Your 401(k) is up, and a new report shows increased savings. But Americans need to do more

How’s your 401(k) looking? A new report shows Americans are saving more, but probably need to do even more. 

Vanguard has released its annual report, How America Saves 2024. Vanguard and Fidelity are the two biggest sponsors of 401(k) plans, and this is a snapshot of what nearly five million participants are doing with their money. 

The good news: stock market returns are up and, thanks largely to automatic enrollment plans, investors are saving more than they did in the past. 

The bad news: account balances for the median 401(k) of a person approaching retirement (65+) remains very low. 

The takeaway: Americans are still very reliant on Social Security for a large chunk of their retirement. 

Higher returns, participation rates, savings rates 

Why do we care so much about 401(k) plans? Because it’s the main private savings vehicle Americans have for retirement. More than 100 million Americans are covered by these “defined contribution” plans, with more than $10 trillion in assets. 

First, 2023 was a good year to be an investor.  The average total return rate for participants was 18.1%, the best year since 2019. 

But to be effective vehicles for retirement, these plans need to: 1) have high participation rates, and 2) hold high levels of savings. 

On those fronts, there is good news. John James, managing director of Vanguard’s Institutional Investor Group, called it “a year of progress.” 

Plan participation reached all-time highs. Thanks to a change in the law several years ago, a record-high 59% of plans offered automatic enrollment in 401(k) plans. This is a major improvement: ipreviously, enrollment in 401(k) plans were often short of expectations because investors had to “opt-in,” that is they had to choose to participate in the plan.  Because of indecision or simple ignorance, many did not. By switching to automatic enrollment, participants were automatically enrolled and had to “opt-out” if they did not want to participate. 

The result: enrollment rates have gone up. Plans with automatic enrollment had a 94% participation rate, compared with 67% for voluntary enrollment plans. 

Participant saving rates reached all time highs. The average participant deferred 7.4% of their savings. Including employee and employer contributions, the average total participant contribution rate was 11.7%. 

A few other observations about Vanguard’s 401(k) plan investors: 

They prefer equities and target date funds.  They love equities over bonds or any other investments. The average plan contribution to equities is 74%.  A record-high 64% of all 2023 contributions went into target-date funds, which automatically adjust stock and bond allocations as the participant ages. 

They don’t trade much. In 2023, only 5% of nonadvised participants traded within their accounts; 95% did no trading at all. “Over the past 15 years, we have generally observed a decline in participant trading,” Vanguard said, which it partially attributed to increased adoption of target-date funds. 

Despite gains in the market, account balances are still low

In 2023, the average account balance for Vanguard participants was $134,128, but the median balance (half had more, half had less) was only $35,286. 

Why such a big difference between the average and the median? Because a small group of investors with large balances pull up the averages. Forty percent of participants had less than $20,000 in their retirement accounts. 

Distribution of account balances

  • Less than $20,000     40%
  • $20,000-$99,999        30%
  • $100,000-$249,900  15%
  • $250,000 +                  15%

Source:  Vanguard 

Median balances for those near retirement are still low

A different way to look at the problem is to ask how much people who are retirement age have saved, because it’s an indication of how prepared they are for imminent retirement.

Investors 65 years or older had an average account balance of $272,588, but a median balance of only $88,488. 

A median balance of $88,488 is not much when you consider older participants have higher incomes and higher savings rates. That is not much money for a 65-year old nearing retirement.

Of course, these balances don’t necessarily reflect total lifetime savings. Some have more than one retirement plan because they had other plans with previous employers. Most do have other sources of retirement savings, typically Social Security. A shrinking number may also have a pension. Some may have money in checking accounts, or have stocks or bonds outside a retirement account. 

Regardless, the math does not look great

So let’s do some retirement math. 

A typical annual drawdown for a 401(k) account in retirement is about 4%. Drawing down 4% of $88,488 a year gets you $3,539 every 12 months. 

Next, Social Security. As of January 2023, the average Social Security benefit was almost $1,689 per month, or about $20,268 per year.

Finally, even though pensions are a vanishing benefit, let’s include them. 

According to the Pension Rights Center, the median annual pension benefit for a private pension is $9,262 (government employees have higher benefits). 

Here’s our yearly retirement budget:

  • Personal savings $3,539
  • Pension                 $9,262
  • Social Security   $20,264
  • Total:                   $33,065

It’s certainly possibly to live on $33,000 a year, but this would likely only work if you own your home, have low expenses and live in a low-cost part of the country. 

Even then, it would hardly be a robust retirement. 

And these are the lucky ones. Only 57% of retirees have a tax-deferred retirement account like a 401(k) or IRA. Only 56% reported receiving income from a pension. 

And that extra income largely determines whether a retiree feels good or bad about their retirement. 

In 2023, four out five retirees said they were doing at least okay financially, but this varied tremendously depending on whether retirees had sources of income outside of Social Security. Only 52% of retirees who did not have private income said they were doing at least okay financially. 

What can be done? 

To have a more robust retirement, Americans are just going to have to save more. 

One issue is investors still don’t contribute the maximum amount allowed. Only 14% of participants saved the statutory maximum amount of $22,500 per year ($30,000 for those age 50 or older). The likely reason: most felt they couldn’t afford to. 

However, only 53% of even those with income over $150,000 contributed the maximum allowed.  Given that the employee match is “free money,” one would think participants in that income bracket would rationally choose to max out their contribution. The fact that many still don’t suggests that more investor education is needed. 

Regardless, it’s very dangerous to assume that retirees are going to be bailed out by an ever-rising stock market. Another year anywhere near 2022, when the S&P 500 was down 20%, and investor confidence in their financial future will likely deteriorate.

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Inflation fears among America’s small businesses are rising again and their faith in the Fed is falling

The fight against inflation was going well for the Federal Reserve and economy for much of last year and into 2024, but one important demographic remained unconvinced about the progress being made in lowering pricing: small business owners.

Now, more influential parties are coming around to a view that small businesses have been stubborn in saying is closer to the on-the-ground truth: inflation isn’t coming down fast enough. On Wednesday, Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell conceded that after three months of disappointing data on inflation, there has been a “lack of further progress” this year. Market traders, who not long ago were in interest rate cut euphoria mode and forecasting up to six rate cuts by the Fed this year, are now more likely to see one or two cuts at most.

