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oftwominds-Charles Hugh Smith: Eating Our Seed Corn: How Much of our “Growth” Is From One-Time Cashouts?
We as a nation are consuming our seed corn in great gulps, and there will be precious little left in a decade to pass down to the next generation.
Anecdotally, it seems a significant percentage of our recent economic “growth” is being funded by one-time cashouts of IRAs, 401Ks, sales of parents’ homes, etc. This is the equivalent of eating our seed corn. Once these pools of savings/equity/capital are gone, they aren’t coming back.
I personally know a number of people who have cashed out their retirement account 401Ks (and paid the taxes) to pay for their kids’ college expenses–in effect, cashing out their retirement to lower but not eliminate the debt burden of their offspring who bought the “going away to college” experience.
The cashed-out 401K delighted the government, which reaped huge penalties and income taxes, as the cashout pushed the annual income of the recipient into a high tax bracket. (“Hardship” withdrawals for medical care and education waive the penalties, but the income tax takes a big chunk of the withdrawal.)
The middle-aged person who cashed out their retirement will not work long enough to save an equivalent nestegg. Not only is time against such an accumulation of retirement savings, so is the stagnant economy: companies are slashing 401K contributions to offset rising healthcare (a.k.a. sickcare) expenses, and many workers young and old alike are finding jobs that pay them as self-employed contractors or part-time jobs with no benefits.
Another set of middle-aged people are withdrawing from IRAs (and paying the penalties) just to fill the gap between expenses and income. For a variety of reasons, many people are loathe to cut expenses or are unable to do so without drastic changes in their lifestyle. So they withdraw from the IRA (individual retirement account) to cover expenses that are left after income has been spent.
This “solution” is appealing to those whose incomes have declined in what they perceive as “temporary” hard times.
Another pool of equity that is being drained is the home equity in aging parents’ homes. The government will only pay for one set of medical expenses (long-term care, for example) if the elderly person has assets of less than $2,000 (as I recall). Given this cap, it makes sense for elderly homeowners to transfer ownership of their home to their offspring well before they need long-term care (which can cost $12,000 to $15,000 a month).
A variety of other medical expenses can arise that cause the home to be sold to raise cash–either expenses for the elderly parents or for their late-middle-age offspring who develop costly health issues. Family disagreements over sharing the equity can arise, leading to the sale of the house and the division of the equity among the offspring.
This cash is immediately hit with a variety of demands: a grandkid needs a car, somebody needs money to go back to graduate school (pursuing the fantasy that another degree will provide financial security), and so on–not to mention “we deserve a nice vacation, a new car, etc.”, the temptations in a consumerist culture that we all “deserve.”
Once the family home is sold, the furnishings and other valuables are also sold off to raise cash. In many cases, the expense of transporting the items across the country to relatives exceeds the value of the furnishings.
One common thread in all these demands for liquidation of equity is the short-term need is pressing. A consumerist culture offers few incentives for long-term savings other than life insurance, IRAs and 401Ks, and all of these can be tapped once a pressing need arises.
Though people may want to hang on to their nestegg, they are faced with short-term needs: how else can I pay tuition, or this medical bill?
As incomes have stagnated and costs for big-ticket expenses such as college and healthcare have soared, the gap between income and expenditures has widened every year for the bottom 90%.
Even those in the top 10% are not protected from draw-downs in retirement funds and family equity in homes and other assets.
Retirement funds, home equity, family assets–these are the financial equivalent of seed corn. Once they’re cashed out and spent, they cannot be replaced.
In more prudent and prosperous times, these nesteggs of capital were conserved to be passed on to the next generation not for consumption but as a nestegg to be conserved for the following generation. That chain of capital preservation and inheritance is being broken by the ravenous need for cash to spend, not later but right now.
So how much of the recent “growth” in GDP results from our consumption of seed corn? It is difficult to find any data on this, something which is unsurprising as the data would reveal the entire “recovery” story as a grandiose illusion: we as a nation are consuming our seed corn in great gulps, and there will be precious little left in a decade to pass down to the next generation.
We face not just an impoverishment in consumption but in expectations and generational assets.
Still unsure about the differences between a Tax-Free Savings Account (TFSA) and a Registered Retirement Savings Plan (RRSP)?
