Christmas came early for Congress this year as politicians from both sides of the aisle came together to pass – by wide margins – a US$1.8 trillion package of tax cuts and new spending.
At year end, Washington seemed awash in a spirit of holiday cooperationwith the president praising new Speaker Paul Ryan. But does the bipartisan approval of the budget deal really mean that Democrats and Republicans have learned to play together nicely in the Congressional sandbox?
This legislative package was adopted with little rancor because both parties agreed to lift existing caps on discretionary spending and to cut taxes without trying to raise offsetting revenues. So both sides got most of their desired list of Christmas presents – increases in defense and domestic spending plus expanded tax incentives for businesses and individuals.
The big losers were future taxpayers who will have to shoulder the burden of higher interest payments. As the size of the national debt balloons and the rate of interest gets back to normal levels, these payments will consume more of the annual budget and leave less room for spending on defense as well as domestic programs (except for entitlements such as Social Security and Medicare).
Even before this year-end legislation, the national debt was already huge relative to the size of the US economy. While declining annual budget deficits in the last few years have created the impression of fiscal responsibility, the U.S. national debt has more than doubled over the last decade.
Read the rest at the conversation.com…
Few people in the financial services industry have been more productive and influential than Bob C. Pozen. The 69-year-old Harvard-and-Yale-educated lawyer has served as president of Fidelity Investments, as chairman of MFS Investments, as a presidential adviser and SEC official, as a lecturer at MIT and as a research fellow at the Brookings Institution. He has written books on topics both macro (the mutual fund business, the Global Financial Crisis) and micro (personal time management).
Back in October, Pozen moderated a panel on Innovative Retirement Products at the 2015 Fall Journal of Investment Management conference on retirement at the MIT Sloan School of Management. The panelists included Peggy MacDonald of Prudential Financial’s pension risk transfer business and Tom Reid of Sun Life Financial of Canada.
During the panel discussion, Pozen spoke favorably about the usefulness of annuities in mitigating longevity risk. In a recent phone conversation with RIJ, he expanded on some of his views regarding retirement.
Read the rest at retirementincomejournal.com…
Like most American cities, Boston has promised to pay most of the health care premiums for its employees after they retire — which can be as early as age 45 or 50. Boston also subsidizes the Medicare premiums of its retired employees after age 65.
As a result, Boston reported an unfunded liability for retiree health care in 2013 of over $2 billion (that is a B!). This equated to a liability of over $3,000 per city resident — the fifth highest per capita of large American cities. And these figures did NOT include Boston’s share of another almost $2 billion in unfunded health care liabilities
for retired employees from the MBTA.
The good news. In fiscal 2014, Boston contributed $154 million toward retiree health care — more than 10 percent of its total payroll (including schools) for that year. This sum covered its current benefit premiums plus $40 million to help pre-fund its future liabilities for retiree health care. Moreover, Boston committed to keep contributing current benefit premiums plus $40 million to pre-fund such future liabilities.
The bad news. Boston is using two overly optimistic assumptions in estimating what it would take to address its future costs for retiree health care.
Boston is assuming that it can meet its commitment by making large payments out of each year’s budget despite more retirees and rising premiums. This works out to be an average increase of 4.5 percent per year according to Stanford professor Josh Rauh. Can Boston really devote $400 million out of its 2035 budget to retiree health care given competing priorities like police and schools?
Read the rest at bostonherald.com…
On October 29, China adopted a policy of two children per family, instead of one. This change is, in large part, intended to mitigate the adverse demographic trend plaguing China’s social security system: the rapidly declining ratio of active to retired workers. The ratio is falling from over 6:1 in 2000 to under 2:1 in 2050.
However, the new two-child policy is not likely to have a big impact on the worker-retiree ratio, so China’s retirement system will remain under stress. To sustain social security, China needs to implement other reforms — moving from a local to a national system and expanding the permissible investments for Chinese pensions.
The one-child policy always had exceptions, such as for rural and ethnic communities. These exceptions were broadened in 2013 to cover couples where both were only children. Yet the birth rate did not take off.
Why? A combination of rising levels of urbanisation and housing costs, more education and jobs for women, and rapidly increasing expenses for child rearing. These factors have driven fertility rates down in other south-east Asian countries, such as Singapore and South Korea, without any government restrictions on family size.
Read the rest at ft.com…
Starting in 2016, push comes to shove for small businesses under the Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare. As of January 1, small businesses, broadly defined as firms with 50 to 100 full-time employees, must comply with the ACA’s employer mandate and provide qualified health insurance to their workers or face stiff penalties. But this requirement poses a big threat to the financial stability of small employers—and not for the reasons you might think.
