Social Security in COVID – Research and Ideas

Adding to a vast ocean of unrelenting bad news, let’s explore some troubling research into the fine print on Social Security benefits.

Andrew Biggs, a resident scholar of the American Enterprise Institute, has two papers out this Spring with interesting implications on our most important safety net for retirees. 

American Enterprise Institute
American Enterprise Institute

One paper has bad news for a particular cohort of soon-to-be-retirees. The other explores an idea for helping with current financial distress. I personally think his proposal is wrong, but worth discussing.

Biggs wrote in a recent paper that for a group of soon-to-retire folks – specifically those born in the year 1960 – the COVID recession could be very hurtful to their benefits claimed in 2027, at full retirement age.

In his paper, Biggs assumes the 2020 US gross domestic product (GDP) shrinks by 15 percent in 2022, and that average wages also drop by a similar amount. The net effect of this drop in average wages – as a mathematical input into the Social Security benefits calculations for people born in 1960 in particular – will drop benefits by 13 percent overall. If that happens, for a medium-wage worker born in 1960 in particular, Biggs calculates an annual and ongoing hit of $3,900. For that same medium-wage worker, lifetime social security benefits drop by a present value of $70,193 due to the 2020 COVID effect.

The math justification behind Biggs’ claim isn’t obvious unless you enjoy building your own Social Security benefits spreadsheet.1

The math trick to know is that before calculating your first benefit check, Social Security indexes your annual earnings to a national wage index – rather than an inflation index, as you might expect.

Andrew Biggs

If the wage index declines by 15 percent in 2020 (Biggs’ assumption), then this national wage indexing of 2020 earnings has a substantial negative impact on your benefit checks starting at age 67. Subsequent retiree benefit checks do increase according to inflation, known as the Cost of Living Adjustment. But if benefits start at a low base, for example, they will remain permanently lowered, even as they move upward with inflation over the years.

An economic recovery may mean later cohorts do not suffer this same temporary drop. Biggs recommends Congress consider interventions to protect this specific born-in-1960 cohort.

The COVID recession – depending on its duration and lasting effects on national wages – may also affect near-retirees born in 1961. So that’s your not-so-great news of the day on COVID.

Biggs also has written another paper in April 2020 which should be filed to the “interesting, but bad idea” pile. In the midst of our national discussions around stimulus payments, Biggs and his co-author Stanford Economist Joshua Rauh propose allowing pre-retirement individuals to take loans from their future Social Security benefits, which could be paid back at retirement age.

For context, private lenders do not make loans specifically collateralized by future social security payments. But Biggs and Rauh propose the federal government become that type of lender.

If a not-yet-retired individual decided to take a $5,000 check now, the authors suggest, the borrower could pay that loan back at retirement age by simply delaying owed benefits until the loan is repaid. 

Part of the benefit to borrowers, Biggs and Rauh argue, is that the federal government could offer extremely low interest rates, knowing that it can recoup the money at the individual’s retirement date. This low interest rate helps the individual who could not otherwise borrow cheaply. In addition, warming the cockles of an economist’s heart, this cash infusion can be made budget neutral. Money paid out today during the crisis will be repaid, with low interest, by the worker at retirement.

In their scenario analysis, they show that most workers 45 or older who borrowed this way would likely only delay taking their social security benefits by three months, based on a $5,000 loan made today. 

In simplest terms, Biggs proposes a mechanism for financially-strapped workers during the COVID recession to access their social security benefits early, with the obvious implication that they will have less later on, in retirement. 

If enacted, (Narrator: this won’t be enacted) this form of pre-retirement loan would clearly impact the most vulnerable folks – people who have no other source of savings. 

In general, I like considering any so-crazy-it’s-possibly-good wonky financial idea. But this is more like a so-crazy-its-possibly-terrible financial idea. I can’t endorse robbing future Peter to pay present Peter as a humane way to solve a short-term financial crisis.

When I am declared the National Personal Financial Benevolent Dictator (NPFBD) sometime in the future, I have a few different plans for Social Security. Different from both the current plan and Biggs’ suggestions.

My plan eliminates the need for complicated math and indexing as mentioned by the first Biggs paper. In my plan, basically, everyone gets the same amount of money. It doesn’t matter what your average 35 best earning years are, indexed for wages, then further adjusted for cost-of-living, then made progressive by counting different percentages of a specific workers’ earned wages. That’s a description of the current complicated math, simplified.

