October 20 to 26, 2019, is National Retirement Security Week, a nationwide effort to raise awareness about the importance of saving for retirement. Established by Congress in 2006, National Retirement Security Week is designed to elevate public knowledge about retirement savings and to encourage employees to save and participate in their employer-sponsored retirement plans. What better time to review the benefits of your retirement plan and determine if you’re making the most of them?
Whether you have a 401(k), 403(b), or governmental 457(b) plan, contributing helps benefit your tax situation. If you make traditional (i.e., non-Roth) contributions to your plan, they are deducted from your pay before federal (and most state) income taxes are calculated. This reduces the amount of income tax you pay now. Moreover, you don’t pay income taxes on those contributions — or any returns you earn on them — until you withdraw money from the plan, ideally when you are retired and possibly in a lower tax bracket.
If your plan offers a Roth account and you take advantage of this opportunity, you don’t receive an immediate tax benefit for participation, but you could receive a significant tax advantage down the road. That’s because qualified withdrawals from a Roth account are tax-free at the federal and, in many cases, state level.
A withdrawal from a Roth account is qualified if it’s made after a five-year holding period (which starts on January 1 of the year you make your first contribution) and one of the following conditions applies:
So should you contribute to a traditional account, a Roth account, or both? The answer depends on your personal situation. If you think you’ll be in a similar or higher tax bracket when you retire, you may find a Roth account appealing for its tax-free retirement income advantages. On the other hand, if you think you’ll be in a lower tax bracket in retirement, then a traditional account may be more appropriate to help reduce your tax bill now. Of course, you could also divide your contributions between the two types of accounts to strive for both benefits, provided you don’t exceed the annual maximum contribution amount allowed ($19,000 in 2019; $25,000 if you’re age 50 or older).1
Keep in mind that employer plans were created specifically to help Americans save for retirement. For that reason, rules were also established to discourage participants from taking money out early. With certain exceptions, withdrawals from traditional (non-Roth) accounts and nonqualified withdrawals from Roth accounts prior to reaching age 59½ are subject to regular income taxes and a 10% penalty tax.
Employers are not required to contribute to employee accounts, but many do through matching or discretionary contributions. With a matching contribution, your employer can match your traditional pre-tax contributions, your after-tax Roth contributions, or both (however, all matching contributions will go into your traditional, tax-deferred account). Most match programs are based on a certain formula — for example, 50% of the first 6% of your salary that you contribute.
If your plan offers a matching program, be sure to contribute enough to take maximum advantage of it. Neglecting to contribute the required amount is essentially turning down free money.
Your employer may also offer discretionary contributions, which often take the form of profit-sharing contributions. These amounts generally go into your traditional account once per year, and typically vary from year to year.
Employer contributions are often subject to a vesting schedule. That means you earn the right to those contributions (and the earnings on them) over a period of time. Keep in mind that you are always fully vested in your own contributions and the earnings on them.
While most people understand that their employer-sponsored retirement plan is a key to preparing adequately for the day when the regular paychecks stop, they may not take the time to review their plan’s benefits and ensure they’re taking maximum advantage of them. National Retirement Security Week provides a perfect opportunity to review your plan materials, understand its features, and determine if any changes may be warranted.
The Medicare Open Enrollment Period is the time during which Medicare beneficiaries can make new choices and pick plans that work best for them. Each year, Medicare plan costs and coverage typically change. In addition, your health-care needs may have changed over the past year. The open enrollment period is your opportunity to switch Medicare health and prescription drug plans to better suit your needs.
The annual Medicare Open Enrollment Period begins on October 15 and runs through December 7. Any changes made during open enrollment are effective as of January 1, 2020.
During the open enrollment period, you can:
Now is a good time to review your current Medicare plan. What worked for you last year may not work for you this year.
Have you been satisfied with the coverage and level of care you’re receiving with your current plan? Are your premium costs or out-of-pocket expenses too high? Has your health changed? Do you anticipate needing medical care or treatment, or new or pricier prescription drugs?
If your current plan doesn’t meet your health-care needs or fit within your budget, you can switch to a plan that may work better for you.
If you find that you’re still satisfied with your current Medicare plan and it’s still being offered, you don’t have to do anything. The coverage you have will continue.
The end of the Medicare Part D donut hole. The Medicare Part D coverage gap or “donut hole” will officially close in 2020. If you have a Medicare Part D prescription drug plan, you will now pay no more than 25% of the cost of both covered brand-name and generic prescription drugs after you’ve met your plan’s deductible (if any), until you reach the out-of-pocket spending limit.
New Medicare Advantage features. Beginning in 2020, Medicare Advantage (Part C) plans will have the option of offering nontraditional services such as transportation to a doctor’s office, home safety improvements, or nutritionist services. Of course, not all plans will offer these types of services.
Two Medigap plans discontinued. If you’re covered by Original Medicare (Part A and Part B), you may have purchased a private supplemental Medigap policy to cover some of the costs that Original Medicare doesn’t cover. In most states, there are 10 standard types of Medigap policies, identified by letters A through D, F, G, and K through N. Starting in 2020, people who are newly eligible for Medicare will not be able to purchase Medigap Plans C and F (these plans cover the Part B deductible which is no longer allowed), but if you already have one of those plans you can keep it.