Obamacare includes a myriad of regulatory incentives and exemptions that define the parameters of the employer mandate. However, these have inadvertent consequences. Most important, exemptions in the ACA encourage small firms to self-finance their health care plans—that is, pay their workers’ health care bills directly, rather than covering them through a traditional insurance policy. Most large companies in America (above 3,000 employees) engage in self-funding, but that is done now by only about 16% of small companies of between 50 and 100 employees. According to my research, that number is set to rise.
It’s understandable that small companies see self-funding as the superior option. By financing their own health care plans, they stay exempt from the community rating requirements that restrict how much insurers may vary premiums based on factors like age and smoking status; they also stay exempt from the federal and state taxes on most health care premiums that are paid to traditional insurers.
But these benefits pose significant risks for small businesses. While a big company usually has a diversified employee base and financial resources that can help absorb substantial overruns in health care expenses, a small company has neither. One big claim can wipe out a small company.
Read the rest at forbes.com…
When policy makers and commentators express concerns about how little most American workers have saved for retirement, they should focus on three related facts:
1. Roughly half of all American workers are employed by a firm that does NOT offer them any retirement plan.
2. Only 14% of small firms — with fewer than 100 employees — offer them any type of retirement plan.
3. 42 million workers –approximately one third of full-time workers in the private sector — work for small firms.
Of course, these employees of small firms have the right to go to a financial institution, file an application for an Individual Retirement Account ( IRA ), and enjoy federal tax deductions for their IRA contributions. Yet relatively few overcome the forces of inertia and take the time to open an IRA on their own. Only about 5% of employees without a retirement plan at work contribute to an IRA on a regular basis, according to best estimates.
In response to these problems, Mark Iwry and David John (both from Washington think tanks at the time) developed federal legislation that would create the Automatic IRA. This legislation would require all employers without a retirement plan, and with over a specified number of employees, to connect their payrolls to a retirement plan at a qualified financial institution. Then, approximately 3% of the salary of these employees would be contributed each month to this retirement plan, unless they decided to opt out.
Such opt-out plans have been very successful in raising the participation rate of employees in retirement plans, especially low-income and minority employees. In addition, the Automatic IRA does NOT require any contribution by the employer to the retirement plan of its employees. And the proposed legislation has garnered considerable support from both Democrats and Republicans. Nevertheless, Congress has not come close to passing the Automatic IRA.
Read the rest at realclearmarkets.com…
In the 2015 proxy season, shareholders submitted more than 60 proposals asking US public companies to appoint an independent director as a board chairman, as opposed to one person serving as both chief executive and chairman.
In 2012, 45 per cent of the S&P 500 companies split the chief executive and board chairman roles, almost doubling from 23 per cent a decade ago. However, of the 45 per cent, roughly half of the separate board chairs were held by former chief executives.
By contrast, most public companies in Europe have a truly independent director as board chairman. Some commentators have suggested that the US adopt the European model.
While US companies typically oppose this suggestion, they should ask three practical questions:
Would an independent chairman improve the financial performance of the company substantially? Could the internal governance functions of a company be satisfied by other measures? And would an independent board chairman significantly reduce the time spent by a chief executive engaging with shareholders?
After reviewing empirical studies, David Larcker, professor of accounting at Stanford University, concluded that there was no systematic evidence for or against an independent chairman. Similarly, a further study found there is “no statistical relationship between independence and firm performance”.
However, a 2012 study by GMI Ratings, the research provider, showed that, over the past five years, large US companies with a separate board chairman had higher stock increases than companies with a combined chief executive and chairman. Yet another study found that separating the role of chairman from that of chief executive improved financial performance only when the company had been doing poorly.
Read the rest at ft.com…
Co-authored with Mark Roe
The clamor against so-called corporate short-term thinking has been steadily rising, with a recent focus on eliminating the quarterly earnings report that public firms issue. Quarterly reports are said to push management to forgo attractive long-term projects to meet the expectations of investors and traders who want smooth, rising earnings from quarter to quarter.
The U.K. recently eliminated mandatory quarterly reports with the goal of lengthening the time horizon for corporate business decision-making. And now Martin Lipton, a prominent U.S. corporate lawyer, has proposed that U.S. companies’ boards be allowed to choose semiannual instead of quarterly reporting. The proposal resonates in Washington circles: Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton has criticized “quarterly capitalism” as has the recently departed Republican SEC Commissioner Daniel Gallagher.
But while quarterly reporting has drawbacks, the costs of going to semiannual reporting clearly outweigh any claimed benefits.
On the claimed-benefit side, it is doubtful that replacing quarterly with semiannual reporting will induce corporate executives to make longer-term business decisions. Do we really believe that moving from quarterly to semiannual reporting will bring forth many new five-year investment projects? Similarly, without quarterly reporting, why won’t earnings smoothing occur in six-month intervals instead?
Read the rest at wsj.com…