Disappointment over inflation is nothing new for small business owners, and their frustration over high prices is increasing again, according to the CNBC|SurveyMonkey Small Business Survey for Q2 2024.

One in four (24%) small business owners tell CNBC that they think inflation has reached a peak, down from 29% in the previous quarter, and back to where the economic sentiment reading was a year ago. The percentage of small business owners who expect inflation to rise from here is trending up as well — 75% this quarter, up from 69% in Q1.

“Small business owners are the engine of our economy, and the data shows they are still pessimistic about overcoming inflation,” Lara Belonogoff, senior director of brand management and research at SurveyMonkey, said in a statement upon the Q2 survey’s release.

This CNBC|SurveyMonkey online poll was conducted April 8-12, 2024 among a national sample of 2,130 self-identified small business owners ages 18 and up.

Despite a positive market reaction to Fed Chair Powell’s comments after the FOMC meeting on Wednesday — in the least, Powell all but ruled out another rate hike this year — small business confidence in the Fed has declined. Last quarter, a little over one-third (35%) of business owners said they had confidence in the Fed. That’s not fallen back to 31%, where it was in Q2 of last year.

“Inflation remains a top concern, clearly, for small businesses,” said U.S. Small Business Administration head Isabel Casillas Guzman in an interview with CNBC’s Kate Rogers at the virtual Small Business Playbook event on Thursday. “We’ve tried to make sure the SBA is more readily available to credit worthy borrowers out there. Half of businesses don’t get the capital they need fully, or at all.”

She suggested small business owners start with local SBA resource partners, local district offices, which can connect them with lenders on the ground, as well as starting with the SBA’s online Lender Match tool.

One finding over which small businesses are in line with a broader macro view is the overall state of the economy. Over one-quarter (27%) describe the economy as “excellent or good,” which has not trended lower even as inflation fears have picked back up. It’s also notably up from 21% in the year-ago quarterly survey. The economy’s performance helps explain why nearly three times as many business owners cite inflation as the biggest risk they face (37%) compared to the No. 2 threat, consumer demand, at 13%.

SBA Administrator Guzman cited the 17.2 million new business applications filed during the Biden administration as a sign of the economic optimism despite inflation. She pointed to the Biden legislation that is spurring government spending on infrastructure and clean energy, which are economic growth drivers. “These are all small business trades across those opportunities,” she said. “That’s the economic growth the president has been focused on.”

Increasingly, though, it’s also a fiscal policy-linked spending plan and rise in federal debt that economists are tying to sticky inflation.

The CNBC|SurveyMonkey Small Business Confidence Index was unmoved quarter-over-quarter, at 47 out of 100, and up one point from Q2 of last year.

Fed's Jerome Powell: Inflation remains too high and path forward is uncertain

The CNBC|SurveyMonkey data is consistent with other recent small business survey findings. Goldman Sachs’ 10,000 Small Businesses Voices survey released this week cited 71% of small business owners saying inflationary pressures have increased on their businesses over the past three months and 49% saying they’ve had to raise the prices. In the CNBC survey, 48% said they are raising prices.

Inflation will loom large in how America’s small business owners tilt in the presidential election.

Inflation is the No. 1 issue over which small business owners say they will vote, with 63% of survey respondents citing it, followed by economic growth at 61%.

Confidence in President Biden’s handling of the presidency — which is typically low in a small business demographic that skews conservative — remains underwater in the new survey, at 31%, down by two percentage points quarter over quarter. Among Republican small business owners taking the survey, 5% approve of the job Biden is doing. Among Democrats, 82% of small businesses approve of Biden, though pollsters say that approval ratings under 90% within one’s own party are a signal of dissatisfaction.

Biden has made some gains with his supporters, with the overall Small Business Confidence Index reading among this survey subset unchanged quarter over quarter at 61, and up from 55 in Q3 of 2023.

The CNBC survey found that in one area, small business owners who identify as either Republicans or Democrats do reach a rare point of consensus: both say that when it comes to government policy, they are getting slighted compared to large corporations.

The Goldman Sachs survey found that 55% of business owners are unhappy with the amount of focus small business issues get from candidates. Inflation, at 73%, was the issue cited most frequently.

Guzman said that the SBA has doubled the number of small-dollar loans, including to startups, as well as to women and people of color, who she noted are starting businesses at the highest rates. She also said more of the government loan volume is going into “rural banking deserts.”

And the total amount of government contracts going to small businesses has reached 28%, Guzman said, roughly $178 billion, according to the recent government scorecard. “We want more people to do business with the largest buyer in the world,” she said. 



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The Federal Reserve may not cut interest rates just yet. Here’s what that means for your money

Economists expect the Federal Reserve to leave interest rates unchanged at the end of its two-day meeting this week, even though many experts anticipate the central bank is preparing to start cutting rates in the months ahead.

In prepared remarks earlier this month, Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell said policymakers don’t want to ease up too quickly.

Powell noted that lowering rates rapidly risks losing the battle against inflation and likely having to raise rates further, while waiting too long poses danger to economic growth.

But in the meantime, consumers won’t see much relief from sky-high borrowing costs.

More from Personal Finance:
Here’s when the Fed is likely to start cutting interest rates
Nearly half of young adults have ‘money dysmorphia’
Deflation: Here’s where prices fell

In 2022 and the first half of 2023, the Fed raised rates 11 times, causing consumer borrowing rates to skyrocket while inflation remained elevated, and putting households under pressure.

With the combination of sustained inflation and higher interest rates, “many consumers are experiencing higher levels of economic stress compared to one year ago,” said Silvio Tavares, CEO of credit scoring company VantageScore.

The federal funds rate, which is set by the U.S. central bank, is the interest rate at which banks borrow and lend to one another overnight. Although that’s not the rate consumers pay, the Fed’s moves still affect the borrowing and savings rates they see every day.

Even once the central bank does cut rates — which some now expect could happen in June — the pace that they trim is going to be much slower than the pace at which they hiked, according to Greg McBride, chief financial analyst at Bankrate.

