What I’m Watching This Week – 24 November 2014

The Markets

Unexpected changes in monetary policy in China and support for additional stimulus in Europe helped propel the Dow industrials and S&P 500 to fresh record highs on Friday. Large caps, many of which earn a substantial portion of their revenues overseas, benefitted most, while the Nasdaq and Russell 2000 small caps ended with little changed.

Market/Index 2013 Close Prior Week As of 11/21 Weekly Change YTD Change
DJIA 16576.66 17634.74 17810.06 .99% 7.44%
Nasdaq 4176.59 4688.54 4712.97 .52% 12.84%
S&P 500 1848.36 2039.82 2063.50 1.16% 11.64%
Russell 2000 1163.64 1173.80 1172.42 -.12% .75%
Global Dow 2484.10 2529.28 2559.75 1.20% 3.05%
Fed. Funds .25% .25% .25% 0% 0%
10-year Treasuries 3.04% 2.32% 2.31% -1 bps -73 bps

Chart reflects price changes, not total return. Because it does not include dividends or splits, it should not be used to benchmark performance of specific investments.

Last Week’s Headlines

  • Tacitly acknowledging signs of slowing growth, China’s central bank unexpectedly cut two key interest rates to try to stimulate domestic consumption. Meanwhile, European Central Bank President Mario Draghi once again said the ECB is ready to adopt additional stimulus measures if necessary to fight the threat of low inflation.
  • President Obama announced a program that will defer deportation for undocumented immigrants and allow them to receive work permits if they have been in the country for at least five years, have no criminal record, and/or have children who are American citizens. The program would not grant permanent resident status or provide for coverage under the Affordable Care Act. However, those affected would receive Social Security cards and would have to pass background checks and pay taxes. Republican congressional leaders criticized the action and said they plan to address immigration policy in 2015. House Republicans also filed suit against the Obama administration, seeking to overturn two provisions of the Affordable Care Act.
  • After a second quarter of contraction, Japan is now officially in recession. The country’s Cabinet Office announced that gross domestic product fell at an annualized rate of 1.6% in the third quarter. Though that was better than Q2’s annualized 7.3% decline, it put pressure on Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to consider postponing a second round of sales tax increases scheduled for October. The higher taxes were designed to attack Japan’s high sovereign debt.
  • Minutes of the Federal Reserve’s monetary policy committee’s most recent meeting showed that last month’s end to bond-buying efforts came about despite concerns about the potential impact of slowing growth overseas on the U.S. economy. The committee also will watch for signs of falling inflation, which could potentially delay any rate increase.
  • After a strong increase in September, industrial production slumped 0.1% in October. The Federal Reserve Board said that though manufacturing output was up, strong declines in mining and utilities offset it. Meanwhile, both the Empire State and Philly Fed manufacturing surveys showed business activity accelerating in November.
  • Falling gas prices helped offset increases in housing costs, leaving the Consumer Price Index relatively unchanged in October. That put the inflation rate for the last 12 months at 1.7%, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Meanwhile, wholesale prices rose 0.2% during the month, putting the wholesale inflation rate for the last 12 months at 1.5%–the lowest annualized rate since February.
  • Housing starts slipped 2.8% during October. However, the Commerce Department said they were 7.8% higher than the previous October, and building permits were up 4.8% for the month. Meanwhile, existing home sales were not only up 1.5% in October, but the year-over-year gain was at its highest level since October 2013. The National Association of Realtors® said the median home-resale price–$208,300–is 5.5% higher than it was in October 2013.

Eye on the Week Ahead

With many traders heading out for the Thanksgiving holiday, light trading volumes could exaggerate any market movements during the holiday-shortened week ahead, which includes revisions to U.S. GDP.

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What I’m Watching This Week – 17 November 2014

The Markets

Though trading remained within a relatively narrow range, especially compared with recent weeks, the S&P 500 nevertheless managed to hit a new record high, while the Nasdaq’s weekly gain kept it in the lead year-to-date. A fresh drop in oil prices brought the price of West Texas Intermediate crude to roughly $75 a barrel.