Determining what coverage you have now and comparing it to other Medicare plans can be confusing and complicated. Pay attention to notices you receive from Medicare and from your plan, and take advantage of available help. You can call 1-800-MEDICARE or visit the Medicare website, medicare.gov to use the Plan Finder and other tools that can make comparing plans easier.
You can also call your State Health Insurance Assistance Program (SHIP) for free, personalized counseling at no cost to you. Visit shiptacenter.org or call the toll-free Medicare number to find the phone number for your state.
On August 14, 2019, the Dow Jones Industrial Average plunged 800 points, losing 3% of its value in its biggest drop of the year. The Nasdaq Composite also lost 3%, while the S&P 500 lost 2.9%.1
The slide started with bad economic news from Germany and China, which triggered a flight to the relative safety of U.S. Treasury securities. High demand briefly pushed the yield on the benchmark 10-year Treasury note below the two-year note for the first time since 2007.2 This is referred to as a yield curve inversion, which has been a reliable predictor of past recessions. The short-lived inversion spooked the stock market, which recovered only to see the curve begin a series of inversions a week later.3
Yield relates to the return on capital invested in a bond. When prices rise due to increased demand, yields fall and vice versa. The yield curve is a graph with the daily yields of U.S. Treasury securities plotted by maturity. The slope of the curve represents the difference between yields on short-dated bonds and long-dated bonds. Normally, it curves upward as investors demand higher yields to compensate for the risk of lending money over a longer period. This suggests that investors expect stronger growth in the future, with the prospect of rising inflation and higher interest rates.
The curve flattens when the rates converge because investors are willing to accept lower rates to keep their money invested in Treasuries for longer terms. A flat yield curve suggests that inflation and interest rates are expected to stay low for an extended period of time, signaling economic weakness.
Parts of the curve started inverting in late 2018, so the recent inversions were not completely unexpected. However, investors tend to focus on the spread between the broadly traded two-year and 10-year notes.4
An inversion of the two-year and 10-year notes has occurred before each recession over the past 50 years, with only one “false positive” in that time. It does not indicate timing or severity but has reliably predicted a recession within the next one to two years. A recent Federal Reserve study suggested that an inversion of the three-month and 10-year Treasuries — which occurred in March and May 2019 — is an even more reliable indicator, predicting a recession in about 12 months.5
Some analysts believe that the yield curve may no longer be a reliable indicator due to the Federal Reserve’s unprecedented balance sheet of Treasury securities — originally built to increase the money supply as an antidote to the Great Recession. Although the Fed has trimmed the balance sheet, it continues to buy bonds in large quantities to replace maturing securities. This reduces the supply of Treasuries and increases pressure on yields when demand rises, as it has in recent months.6
At the same time, the Fed has consistently raised its benchmark federal funds rate over the last three years in response to a stronger U.S. economy, while other central banks have kept their policy rates near or below zero in an effort to stimulate their sluggish economies. This has raised yields on short-term Treasuries, which are more directly affected by the funds rate, while increasing global demand for longer-term Treasuries. Even at lower rates, U.S. Treasuries offer relatively safe yields that cannot be obtained elsewhere.7
The Fed lowered the federal funds rate by 0.25% in late July, the first drop in more than a decade. While this slightly reduced short-term Treasury yields, it contributed to the demand for long-term bonds as investors anticipated declining interest rates. When interest rates fall, prices on existing bonds rise and yields decline. So the potential for further action by the Fed led investors to lock in long-term yields at current prices.8
Even if these technical factors are distorting the yield curve, the high demand for longer-term Treasuries represents a flight to safety — a shift of investment dollars into low-risk government securities — and a pessimistic economic outlook. One day after the initial two-year/10-year inversion, the yield on the 30-year Treasury bond fell below 2% for the first time. This suggests that investors see decades of low inflation and tepid growth.9
The flight to safety is being driven by many factors, including the U.S.-China trade war and a global economic slowdown. Five of the world’s largest economies — Germany, Britain, Italy, Brazil, and Mexico — are at risk of a recession and others are struggling.10
Although the United States remains strong by comparison, there are concerns about weak business investment and a manufacturing slowdown, both weighed down by the uncertainty of the trade war and costs of the tariffs.11 Inflation has been persistently low since the last recession, generally staying below the 2% rate that the Fed considers optimal for economic growth. On the positive side, unemployment remains low and consumer spending continues to drive the economy, but it remains to be seen how long consumers can carry the economic weight.12
Regardless of further movement of the yield curve, there are likely to be market ups and downs for many other reasons in the coming months. Historically, the stock market has rallied in the period between an inversion and the beginning of a recession, so investors who overreacted lost out on potential gains.13 Of course, past performance does not guarantee future results. While economic indicators can be helpful, it’s important to make investment decisions based on your own risk tolerance, financial goals, and time horizon.
U.S. Treasury securities are guaranteed by the federal government as to the timely payment of principal and interest. The principal value of Treasury securities fluctuates with market conditions. If not held to maturity, they could be worth more or less than the original amount paid. The return and principal value of stocks fluctuate with changes in market conditions. Shares, when sold, may be worth more or less than their original cost. The performance of an unmanaged index is not indicative of the performance of any specific security. Individuals cannot invest directly in any index.