“Interest rates took the elevator going up; they are going to take the stairs coming down,” he said.

Here’s a breakdown of where consumer rates stand now and where they may be headed:

Credit cards

Since most credit cards have a variable rate, there’s a direct connection to the Fed’s benchmark. Because of the central bank’s rate hike cycle, the average credit card rate rose from 16.34% in March 2022 to nearly 21% today — an all-time high.

With most people feeling strained by higher prices, balances are higher and more cardholders are carrying debt from month to month compared with last year.

Annual percentage rates will start to come down when the Fed cuts rates, but even then they will only ease off extremely high levels. With only a few potential quarter-point cuts on deck, APRs would still be around 20% by the end of 2024, McBride said.

“If the Fed cuts rates twice by a quarter point, your credit card rate will fall by half a percent,” he said.

Mortgage rates

Fifteen- and 30-year mortgage rates are fixed, and tied to Treasury yields and the economy. But anyone shopping for a new home has lost considerable purchasing power, partly because of inflation and the Fed’s policy moves.

Rates are already significantly lower since hitting 8% in October. Now, the average rate for a 30-year, fixed-rate mortgage is around 7%, up from 4.4% when the Fed started raising rates in March 2022 and 3.27% at the end of 2021, according to Bankrate.

“Despite the recent dip, mortgage rates remain high as the market contends with the pressure of sticky inflation,” said Sam Khater, Freddie Mac’s chief economist. “In this environment, there is a good possibility that rates will stay higher for a longer period of time.”

Adjustable-rate mortgages, or ARMs, and home equity lines of credit, or HELOCs, are pegged to the prime rate, and those rates remain high.

“The reality of it is, a lot of borrowers are paying double-digit interest rates on those right now,” McBride said. “That is not a low cost of borrowing and that’s not going to change.”

Auto loans

Even though auto loans are fixed, payments are getting bigger because car prices have been rising along with the interest rates on new loans, resulting in less affordable monthly payments. 

The average rate on a five-year new car loan is now more than 7%, up from 4% when the Fed started raising rates, according to Edmunds. However, competition between lenders and more incentives in the market have started to take some of the edge off the cost of buying a car lately, said Ivan Drury, Edmunds’ director of insights.

Once the Fed cuts rates, “that gives people a little more breathing room,” Drury said. “Last year was ugly all around. At least there’s an upside this year.”

Federal student loans

Federal student loan rates are also fixed, so most borrowers aren’t immediately affected by the Fed’s moves. But undergraduate students who take out new direct federal student loans are now paying 5.50% — up from 4.99% in the 2022-23 academic year and 3.73% in 2021-22.

Private student loans tend to have a variable rate tied to the prime, Treasury bill or another rate index, which means those borrowers are already paying more in interest. How much more, however, varies with the benchmark.

For those struggling with existing debt, there are ways federal borrowers can reduce their burden, including income-based plans with $0 monthly payments and economic hardship and unemployment deferments

Private loan borrowers have fewer options for relief — although some could consider refinancing once rates start to come down, and those with better credit may already qualify for a lower rate.

Savings rates

Don’t miss these stories from CNBC PRO:

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Fed holds rates steady, upgrades assessment of economic growth

The Federal Reserve on Wednesday again held benchmark interest rates steady amid a backdrop of a growing economy and labor market and inflation that is still well above the central bank’s target.

In a widely expected move, the Fed’s rate-setting group unanimously agreed to hold the key federal funds rate in a target range between 5.25%-5.5%, where it has been since July. This was the second consecutive meeting that the Federal Open Market Committee chose to hold, following a string of 11 rate hikes, including four in 2023.

The decision included an upgrade to the committee’s general assessment of the economy. Stocks rallied on the news, with the Dow Jones Industrial Average gaining 212 points on the session.

“The process of getting inflation sustainably down to 2% has a long way to go,” Fed Chair Jerome Powell said in remarks at a news conference. He stressed that the central bank hasn’t made any decisions yet for its December meeting, saying that “The committee will always do what it thinks is appropriate at the time.”

Powell added that the FOMC is not considering or even discussing rate reductions at this time.

He also said the risks around the Fed doing too much or too little to fight inflation have become more balanced.

“This signals that while there is a potential risk for the Fed to do more, the bar has become higher for rate hikes, and we are clearly seeing this play out with two consecutive meetings of no policy action from the Fed,” said Charlie Ripley, senior investment strategist at Allianz Investment Management.

Economy has ‘moderated’

The post-meeting statement had indicated that “economic activity expanded at a strong pace in the third quarter,” compared with the September statement that said the economy had expanded at a “solid pace.” The statement also noted that employment gains “have moderated since earlier in the year but remain strong.”

Gross domestic product expanded at a 4.9% annualized rate in the third quarter, stronger than even elevated expectations. Nonfarm payrolls growth totaled 336,000 in September, well ahead of the Wall Street outlook.

There were few other changes to the statement, other than a notation that both financial and credit conditions had tightened. The addition of “financial” to the phrase followed a surge in Treasury yields that has caused concern on Wall Street. The statement continued to note that the committee is still “determining the extent of additional policy firming” that it may need to achieve its goals. “The Committee will continue to assess additional information and its implications for monetary policy,” the statement said.

Wednesday’s decision to stay put comes with inflation slowing from its rapid pace of 2022 and a labor market that has been surprisingly resilient despite all the interest rate hikes. The increases have been targeted at easing economic growth and bringing a supply and demand mismatch in the labor market back into balance. There were 1.5 available jobs for every available worker in September, according to Labor Department data released earlier Wednesday.

Core inflation is currently running at 3.7% on an annual basis, according to the latest personal consumption expenditures price index reading, which the Fed favors as an indicator for prices.

While that has decreased steadily this year, it is well above the Fed’s 2% annual target.

The post-meeting statement indicated that the Fed sees the economy holding strong despite the rate hikes, a position in itself that could prompt policymakers into a prolonged tightening stance.

In recent days, the “higher-for-longer” mantra has become a central theme for where the Fed is headed. While multiple officials have said they think rates can stay where they are as the Fed assesses the impact of the previous increases, virtually none have said they are considering cuts anytime soon. Market pricing indicates the first cut could come around June 2024, according to CME Group data.