The fact is it’s all about the tax. Here’s a quick refresher of the tax-free registered savings account:
How much can I put into my TFSA? Since the beginning of 2013, you can now contribute up to $5,500 a year. Your annual contribution limit will appear on your Notice of Assessment after your tax return has been processed. At the end of the year, any remaining balance will be added to your contribution limit in the following year. One great TFSA advantage is that there usually isn’t a minimum deposit required to open an account, which makes it easy to pay yourself first. And you can easily access your funds if you’re in a tight financial spot. It’s also worth noting that your withdrawals won’t compromise your eligibility to receive federal benefits like the Guaranteed Income Supplement, Employment Insurance or the Canada Child Tax Benefit. Any withdrawals you make can be replaced in the following year.
It’s a great retirement savings tool: If you’ve successfully reached your RRSP contribution limit, continue to make deposits to your TFSA, keeping in mind your annual limits. Remember, these deposits are tax-free and tax-receipt-free. In other words, deposits you make to a TFSA won’t reduce your taxable income, you won’t receive a tax receipt for your deposits nor will your withdrawals be taxed like an RRSP. By contrast, any deposits you make to an RRSP are deducted dollar for dollar from your taxable income in that tax year. For example, if you make $40,000 a year and contribute $2,000 to an RRSP, the tax on your income would be calculated on $38,000 only. However, any withdrawal you make from your TFSA will be tax-free and the funds are not declared as income.
Don’t forget to diversify: Consider shaking things up with a little diversification. You can choose investment options like stocks, bonds, mutual funds and guaranteed investment funds (GIFs). Also, you now have the option of borrowing your full contribution limit. However, unlike other investment loans, the interest paid on this loan cannot be used as a tax write-off. If you could afford to, contributing to each year’s maximums in both plans would be ideal. Of course, it comes down to finding a balance between creating a strong nest-egg and paying off debts. But, these tax considerations can certainly help you meet your long-term financial goals.
Posted: 02/19/2014 12:34 pm
Over the years that Desjardins Group conducted its retirement survey, two themes always came up: most Canadians avoid retirement planning and they’re sure they haven’t saved enough. So, how prepared are you?
A) You’re totally confident about your financial security and retirement plans, or;
B) You know you haven’t saved enough, but now you’re ready to make a plan.
If you answered B, the experts from Desjardins have some suggestions to help you get started:
1) Think about what your retirement will look like: Will you be spending your retirement travelling the world or will you just keep on working? According to the results in previous retirement surveys, more than half of respondents expected to do just that. Many said it was because working kept them active. But the most popular reason was financial. While it might be nice to think that you could continue your current working lifestyle well into your 80s. But life has a way of throwing you curveballs. The reality is that less than one retiree in five continues to work. In fact, events like job loss, a disability, becoming caregiver to a loved one, or simply fatigue can change your plans in an instant. This is why it’s important to visualize what your life might look as part of creating a solid plan.
2) Figure out how much money you’ll need to save: Keep in mind that you’ll likely need enough savings for a retirement that last 25 to 30 years. For example, the average 55-year-old woman who is a non-smoker will live to 86 while her male counterpart will live to 83. That being said, you will likely need a retirement income of about 70 per cent of your gross working income. Here’s a snapshot of the type of income sources you may have if you were retiring today:
1. An employer pension, if it was available to you
2. The Canadian Pension Plan
3. The Old Age Security Pension
4. Savings in an RRSP and/or TFSA
Since future retirees have no control over the amounts of the first three sources of income, creating a substantial nest-egg within your RRSP and other savings accounts will be an essential part of your written retirement plan.
3) Each year, review your plan: The golden rule to ensuring you have saved enough is to regularly review your objectives and adjust your plan as required, as circumstances can change quite often over 20 years. For example, there may be changes in the tax rules, new laws, interest rates and public pension plans that may affect your goals. But if you stay flexible, all this is manageable, giving you much better odds of attaining your retirement goals.
Simply put, the new myRA program put forward by Obama is at best a sucker’s deal… or worse, it’s a first step toward the nationalization of private retirement savings. (Note: If you haven’t yet heard of myRA, I’d strongly suggest you read this excellent overview by my colleague Dan Steinhart.)
Even before the new myRA program was announced, there had been whispers about the need for the US government to assume some risk for US retirement accounts. That’s code for forced conversion of private retirement assets into government bonds.
With foreigners not buying as many Treasuries and the Fed tapering, the US government has been searching for new buyers of its unwanted debt. And this is where the new myRA program comes in.
In short, it’s ostensibly a new way for people to save for retirement. Of course, you can only invest in government-approved investments—like Treasuries—which probably won’t even come close to keeping up with the real rate of inflation. It’s like Jim Grant says: “return-free risk.”
In reality, a myRA doesn’t really provide any significant new benefits over existing options. To me it just looks like a way for the US government to pass the hot potato on to unsuspecting Americans in exchange for their retirement savings.