Instead, in my simple plan you get, say, $32,000 a year. Or whatever flat amount we choose. Everyone gets the same amount. No math. Congratulations, you’re 67. End of story.

If your lifestyle is above that cost, so be it. You should save some money now so you can maintain your lifestyle. If your lifestyle is below that cost, so be it. You’ll feel rich in retirement.

The complicated math we currently do for social security benefits is a very convoluted way to express a couple of wrong ideas. By wrong ideas, I specifically mean the ideas that:

1. We ‘earned’ our social benefits by a lifetime of working, and 

2. If we worked more or harder or got paid more, then we should get a bigger chunk of cash in retirement.

I understand the implications of not doing any tailoring of benefits to individual workers and retirees. I understand why the current system feels “fair” to many. But I think the benefits of simplicity outweigh those implications, leading to a fairer outcome overall.

A spokesperson for the Dallas office of Social Security Katrina Bledsoe said they do not comment on projections or proposed policies, so declined to respond to my query about Biggs’ ideas.

Biggs responded to my query that he is very confident about the math behind his warning about the cohort of near-retirees born in 1960. His biggest doubt is whether the national wage index will actually fall by the estimated 15 percent – a sharp decline – or whether that’s too steep an assumption. At this point – not yet halfway through 2020 – we just don’t know yet.

A version of this post ran in the San Antonio Express News.

Please see related post:

Running for Personal Financial Benevolent Dictator

Building Your Own Social Security Spreadsheet

Building Your Own Social Security Spreadsheet, Part 2

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  1. Whoops, guilty as charged!

Ask an Ex-Banker: Home Loans and Home Equity Lines of Credit

Q. Dear Banker, My wife and I are planning an addition to our house. We need the additional space, but I do not want this project to stretch our overall budget. Since I have a specific idea of how much I want to pay, a rise in interest rates would cause us to make different decisions on the project details. Unfortunately, we need to make those decisions now but will not need the money for another 8-12 months. I don’t care if interest rates go down, I like where they are now, but borrowing money before you need it sounds foolish. How does your average Main Streeter hedge against interest rate swings?

Bradley T., San Antonio TX

 A. I understand your question to be whether you should borrow money now, before you need it, because rates are ‘low enough,’ and because you worry rates will not be this low in another 9 months when you actually need the money for the home renovation.

My short answer is: “Maybe, although I personally would not” as to whether you should borrow now and lock in today’s low fixed rates, in anticipation of needing money 9 months from now.  I’ll explain what I mean by that in a moment.  The longer answer, which I’ll detail more fully below that, is that you really need a home equity line of credit, not a fixed-rate home equity loan.

The Short Answer                                      

Should you lock in a loan 9 months early because rates are ‘low enough?’  I’ll make a bunch of assumptions to be able to answer the question specifically, and I hope you can adjust the answer to your own particular situation.

I’ll assume you can get a Prime[1] rate home equity loan for a pretty major $100,000 home renovation at 5%.  That means you’ll pay $5,000 per year in interest, or an extra $3,700 for borrowing 9 months early.

$3,700 is not the end of the world for peace of mind, and so I’ll answer “maybe” borrow this way to lock in an attractive low rate like 5% today.

There are a few reasons, however, why I would not borrow money early myself.  Foremost, we really have no idea which way interest rates will go in the future.

As a former bond guy,[2] I pay quite a bit of attention to interest rates.  Had you asked me at almost any time in the last 10 years whether interest rates were likely to go higher or lower in the next 18 months, I would have said ‘higher’ approximately nine out of ten years, and I would have been wrong approximately nine out of ten years.  That’s not because I’m ill-informed, it’s just because it’s much harder to forecast the future direction of interest rates than it seems.

Because of my own deep uncertainty about the future direction of interest rates, I would argue your choice to borrow 9 months early ‘locks-in’ a loan interest ‘loss’ of $3,700, whereas the rate available to you has a 50-50 chance of being higher or lower 9 months from now.  If you accept my view, then your interest cost for the next 9 months, by not borrowing, is $0, which is much more attractive than losing a guaranteed $3,700.