Surging bond yields

The restrictive stance has been a factor in the surging bond yields. Treasury yields have risen to levels not seen since 2007, the earliest days of the financial crisis, as markets parse out what is ahead. Yields and prices move in opposite direction, so a rise in the former reflects waning investor appetite for Treasurys, generally considered the largest and most liquid market in the world.

The surge in yields is seen as a byproduct of multiple factors, including stronger-than-expected economic growth, stubbornly high inflation, a hawkish Fed and an elevated “term premium” for bond investors demanding higher yields in return for the risk of holding longer-duration fixed income.

There also are worries over Treasury issuance as the government looks to finance its massive debt load. The department this week said it will be auctioning off $776 billion of debt in the fourth quarter, starting with $112 billion across three auctions next week.

During a recent appearance in New York, Powell said he thinks the economy may have to slow further to bring down inflation. Most forecasters expect economic growth to tail off ahead.

A Treasury Department forecast released earlier this week indicated that the pace of growth likely will tumble to 0.7% in the fourth quarter and just 1% for the full year in 2024. Projections the Fed released in September put expected GDP growth at 1.5% in 2024.

In the wake of the Fed’s comments, the Atlanta Fed’s GDPNow growth tracker slashed expectations for fourth-quarter GDP almost in half to 1.2% from 2.3%. The gauge takes in data on a real-time basis and adjusts its estimates with the latest information.

Whitney Watson, co-CIO of fixed income and liquidity solutions at Goldman Sachs Asset Management, said it’s likely the Fed will keep its policy unchanged into next year.

“There are risks in both directions,” Watson said. “The rise in inflation expectations, owing to higher gas prices, combined with strong economic activity, preserves the prospect of another rate hike. Conversely, a more pronounced economic slowdown caused by the growing impact of higher interest rates might accelerate the timeline for transitioning to rate cuts.”

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Getting to 2% inflation won’t be easy. This is what will need to happen, and it might not be pretty

A construction in a multifamily and single family residential housing complex is shown in the Rancho Penasquitos neighborhood, in San Diego, California, September 19, 2023.

Mike Blake | Reuters

In theory, getting inflation closer to the Federal Reserve’s 2% target doesn’t sound terribly difficult.

The main culprits are related to services and shelter costs, with many of the other components showing noticeable signs of easing. So targeting just two areas of the economy doesn’t seem like a gargantuan task compared to, say, the summer of 2022 when basically everything was going up.

In practice, though, it could be harder than it looks.

Prices in those two pivotal components have proven to be stickier than food and gas or even used and new cars, all of which tend to be cyclical as they rise and fall with the ebbs and flows of the broader economy.

Instead, getting better control of rents, medical care services and the like could take … well, you might not want to know.

“You need a recession,” said Steven Blitz, chief U.S. economist at GlobalData TS Lombard. “You’re not going to magically get down to 2%.”

Annual inflation as measured by the consumer price index fell to 3.7% in September, or 4.1% if you kick out volatile food and energy costs, the latter of which has been rising steadily of late. While both numbers are still well ahead of the Fed’s goal, they represent progress from the days when headline inflation was running north of 9%.

The CPI components, though, told of uneven progress, helped along by an easing in items such as used-vehicle prices and medical care services but hampered by sharp increases in shelter (7.2%) and services (5.7% excluding energy services).

Drilling down further, rent of shelter also rose 7.2%, rent of primary residence was up 7.4%, and owners’ equivalent rent, pivotal figures in the CPI computation that indicates what homeowners think they could get for their properties, increased 7.1%, including a 0.6% gain in September.

Without progress on those fronts, there’s little chance of the Fed achieving its goal anytime soon.

Uncertainty ahead

“The forces that are driving the disinflation among the various bits and micro pieces of the index eventually give way to the broader macro force, which is rising, which is above-trend growth and low unemployment,” Blitz said. “Eventually that will prevail until a recession comes in, and that’s it, there’s nothing really much more to say than that.”

On the bright side, Blitz is among those in the consensus view that see any recession being fairly shallow and short. And on the even brighter side, many Wall Street economists, Goldman Sachs among them, are coming around to the view that the much-anticipated recession may not even happen.

In the interim, though, uncertainty reigns.

“Sticky-price” inflation, a measure of things such as rents, various services and insurance costs, ran at a 5.1% pace in September, down a full percentage point from May, according to the Atlanta Fed. Flexible CPI, including food, energy, vehicle costs and apparel, ran at just a 1% rate. Both represent progress, but still not a goal achieved.

Markets are puzzling over what the central bank’s next step will be: Do policymakers slap on another rate hike for good measure before year-end, or do they simply stick to the relatively new higher-for-longer script as they watch the inflation dynamics unfold?

“Inflation that is stuck at 3.7%, coupled with the strong September employment report, could be enough to prompt the Fed to indeed go for one more rate hike this year,” said Lisa Sturtevant, chief economist for Bright MLS, a Maryland-based real estate services firm. “Housing is the key driver of the elevated inflation numbers.”

Higher interest rates’ biggest impact has been on the housing market in terms of sales and financing costs. Yet prices are still elevated, with concern that the high rates will deter construction of new apartments and keep supply constrained.

Those factors “will only lead to higher rental prices and worsening affordability conditions in the long run,” wrote Christopher Bruen, senior director of research at the National Multifamily Housing Council. “Rising rates threaten the strength of the broader job market and economy, which has not yet fully digested the rate hikes already enacted.”

Longer-run concerns

The notion that rate increases totaling 5.25 percentage points have yet to wind their way through the economy is one factor that could keep the Fed on hold.

That, however, goes back to the idea that the economy still needs to cool before the central bank can complete the final mile of its race to bring down inflation to the 2% target.

One positive in the Fed’s favor is that pandemic-related factors largely have washed out of the economy. But other factors linger.

“Pandemic-era effects have a natural gravitational pull and we’ve seen that take place over the course of the year,” said Marta Norton, chief investment officer for the Americas at Morningstar Wealth. “However, bringing inflation the remainder of the distance to the 2% target requires economic cooling, no easy feat, given fiscal easing, the strength of the consumer and the general financial health in the corporate sector.”

Fed officials expect the economy to slow this year, though they have backed off an earlier call for a mild recession.

Policymakers have been banking on the notion that when existing rental leases expire, they will be renegotiated at lower prices, bringing down shelter inflation. However, the rising shelter and owners’ equivalent rent numbers are running counter to that thinking even though so-called asking rent inflation is easing, said Stephen Juneau, U.S. economist at Bank of America.

“Therefore, we must wait for more data to see if this is just a blip or if there is something more fundamental driving the increase such as higher rent increases in larger cities offsetting softer increases in smaller cities,” Juneau said in a note to clients Thursday. He added that the CPI report “is a reminder that we do not have good historic examples to lean on” for long-term patterns in rent inflation.

Core service numbers show inflation is still relatively elevated, says Nationwide's Kathy Bostjancic

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The Biden tax proposals that could hit baby boomer, family businesses

U.S. President Joe Biden delivers remarks about his budget for fiscal year 2024 at the Finishing Trades Institute in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, March 9, 2023.

Evelyn Hockstein | Reuters

President Joe Biden’s 2024 budget proposals contain several proposals that could hit small businesses right where it hurts — their wallets.

Proposals in the budget include boosting the top capital gains rate for income over $1 million, eliminating the so-called “step-up in basis” loophole, expanding who has to pay investment income tax and at what rate, and bumping up the corporate tax rate.

“The White House’s 2024 budget proposal contains $2.5 trillion in harmful tax hikes that would crush Main Street’s ability to grow and create jobs,” said Brad Close, NFIB president, in a statement detailing its campaign to prevent the measures from becoming law. “Some of these tax increases are again being wrongly characterized as the closing of a ‘tax loophole’ and would directly hit small businesses and compound with other rate hikes,” Close said.

Although the budget comes at a time when many small businesses are feeling thrown under the bus by the effects of inflation, hiring pressures and other adverse business conditions, the good news is that tax experts are circumspect about the chances of Biden’s wish list passing as proposed. 

For one, many of the provisions within the budget have been floated before, and a divided Congress lessens the likelihood they’ll be adopted without revision. Even so, the budget represents efforts to rebalance some of the cuts enacted by The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017, especially for higher income individuals, said Eric Hylton, national director of compliance at alliantgroup, a Houston-based consultancy.

Currently, the top individual rate is 37% for income over $578,125 for a single taxpayer, or $693,750 for married couples filing jointly. Biden’s proposal would boost the top individual rate to 39.6% and change the threshold to $400,000 for a single taxpayer and $450,000 for a married couple filing jointly. The rate is already set to increase at the end of 2025, when certain provisions of The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act sunset, but this proposal would make it effective for taxable years beginning after December 31, 2022, and it could ensnare more businesses.

While Congress may be more inclined to move ahead with measures that apply more broadly to wealthy individuals, “there’s going to be a lot of debate as to what should go forward,” said Hylton, a former IRS Commissioner of the Small Business/Self Employed Division.

it’s important for small business owners to be aware of what’s being floated, especially since certain provisions that apply more directly to business operations are likely to rear their head at a later time and the recent tax season included some ugly surprises for small businesses related to recent changes in tax law. “These ideas don’t truly go away; they just go into hibernation until somebody else comes along,” said Ray Beeman, leader of Ernst & Young’s Washington Council.

Here are five provisions business owners should be aware of in President Biden’s budget:

A higher capital gains tax rate would be bad for business sellers.

Biden’s proposal would raise the top marginal rate on long-term capital gains and qualified dividends to 44.6% for income over $1 million, up from 23.8%, including the net investment income tax. The impact would be significant for many small business owners who want to sell businesses, especially the scores of Baby Boomers who are aging out, said Brad Sprong, national industry tax leader for KPMG Private Enterprise. “They don’t have big 401(k) accounts; they have equity in the business, so selling the business could mean an even bigger hit. I think that would be tough for people and it will impact their retirement.”

Eliminating the “step-up in basis” would hit family businesses.

Biden is once again floating the idea of ending the “stepped-up basis” rule that allows preferential tax treatment for assets held until death.

Current rules exempt capital gains on assets that a taxpayer does not sell before the end of his or her life, according to the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, a non-profit, non-partisan tax policy group.

The proposed change would be especially impactful when family-business assets are passed to the next generation, since there are few exceptions to the capital gains tax consequences, according to the NFIB, which opposes the change.

“That’s a factor in families transferring businesses from one generation to the other right now,” said Mark Prater, managing director with PwC’s Tax Policy Services team. It would be a double-whammy for small businesses, he said, if the other proposal to increase the capital gains rate moves forward.

Still, Biden’s budget partially mitigates these concerns by exempting $5 million of unrealized gains per individual and effectively $10 million per married couple, according to an analysis from the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy. “The President also proposes allowing any family business (including farms) to delay the tax if the business continues to be family-owned and operated,” the blog said.

Property owners could lose leverage in real estate transactions.

The budget once again seeks to eliminate so-called 1031 like-kind exchanges of more than $500,000 for each taxpayer, or $1 million for married individuals filing a joint return. Under current law, if certain conditions are met, a property owner can sell and buy another piece of real estate for business or investment purchase and defer paying taxes on the initial gain, Sprong said. If that benefit is eliminated, certain small businesses would lose the ability to leverage their capital in this way.

A higher corporate tax rate would hurt businesses that don’t use a pass-through structure.

Biden is proposing that the corporate tax rate be increased to 28% from 21%. The majority of small businesses are pass-through businesses that are not subject to the corporate income tax, but for companies that are, the increase would be meaningful, tax experts said. Before moving ahead, Congress would need to consider how this pits the U.S. against other developed nations, Sprong said. “You wouldn’t want to be an outlier.”

Potentially higher net investment income tax.

Biden’s proposal would increase the 3.8% net investment income tax rate on small business income over $400,000 to 5%. Many small businesses today don’t pay this tax, but if the plan passes, they would not only pay, but at a higher rate than what’s currently in place, Beeman said.

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Shrinking food stamp benefits for families mean yet another challenge for retailers

A worker carries bananas inside the Walmart SuperCenter in North Bergen, New Jersey.