Market/Index 2013 Close Prior Week As of 11/14 Weekly Change YTD Change
DJIA 16576.66 17573.93 17634.74 .35% 6.38%
Nasdaq 4176.59 4632.53 4688.54 1.21% 12.26%
S&P 500 1848.36 2031.89 2039.82 .39% 10.36%
Russell 2000 1163.64 1173.32 1173.80 .04% .87%
Global Dow 2484.10 2516.73 2529.28 .50% 1.82%
Fed. Funds .25% .25% .25% 0% 0%
10-year Treasuries 3.04% 2.32% 2.32% 0 bps -72 bps

Chart reflects price changes, not total return. Because it does not include dividends or splits, it should not be used to benchmark performance of specific investments.

Last Week’s Headlines

– The United States and China agreed to take steps to combat climate change. For the first time, China agreed to cap its output of greenhouse gases no later than 2030 and increase its reliance on zero-emission energy sources to 20% by the same deadline. The United States will cut emissions by 17% by 2020 and by 28% by 2025, which would double the current pace at which it is reducing carbon emissions.

– Despite growth in some of the eurozone’s weakest members, the region as a whole was hampered by sluggishness in the larger economies. The eurozone as a whole grew 0.2% during the third quarter, according to the European Union’s statistical agency. Germany expanded just 0.1%, while Italy’s economy contracted for the 11th time in the last 13 quarters. However, Spain’s GDP was up 0.5% and Greece’s increased by 0.7%–the eurozone’s highest Q3 growth rate.

– President Obama urged the Federal Communications Commission to regulate the Internet as a public utility and adopt rules supporting so-called “net neutrality,” which would prevent broadband companies from manipulating transmission speeds or offering a so-called “fast lane” for customers willing to pay more.

– A dispute in the publishing world between Amazon and publisher Hachette ended a months-long dispute over who would set prices for books sold through Amazon. The agreement reportedly would allow Hachette to control the price of its books but give the publisher an incentive to keep prices low.

– Lower gas prices may have helped U.S. retail sales rise 0.3% in September. According to the Commerce Department, sales were up 4.1% from a year ago.

– The Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey showed that the number of both new hires and people quitting their jobs increased in September. The number of new hires hit its highest level since December 2007 and the quits rate seen as an indicator of workers’ confidence in their ability to get another job was higher than it’s been since April 2008.

Eye on the Week Ahead

In the wake of the end of quantitative easing, minutes of the most recent Federal Open Market Committee meeting will be of interest, especially if there are any clues to committee members’ thinking about future interest rate increases. Also on tap are data on the manufacturing sector and inflation.

Health-Care Reform Changes Affecting Seniors

The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, enacted in 2010, contains some provisions that directly affect our nation’s elder population. If you’re a retiree or a senior, you may be concerned about how these reforms may affect your access to health care and insurance benefits. The following is an overview of health-care reform legislation provisions you should be aware of.

Medicare spending cuts

Not surprisingly, the concerns of retirees and seniors generally center on potential cuts in Medicare benefits. At the outset, the new legislation does not affect Medicare’s guaranteed benefits. However, two goals of the new health-care legislation are to slow the increasing cost of Medicare premiums paid by beneficiaries, and to ensure that Medicare will not run out of funds.

To help achieve these goals, cuts in Medicare spending will occur over a ten-year period, beginning in 2011, particularly targeting Medicare Advantage programs–Medicare benefits provided through private insurers but subsidized by the federal government. These cuts are intended to bring the cost of federal subsidies for Medicare Advantage plans in line with costs for comparable benefits for Medicare beneficiaries. If you participate in a Medicare Advantage plan, these cuts could reduce or eliminate some of the extra benefits your plan may offer, such as dental or vision care, and your premiums may increase. But Medicare Advantage plans cannot reduce primary Medicare benefits, nor can they impose deductibles and co-payments that are greater than what is allowed under the traditional Medicare program for comparable benefits.

Benefits added to Medicare

The legislation also improves some traditional Medicare benefits. For example, prior to the new legislation, traditional Medicare paid 80% of the cost for a one-time physical for new enrollees within the first 12 months of enrollment. But beginning in 2011, you will receive free annual wellness exams; preventive care tests such as screenings for high blood pressure, diabetes, and certain forms of cancer; and a personalized prevention assessment and plan to address particular health risk factors you may encounter.