The net effect is the funneling of more capital to Treasury securities and thus helping the US government finance itself.
You’d be much better off using a precious metals IRA to save for retirement than participating in the government’s latest Ponzi scheme.
There are other protective strategies as well, such as internationalizing your retirement savings into assets that are hard, if not impossible, to confiscate on a whim—like foreign real estate and physical gold held abroad. More on that below.
Retirement Savings Are Always Juicy Targets
As bad as it is to deceive naïve Americans into trading their hard-earned retirement savings for garbage (i.e., Treasury securities), the myRA program potentially represents something far worse… the first step toward the nationalization of existing private retirement accounts.
I believe myRA is a way to nudge the American people into gradually becoming more accustomed to government involvement in their private retirement savings.
It’s incorrect to assume nationalization couldn’t happen in the US or your home country. History shows us that it’s standard operating procedure for a government in dire financial straits.
To me it’s self-evident that most Western governments (including the US) have current debt loads and future spending commitments that all but guarantee that eventually—and likely someday soon—they will try to unscrupulously grab as much wealth as they can.
And retirement savings are a juicy target—low-hanging fruit for a desperate government.
Naturally, politicians will try to slickly sell the idea to the public as something “for their own good” or as “protection from market instability.” This is how similar programs were sold to skeptical publics in the past.
In reality, governments take these actions not to “reduce the risk” to your retirement savings or whatever propaganda they happen to come up with, but rather to obtain financing—by forcefully dumping their unwanted debt onto seniors and savers.
Below are several ways it has happened or could happen. Of course, there could always be some sort of new, creative proposal that was previously unthinkable. No matter the method, however, the end result is always the same—the siphoning off of purchasing power from your retirement savings.
New Contribution Mandate: The government could mandate, for example, that 50% of new contributions to private retirement accounts must consist of “safe,” government-approved investments, like Treasury securities.
Forced Conversions: This is where a government will forcibly convert existing assets held in retirement accounts into so-called “safer” assets, such as government bonds. For example, if the US government forcibly converted 20% of the estimated $20 trillion in retirement assets (401k plans, IRAs, defined benefit and contribution plans, etc.), it would net them $4 trillion. Not a bad score, considering the national debt is north of $17 trillion.
Special Taxes: The government could look into levying special taxes on distributions from retirement, especially those deemed to be “excessively large.”
In order to be more effective, forced conversations probably wouldn’t happen until after official capital controls have been instituted. Once in place, capital controls would make it very difficult, if not impossible, for you to avoid the wealth confiscation that is sure to follow… like a sheep that has just been penned in for a shearing.
Since FATCA and other regulatory burdens already amount to a soft form of capital controls, it’s absolutely essential that you start implementing protective measures now.
It’s like I have always said: internationalization is your ultimate insurance against the measures of a desperate government. In the case that the government makes a grab for retirement savings, it’s much better to be a year or two early rather than a minute too late.
Internationalize Your Retirement Savings
It’s much more difficult for the government to convert your retirement assets if they’re outside of its immediate reach. If you have a standard IRA from a large US financial institution, it would only take a decree from the US government and Poof!: your dividend-paying stocks and corporate bonds could instantly be transformed into government bonds.
Obviously, this is much harder for the government to do if your retirement assets are sufficiently internationalized.
For example, you can structure your IRA to invest in foreign real estate, open an offshore bank or brokerage account, own certain types of physical gold stored abroad, and invest in other foreign and nontraditional assets.
In my view, owning an apartment in Switzerland and some physical gold coins stored in asafe deposit box in Singapore beats the cookie-cutter mutual funds shoved down your throat by traditional IRA custodians any day.
If and when there’s some sort of decree to convert or otherwise confiscate the assets in your retirement account, your internationalized assets ensure that your savings won’t vanish at the stroke of a pen.
There are important details and a couple of restrictions that you’ll need to be aware of, but they amount to minor issues, especially when weighed against the risk of leaving your retirement savings within the immediate reach of a government desperate for cash.
After placing a juicy steak in front of a salivating German shepherd, it’s only a matter of time before he makes a grab for it. The US government with its $17 trillion debt load is the salivating German shepherd, and the $20 trillion in retirement savings is the juicy steak.
Internationalizing your IRA has always been a prudent and pragmatic thing to do. And now that the US government has now officially set its sights on retirement savings, it’s truly urgent.
You’ll find all the details on how it to get set up, along with trusted professionals who specialize in internationalizing IRAs in our Going Global publication.