Eduardo Munoz Alvarez | AP

For some shoppers who already struggle to cover grocery bills, the budget is getting tighter.

This month, pandemic-related emergency funding from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps, is ending in most states, leaving many low-income families with less to spend on food.

More than 41 million Americans receive funding for food through the federal program. For those households, it will amount to at least $95 less per month to spend on groceries. Yet for many families, the drop will be even steeper since the government assistance scales up to adjust for household size and income.

For grocers like Kroger, big-box players like Walmart and discounters like Dollar General, the drop in SNAP dollars adds to an already long list of worries about the year ahead. It’s likely to pressure a weakening part of retailers’ business: sales of discretionary merchandise, which are crucial categories for retailers, as they tend to drive higher profits.

Major companies, including Best Buy, Macy’s and Target, have shared cautious outlooks for the year, saying shoppers across incomes have become more careful about spending on items such as clothing or consumer electronics as they pay more for necessities such as housing and food.

Food, in particular, has emerged as one of the hardest-hit inflation categories, up 10.2% year-over-year as of February, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“You still have to feed the same number of mouths, but you have to make choices,” said Karen Short, a retail analyst for Credit Suisse.

“So what you’re doing is you’re definitely having to cut back on discretionary,” she said.

The stretch has made it impossible for some to afford even basic items. It’s still too early to see the full impact of the reduced SNAP benefits, said North Texas Food Bank CEO Trisha Cunningham, but food pantries in the Dallas-Fort Worth area have started to see more first-time guests. The nonprofit helps stock shelves at pantries that serve 13 counties.

Demand for meals has ballooned, even from pandemic levels, she said. The nonprofit used to provide about 7 million meals per month before the pandemic and now provides between 11 million and 12 millions meals per month.

“We knew these [extra SNAP funds] were going away and they were going to be sunsetted,” she said. “But what we didn’t know is that we were going to have the impact of inflation to deal with on top of this.”

Shifting market share

So far, retail sales in the first two months of the year have proven resilient, even as consumers contend with inflation and follow a stimulus-fueled boom in spending in the early years of the pandemic. On a year-over-year basis, retail spending was up 17.6% in February, according to the Commerce Department.

Some of those higher sales have come from higher prices. The annual inflation rate is at 6% as of February, according to the Labor Department’s tracking of the consumer price index, which measures a broad mix of goods and services. That index has also gotten a lift from restaurant and bar spending, which has bounced back from earlier in the pandemic and begun to compete more with money spent on goods.

Yet retailers themselves have pointed out cracks in consumer health, noting rising credit card balances, more sales of lower-priced private label brands and shoppers’ heightened response to discounts and promotions.

Some retailers mentioned the SNAP funding decrease on earnings calls, too.

Kroger CEO Rodney McMullen called it “a meaningful headwind for the balance of the year.”

“We’re hopeful that everybody will work together to continue or find additional money,” he said on the company’s earnings call with investors earlier this month. “But as you know, because of inflation, there’s a lot of people whose budget is under strain.”

Credit Suisse’s Short said for lower-income families, the food cost squeeze comes on top of climbing expenses for nearly everything else, whether that’s paying the electric bill or filling up the gas tank.

“I don’t think I could tell you what a tailwind is for the consumer,” she said. “There just isn’t a single tailwind in my view.”

Emergency allotments of SNAP benefits previously ended in 18 states, which could preview the effect of the decreased funding nationwide. In a research note for Credit Suisse, Short found an average decline in SNAP spending of 28% across several retailers from the date the additional funding ended.

Some grocers and big-box retailers could feel the impact more than others. According to an analysis by Credit Suisse, Grocery Outlet has the highest exposure to SNAP with an estimated 13% of its 2021 sales coming from the program. That’s followed by BJ’s Wholesale with about 9%, Dollar General at about 9%, Dollar Tree at about 7%, Walmart’s U.S. business with 5.5% and Kroger with about 5%, according to the bank’s estimates, which were based on company filings and government data.

Retailers that draw a higher-income customer base, such as Target and Costco, should feel comparatively less effect, Short said. If nothing else, the dwindling SNAP dollars could shift shoppers from one retailer to another, she said, as major players seek to grab up market share and undercut on prices.

Fewer dollars to go around

Another factor could make for a bumpier start to retailers’ fiscal year, which typically kicks off in late January or early February: Tax refunds are trending smaller this year.

The average refund amount was $2,972, down 11% from an average payment of $3,352 as of the same point in last year’s filing season, according to IRS data as of the week of March 10. That average payout could still change over time, though, as the IRS continues to process millions of Americans’ returns ahead of the mid-April deadline.

Dollar General Chief Financial Officer John Garratt said on an earnings call this month that the discounter is monitoring how its shoppers respond to the winding down of emergency SNAP benefits and lower tax refunds.

He said stores did not see a change in sales patterns when emergency SNAP funds previously ended in some states, but he added that “the customer is in a different place now.”

Tax refunds can act as a cash infusion for retailers, as some people spring for big-ticket items like a pair of brand-name sneakers or a sleek new TV, said Marshal Cohen, chief industry advisor for The NPD Group, a market research company.

This year, though, even if people get their regular refund, they may use it to pay bills or whittle down debt, he said.

One bright spot for retailers could be an 8.7% cost-of-living increase in Social Security payments. Starting in January, recipients received on average $140 more per month.

However, Cohen said, the cash influx might not be enough to offset pressure on younger consumers, particularly those between ages 18 and 24, who have just started jobs and face milestone expenses like signing a lease or buying a car.

“Everything’s costing them so much more for the early, big spends of their consumer career,” he said.

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A recession could come sooner on cooling bank lending

Plummeting bond yields, steep drops in oil and stock prices, and a sharp jump in volatility are all signaling that investors fear a recession is now on the near horizon.

Stocks were down Wednesday, as worries about Credit Suisse spooked markets already concerned about U.S. regional banks following the shutdown of Silicon Valley Bank and Signature Bank

“What you’re really seeing is a significant tightening of financial conditions. What the markets are saying is this increases risks of a recession and rightfully so,” said Jim Caron, head of macro strategy for global fixed income at Morgan Stanley Investment Management. “Equities are down. Bond yields are down. I think another question is: it looks like we’re pricing in three rate cuts, does that happen? You can’t rule it out.”

