Inside The Fed's Survey Of Economic (Un)Well-Being
The Federal Reserve Report on the Economic Well-Being of U.S. Households in 2017 was recently released.
The Federal Reserve Board’s Division of Consumer Affairs 5th annual Survey of Household Economics and Decision-making is designed to gain understanding of how adults in the U.S. feel about the state of their finances.
A sample of 12,000 received the survey in late 2017. What’s unique about the study in my opinion, is that it tackles subjective well-being from a financial perspective and emerging issues that may be formidable obstacles in the future. For example, this year for the first time the study included questions related to opioids.
Overall, respondents feel better about their overall financial situation as the economy has improved since the genesis of the survey. However, the continued rapid growth in wealth disparity threads throughout the analysis. Also, the disappointing state of retirement preparation and the cancerous effects of financial illiteracy remain chronic for the Americans surveyed.
Direct-from-the-survey positive highlights:
Areas of concern or importance:
For example, one question – “Housing prices in the United States can never go down? (True or False),” was answered: Correct – 60%, Incorrect – 19%, Don’t know or no answer – 22%. After a devastating housing crisis, I was surprised by the survey respondents’ inability to answer or get this question incorrect.
Another – “Buying a single company’s stock usually provides a safer return than a stock mutual fund? (True or False).” Correct – 46%, Incorrect – 19%, Don’t know or no answer – a surprising 50%. In addition to being disheartened by the Fed to attach the words “safer return & stocks”, (stocks in any form are never safe regardless of time – not by a long shot), there exists a greater probability to lose capital with concentrated ownership of the stock of one company.
I’ve e-mailed feedback to the Consumer and Community Development Research team at the Fed suggesting a re-word of the query –“Buying a single company’s stock may be riskier than a stock mutual fund?” is a truthful representation.
So, what lessons should RIA readers take away from the highlights of the latest survey?
Unlike the pervasive, cancerous dogma communicated by money managers like Ken Fisher who boldly states that in the long-run, stocks are safer than cash, stocks are not less risky the longer they’re held.
Unfortunately, academic research that contradicts the Wall Street machine rarely filters down to retail investors. One such analysis is entitled “On The Risk Of Stocks In The Long Run,” by prolific author Zvi Bodie, the Norman and Adele Barron Professor of Management at Boston University.
In the study, he busts the conventional wisdom that riskiness of stocks diminishes with the length of one’s time horizon. The basis of Wall Street’s counter-argument is the observation that the longer the time horizon, the smaller the probability of a shortfall. Therefore, stocks are less risky the longer they’re held. In Ken Fisher’s opinion, stocks are less risky than the risk-free rate of interest (or cash) in the long run. Well, then it should be plausible for the cost of insuring against earning less than the risk-free rate of interest to decline as the length of the investment horizon increases.
Dr. Bodie contends the probability of a shortfall is a flawed measure of risk because it completely ignores how large the potential shortfall might be. Sound familiar? It should. We write of this dilemma frequently here on the blog. Using the probability of a shortfall as the measure of risk, no distinction is made between a loss of 20% or a loss of 99%.
Using a simplified form of the Black-Scholes formula, he outlines how the cost of insurance rises with time. For a one-year horizon, the cost is 8% of the investment. For a 10-year horizon it is 25%, for a 50-year time frame, the cost is 52%.
As the length of horizon increases without limit, the cost of insuring against loss approaches 100% of the investment. The longer you hold stocks the greater a chance of encountering tail risk. That’s the bottom line (or your bottom is eventually on the line).
Not only that, from this survey readers understand consumers are generally poor at managing their retirement plans. However, nothing stops the undying love for defined contribution plans. Unfortunately, small businesses can’t afford to establish an administratively burdensome structure therefore many small business employees do without. According to Pew Research, thirty-five percent of private sector workers 22 and older do not work for an employer that offers a defined contribution plan or a traditional defined benefit plan.
Financial firms provide wholesale guidance like “max out your 401(k) before all else,” without understanding the impact of these actions to the distribution phase of retirement when a retiree has zero tax diversification and every distribution taken is taxed as ordinary income. Roth in most situations, is a smarter choice. A 2017 Harvard Business School Study for the Journal of Public Economics suggests that most investors will have more money or retirement consumption dollars if they use a Roth 401(k) instead of a traditional choice. Roth accounts do not require mandatory retirement distributions at 70 ½ and qualified distributions including earnings are tax free.
As Lance Roberts and I have lamented numerous times in print and on our podcast –
The loss of pensions has been a major if not the paramount reason behind why many Americans are failing to meet retirement goals.
The Department of Labor is in the process of proposing a rule that would allow small businesses to band together to offer 401(k) plans to employees. President Trump signed an executive order to reduce regulatory barriers that keep small businesses from providing access to retirement plans for their employees.
If defined contribution plans are all workers are going to have access to (bye-bye pensions), then at the least, the financial industry, hopefully fiduciary advisers at the forefront, should understand investor accumulation and distribution cycles to formulate tax-efficient retirement strategies for plan participants.
Most metrics of economic health are based on consumption; personal consumption comprises 70% of America’s Gross Domestic Product. Through the 60s and 70s, the U.S. personal saving rate rarely fell below 10%. Our ensemble culture or the culture overall has become obsessed with owning more, status through the acquisition of goods and services. In your household, it must be different. I have a feeling in most RIA reader households, it is (and that’s a very good thing).
The movement must be grassroots, the individual one by one, must take action to shore up their personal and family household balance sheets. Think GPP or “Gross Personal Product”, not GDP. Let’s face it: Nobody is going to bail you out when the economy cycles in reverse. As a matter of fact, when our economy falls into the abyss, it’s we as taxpayers who bear the brunt of the costly, ineffective patchwork that fiscally duct-tapes systems back together.
Clarity’s Financial Guardrail Rule #3 is: Never allow others to cross your personal financial boundaries.
It’s a tough lesson for some, but once learned, never forgotten. There’s nothing inappropriate about maintaining boundaries and saying “no” to obligations that may place your personal financial security in jeopardy.
For example, we witness parents who extend themselves to co-sign for children. We know of those who lend to friends and family members only to be disappointed when loan obligations are not met. It’s acceptable to establish in a household budget, charitable intentions and gifts; it’s honorable to help people you love who are in need.
However, it’s best to understand upfront what the financial impact to your personal situation is going to be. Know your boundaries and adhere to them. If you say ‘no’ enough, others will respect them, too.
The Fed Survey outlines strong improvement especially for higher-educated, high-income households.
Unfortunately, financial vulnerability still plagues a majority of middle-class households and financial literacy remains downright embarrassing. The growing dependency on opioids is a known issue that requires attention.
Send this article to a friend: