated with retirement accounts.

Roth accounts are for most people the better choice.  Not a close call.  This has been the case for quite some time.   The horse is out of the barn.

Complicated rules for inherited retirement accounts

The 2019 Secure Act changed rules governing distributions from inherited IRAs and 401(k) plans.  The new rules prevent some beneficiaries from stretching withdrawals across their lifetime.    This CNBC article does a good job explaining the rules.

The new rules require many people who inherit a 401(k) plan to take disbursements within a 10-year period. However, there are some exceptions for minors and spouses.   

The clock for disbursements over a 10-year period starts at 18 for minors inheriting a Roth IRA.  However, prior to becoming 18 the minor must make a required minimum distribution RMD based on life expectancy.  The RMD for minors should be really small because minors have a large future expected life.  This rule might make sense if the IRA or 401(k) is huge but is it rational for people who inherited a small account?

The distributions from Roth accounts are tax free while the distributions from conventional accounts are taxed as ordinary income.   I guess the Treasury will gain some tax revenue from accelerated Roth distributions if the funds are invested in assets with taxable interest, dividends or capital gains.

The distributions over the 10-year window can occur in any year.  Since Roth accounts are not taxed it may make sense to distribute the funds in year 10.  Conventional accounts are taxed; hence, taxpayers may want to spread distributions across years.

Funds not distributed by year 10 are subject to a 50% tax.  Ouch!

Spouses who inherit an IRA do not have to take distributions until age 72.

The time frame for distributions for people who inherit an account through probate is 5 years not 10.  Hence, it is important to name a beneficiary on your 401(k) or IRA.

Many people who inherit IRAs or 401(k) plans have modest income.  This bill requires distributions even when the person might be better off saving for retirement.    Many people inheriting a small IRA or 401(k) are not wealthy.

The bill was passed during the Trump Administration.     Trump Administration and Republican tax policy was in general very generous to high-income people but not averse to using complicated rules to get a bit more tax from some people who may be middle income.

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.