Bond yields came off their lows and stocks recovered some ground in afternoon trading, following reports that Swiss authorities were discussing options to stabilize Credit Suisse.

Wall Street has been debating whether the economy is heading into a recession for months, and many economists expected it to occur in the second half of this year.

But the rapid moves in markets after the regional bank failures in the U.S. has some strategists now expecting a contraction in the economy to come sooner. Economists are also ratcheting down their growth forecasts on the assumption there will be a pullback in bank lending.

“A very rough estimate is that slower loan growth by mid-size banks could subtract a half to a full percentage-point off the level of GDP over the next year or two,” wrote JPMorgan economists Wednesday. “We believe this is broadly consistent with our view that tighter monetary policy will push the US into recession later this year.”

Bank stocks again helped lead the stock market’s decline after a one-day snap back Tuesday. First Republic, for instance was down 21% and PacWest was down nearly 13%. But energy was the worst performing sector, down 5.4% as oil prices plunged more than 5%. West Texas Intermediate futures settled at $67.61 per barrel, the lowest level since December 2021. 

At the same time, the Cboe Volatility Index, known as the VIX, rocketed to a high of 29.91 Wednesday before closing at 26.10, up 10%.

The S&P 500 closed down 0.7% at 3,891 after falling to a low of 3,838.

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“Bear market bottoms are usually retested to ensure that the low is truly in. The rising risk of recession is now being exacerbated by the increased likelihood that banks will limit their lending,” noted Sam Stovall, chief market strategist at CFRA. “As a result, the outstanding question is whether the October 12 low will hold. If it doesn’t, we see 3,200 on the S&P 500 being another likely target, based on historical precedent and technical considerations.”

Treasury bonds, usually a more staid market, also traded dramatically. The 2-year Treasury yield was at 3.93% in afternoon trading, after it took a wild swing lower to 3.72%, well off its 4.22% close Tuesday. The 2-year most closely reflects investors’ views of where Fed policy is going.

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“I think people are rightfully on edge. I guess when I look at the whole thing together, there’s a component of the rally in the [Treasury] market that is flight-to-quality. There’s also a component of this that says we’re going to tighten credit,” said Caron. “We’re going to see tighter lending standards, whether it’s in the U.S. for small- and mid-sized banks. Even the larger banks are going to tighten lending standards more.”

The Federal Reserve has been trying to slow down the economy and the strong labor market in order to fight inflation. The consumer price index rose 6% in February, a still hot number.

But the spiral of news on banks has made investors more worried that a credit contraction will pull the economy down, and further Fed interest rate hikes would only hasten that.

For that reason, fed funds futures were also trading wildly Wednesday, though the market was still pricing about a 50% chance for a quarter point hike from the Fed next Wednesday. The market was also pricing in multiple rate cuts for this year.

“Long term, I think markets are doing the right kind of thing pricing out the Fed, but I don’t know if they’re going to cut 100 basis points either,” said John Briggs, global head of economics and markets strategy at NatWest Markets. Briggs said he does not anticipate a rate hike next week. A basis point equals 0.01 of a percentage point.

“Credit is the oil of the machine, even if the near-term shock was alleviated, and we weren’t worried about financial institutions more broadly, risk aversion is going to set in and remove credit from the economy,” he said.

Briggs said the response from a bank lending slowdown could be deflationary or at least a disinflationary shock. “Most small businesses are banked by community regional banks, and after this, even if your bank is fine, are you going to be more or less likely to offer credit to that new dry cleaner?” he said. “You’re going to be less likely.”

CFRA strategists said the Fed’s next move is not clear. “The recent downticks in the CPI and PPI readings, as well as the retrenchment of last month’s retail sales, added confidence that the Fed will soften its rigid tightening stance. But nothing is clear or certain,” wrote Stovall. “The March 22 FOMC statement and press conference is just a week away, but it will probably feel like an eternity. Waiting for tomorrow’s ECB statement and response to the emerging bank crisis in Europe also adds to uncertainty and volatility.”

The European Central Bank meets Thursday, and it had been expected to raise its benchmark rate by a half percent, but strategists say that seems less likely.

JPMorgan economists still expect a quarter-point rate hike from the Fed next Wednesday and another in May.

“We look for a quarter-point hike. A pause now would send the wrong signal about the seriousness of the Fed’s inflation resolve,” the JPMorgan economists wrote. “Relatedly, it would also send the wrong signal about ‘financial dominance,’ which is the idea that the central bank is hesitant to tighten, or quick to ease, because of concerns about financial stability.”

Moody’s Analytics chief economist Mark Zandi, however, said he expects the Fed to hold off on a rate hike next week, and the central bank could signal the hiking cycle is done for now.

He has not been expecting a recession, and he thinks there could still be a soft landing.

“I don’t think people should underestimate the impact of those lower rates. Mortgages will go lower and that should be a lift to the housing market,” he said. Zandi said he does not expect the Fed to turn around and cut rates, however, since its fight with inflation is not over.

“I’m a little confused by the markets saying there’s a 50/50 chance of a rate hike next week, and then they’re going to take out the rate hikes. We have to see how this plays out over the next few days,” he said.

Zandi expects first-quarter growth of 1% to 2%. “But the next couple of quarters could be zero to 1%, and we may even get a negative quarter, depending on timing,” he said.

Goldman Sachs economists Wednesday also lowered their 2023 economic growth forecast, reducing it by 0.3 percentage points to 1.2%. They also pointed to the pullback in lending from small- and medium-sized banks and turmoil in the broader financial system.

Correction: This story was corrected to accurately reflect Jim Caron’s remarks that markets are pricing in three rate cuts.

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Here’s what the Federal Reserve’s 25 basis point interest rate hike means for your money

The Federal Reserve raised the target federal funds rate for the eighth time in a row on Wednesday, in its continued effort to tame persistent inflation.

At its latest meeting, the central bank approved a more modest 0.25 percentage point increase after recent signs that inflationary pressures have started to cool.