But what if, 9 months from now, your fixed rate jumps to 7% from today’s 5%, and you’re locking in a 10 year $100,000 loan at $7,000 a year, rather than the more attractive $5,000 a year interest cost?  Well, in that case, if you carry the full sized loan for 10 years, you’ll pay a total of $20,000 more in interest over the life of the loan.  In that stark (probably-worst-case-scenario) example you will have lost out, and you will curse my advice, as well as my children’s children.[3]

Given that the starting position of borrowing early is that you’re $3,700 poorer, however, I see many more scenarios in which you come out ahead by not borrowing early.

If you plan to pay down the loan principal faster than 10 years, for example, or rates shoot up less than 2% over 9 months, or rates stay the same, or rates go down even further, you will have broken even or ended up better off by not borrowing early.  So that’s why I wouldn’t take today’s rates.

The Longer Answer

Instead of a home equity loan locking in today’s good fixed rates, what you actually need is a home equity line of credit (HELOC) from which you can borrow money and pay down at any time.[4],[5]

When I started a business in 2004, I met with an elderly entrepreneur who gave me great advice: Obtain the largest possible home equity line I could, not because I needed it now, but, because as an entrepreneur I needed to be ready to take advantage of opportunities whenever and wherever they might arise.

He was right.  In fact, any person who is both a home owner and a business owner, needs to stop everything right now and start applying for a home equity line of credit.  Why are you still reading this blog post?  Go, do it, now.  I’ll wait.

Ok good, you’re back.  You’re welcome.

In your case, Bradley, the potentially higher rates one year from now will be more than made up by the fact that you can borrow only the amount you need, as you need it, for your home renovation.  The slower drawdown of debt principal and the faster payoff of principal via a home equity line of credit is virtually certain to save you interest costs in the long run.

I believe the fact that HELOC rates are floating – they may go up or they may go down over time – are more than made up for by the variable amount of principal you can take out only as and when you need it.  Over the course of your planned home improvement project, if you borrow for example $33,000 for some period of time, rather than the full $100,000 loan, you’re obviously paying 1/3 of the interest costs than you would on the full amount, during the period of the smaller borrowing.  My point is that even if you end up with the same peak amount of borrowing, $100,000, you’re likely to have paid significantly less in interest in getting to that point.  Most of the time, those savings will outweigh the probability-weighted cost of higher future interest rates.

A special note for small business owners, new and old:  If you’re just starting out, the HELOC may be your only ticket to borrowing money cheaply and flexibly.  Banks only pretend to lend to small businesses, and they certainly do not lend to new small businesses, so it’s hardly worth trying that route.  Banks do lend, however, against houses and home equity, so you’ve got a shot there.

For experienced small business owners: You still need the largest home equity line of credit possible.  You never know when the commercial property right next to your office may become available, and when having $50,000 in ready cash is the difference between acquiring the real estate of your dreams and paying more to lease office space for the next 30 years.  If you have to go to your bank to apply to get the loan to buy the property next door, you’re too late.  You need the home equity line so that you can credibly represent to the sellers your ability to close the transaction within 1 week, in ‘cash.’  That is how the pros do it.[6]

[1][1] Meaning, you have excellent credit, at least above a 720 FICO.  The FICO people sell their scores from all three major credit rating agencies here for about $35.  It’s worth it to pull your score once in a while, so you can confirm you’re eligible for the best rates and there’s no weird activity on your credit reports.  Don’t let FICO trick you into paying $14/month.  That’s stupid.

[2] No, not the Daniel Craig type of Bond guy, much to my wife’s chagrin.

[3] Which is as good a segue as I can think of for repeating Jack Handey’s Deep Thought: “I believe in making the world safe for our children, but not our children’s children, because I don’t think children should be having sex.”

[4] This entire ‘Ask an Ex-Banker’ advice column today assumes you are a responsible borrower, and that debt incurred through a home equity line of credit will go toward productive home and business improvements and not be blown on subsidizing your unsustainable consumer-driven lifestyle.  In your case, Bradley, since you live in San Antonio, that means you can’t blow the whole line of credit on Alamo Lego miniatures and bad Tex-Mex food.   But since readers are, almost by definition, extremely responsible with debt, this hardly bears mentioning.

[5] Most HELOCs give you a drawdown period of, say, 10 years, followed by a payback period of another 10 or 20 years.

[6] While I’m very much in favor of HELOCs for small business owners, I need to acknowledge in the fine print here that things can and have gone wrong for small business owners putting their houses at risk.  Of course this would be terrible.  When you get a HELOC for your small business, make sure you save it for an opportunistic can’t lose situation, not use it to keep your flailing, unsustainable, small business alive.

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