“The easing of inflation pressures is evident, but this doesn’t mean the Federal Reserve’s job is done,” said Greg McBride, chief financial analyst at Bankrate.com. “There is still a long way to go to get to 2% inflation.”

What the federal funds rate means to you

The federal funds rate, which is set by the U.S. central bank, is the interest rate at which banks borrow and lend to one another overnight. Although that’s not the rate consumers pay, the Fed’s moves do affect the borrowing and saving rates consumers see every day.

This rate hike will correspond with a rise in the prime rate and immediately send financing costs higher for many forms of consumer borrowing — putting more pressure on households already under financial strain.

“Inflation has shredded household budgets and, in many cases, households have had to lean against credit cards to bridge the gap,” McBride said.

On the flip side, “with rates still rising and inflation now declining, it is the best of both worlds for savers,” he added.

How higher interest rates can affect your money

1. Your credit card rate will rise

Since most credit cards have a variable rate, there’s a direct connection to the Fed’s benchmark. As the federal funds rate rises, the prime rate does, as well, and your credit card rate follows suit within one or two billing cycles.

“Credit card interest rates are already as high as they’ve been in decades,” said Matt Schulz, chief credit analyst at LendingTree. “While the Fed is taking its foot off the gas a bit when it comes to raising rates, credit card APRs almost certainly will keep climbing for at least the next few months, so it is important that cardholders continue to focus on knocking down their debt.”

Credit card annual percentage rates are now near 20%, on average, up from 16.3% a year ago, according to Bankrate. At the same time, more cardholders carry debt from month to month while paying sky-high interest charges — “that’s a bad combination,” McBride said.

At more than 19%, if you made minimum payments toward the average credit card balance — which is $5,474, according to TransUnion — it would take you almost 17 years to pay off the debt and cost you more than $7,528 in interest, Bankrate calculated.

Altogether, this rate hike will cost credit card users at least an additional $1.6 billion in interest charges in 2023, according to a separate analysis by WalletHub.

“A 0% balance transfer credit card remains one of the best weapons Americans have in the battle against credit card debt,” Schulz advised.

Otherwise, consumers should consolidate and pay off high-interest credit cards with a lower-interest personal loan, he said. “The rates on new personal loan offers have climbed recently as well, but if you have good credit, you may be able to find options that feature lower rates that what you currently have on your credit card.”

2. Mortgage rates will stay higher

Rates on 15-year and 30-year mortgages are fixed and tied to Treasury yields and the economy. As economic growth has slowed, these rates have started to come down but are still at a 10-year high, according to Jacob Channel, senior economist at LendingTree.

The average interest rate for a 30-year fixed-rate mortgage is now around 6.4% — up almost 3 full percentage points from 3.55% a year ago.

“Relatively high rates, combined with persistently high home prices, mean that buying a home is still a challenge for many,” Channel said.

This rate hike has increased the cost of new mortgages by around 10 basis points, which translates to roughly $9,360 over the lifetime of a 30-year loan, assuming the average home loan of $401,300, WalletHub found. A basis point is equal to 0.01 of a percentage point.

“We’re still a ways away from the housing market being truly affordable, even if it has recently become a bit less expensive,” Channel said.

Other home loans are more closely tied to the Fed’s actions. Adjustable-rate mortgages, or ARMs, and home equity lines of credit, or HELOCs, are pegged to the prime rate. Most ARMs adjust once a year, but a HELOC adjusts right away. Already, the average rate for a HELOC is up to 7.65% from 4.11% a year ago.

More from Personal Finance:
64% of Americans are living paycheck to paycheck
What is a ‘rolling recession’ and how does it impact you?
Almost half of Americans think we’re already in a recession

3. Auto loans will get more expensive

Even though auto loans are fixed, payments are getting bigger because the price for all cars is rising along with the interest rates on new loans, so if you are planning to buy a car, you’ll shell out more in the months ahead.

The average interest rate on a five-year new car loan is currently 6.18%, up from 3.96% last year.

The Fed’s latest move could push up the average interest rate even higher, although consumers with higher credit scores may be able to secure better loan terms or look to some used car models for better deals.

Paying an annual percentage rate of 6% instead of 4% would cost consumers $2,672 more in interest over the course of a $40,000, 72-month car loan, according to data from Edmunds.

“The ever-increasing costs of financing remain a challenge,” said Ivan Drury, Edmunds’ director of insights.

4. Some student loans will get pricier

Federal student loan rates are also fixed, so most borrowers won’t be affected immediately. But if you are about to borrow money for college, the interest rate on federal student loans taken out for the 2022-23 academic year already rose to 4.99%, up from 3.73% last year and any loans disbursed after July 1 will likely be even higher.

If you have a private loan, those loans may be fixed or have a variable rate tied to the Libor, prime or T-bill rates, which means that as the central bank raises rates, borrowers will likely pay more in interest, although how much more will vary by the benchmark.

Currently, average private student loan fixed rates can range from just under 4% to almost 15%, according to Bankrate. As with auto loans, they also vary widely based on your credit score.

For now, anyone with existing federal education debt will benefit from rates at 0% until the payment pause ends, which the Education Department expects to happen sometime this year.

What savers should know about higher interest rates

The good news is that interest rates on savings accounts are finally higher after the recent run of rate hikes.

While the Fed has no direct influence on deposit rates, they tend to be correlated to changes in the target federal funds rate, and the savings account rates at some of the largest retail banks, which have been near rock bottom during most of the Covid pandemic, are currently up to 0.33%, on average.

Also, thanks, in part, to lower overhead expenses, top-yielding online savings account rates are as high as 4.35%, much higher than the average rate from a traditional, brick-and-mortar bank.

Rates on one-year certificates of deposit at online banks are even higher, now around 4.75%, according to DepositAccounts.com.

As the Fed continues its rate-hiking cycle, these yields will continue to rise, as well. However, you have to shop around to take advantage of them, according to Yiming Ma, an assistant finance professor at Columbia University Business School.

“If you haven’t already, it’s really important to benefit from the high interest environment by getting a higher return,” she said.

Still, because the inflation rate is now higher than all of these rates, any money in savings loses purchasing power over time. 

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Oil expected to stay volatile in 2023, but the price could depend on China reopening

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