Medicare Part D drug program changes

If you are a Medicare Part D beneficiary, you may be surprised to find that you have to pay for the entire cost of prescription drugs out-of-pocket after reaching a gap in your annual coverage, referred to as the “donut hole.” You could pay up to an additional $3,610 out-of-pocket for medicines after reaching an initial threshold of $2,830 in total prescription drug costs (including Part D payments, beneficiary co-pays, and deductibles). But, in 2010, beneficiaries falling in the donut hole received a $250 rebate, and, in 2011, these beneficiaries received a 50% discount on brand-name drugs. Also beginning in 2011, a reduction in co-payments for generic drugs within the donut hole will be phased in, and, beginning in 2013, a reduction in co-payments for brand-name drugs will be phased in. Essentially, by 2020, a combination of federal subsidies and a reduction in co-payments will reduce your out-of-pocket costs for medications in the gap from 100% to 25%. However, individuals with annual incomes greater than $85,000 and couples with incomes exceeding $170,000, will see their Part D premiums increase as the federal subsidy offsetting some of the cost of Medicare Part D premiums is reduced.

If you are a full-benefit dual eligible beneficiary (eligible for both Medicaid and Medicare) receiving institutional care, such as in a nursing home facility, you do not owe any co-payments for Part D-covered prescriptions. However, if you’re dually eligible and receiving long-term care services at home or in a day-care community-based setting, you are subject to Part D drug co-payments. Beginning in 2012, the new legislation removes this imbalance by eliminating co-payments for individuals receiving services at home or in a community setting.

Also, beginning in 2011, the time period during which Part D and Medicare Advantage beneficiaries can make changes to their coverage is extended and runs from October 15 to December 7. This extension should provide more time for you to consider your options while ensuring that all changes are properly incorporated into the plan for the following year.

Coverage for those under age 65

You may be between the ages of 55 and 65 and do not have health insurance provided by your employer, or if covered, find that your cost for insurance is substantial. If you’re in this predicament, the health-care legislation provides you with opportunities for affordable health insurance.

By 2014, state-based American Health Benefit Exchanges will be created, through which you can purchase affordable health insurance coverage. The Exchanges will serve as a conduit for health insurance providers to offer health plans with different benefits, co-insurance limits, and premium costs. You can then compare the costs of various plans and benefits. If you can’t afford an Exchange plan, you may be eligible for a government subsidy based on income and family size.

Increased access to home-based care

Often, people with disabilities or illnesses would rather receive care at home instead of at a nursing home. The health-care reform law provides for programs and incentives for greater access to in-home care. The Community First Choice Option is available for states to add to their Medicaid programs, beginning in 2011. This option provides benefits to Medicaid-eligible individuals for community-based care instead of placement in a nursing home.

In addition, the State Balancing Incentive Program, also beginning in 2011 and running through October 2015, provides increased federal funds to qualifying states that offer Medicaid benefits to disabled individuals seeking long-term care services at home, or in the community, instead of in a nursing home. In order to be eligible, a state must spend less than 50% of its total Medicaid expenditures for at-home or community-based long-term care services and supports. The state must also agree to use the additional federal funds to provide new or expanded non-institutionally-based long-term care services.

Nursing home transparency

The Independence at Home demonstration program, available in 2012, is a test program that provides Medicare beneficiaries with chronic conditions the opportunity to receive primary care services at home. This is intended to reduce costs associated with emergency room visits and hospital readmissions, and generally improve the efficiency of care.

While in-home care may be a preference, often a nursing facility is the better or only alternative. In the past, consumers had very little information available in order to compare nursing homes. The health-care legislation addresses the need for more transparency regarding nursing facilities. For example, nursing homes are required to disclose their owners, operators, and financers. The government will also collect and report information about how well a particular nursing home is staffed, including the number of hours of nursing care residents receive, staff turnover rates, and how much facilities spend on wages and benefits.

The Roth 401(k)

 

Some employers offer 401(k) plan participants the opportunity to make Roth 401(k) contributions. If you’re lucky enough to work for an employer who offers this option, Roth contributions could play an important role in helping enhance your retirement income.

What is a Roth 401(k)?

A Roth 401(k) is simply a traditional 401(k) plan that accepts Roth 401(k) contributions. Roth 401(k) contributions are made on an after-tax basis, just like Roth IRA contributions. This means there’s no up-front tax benefit, but if certain conditions are met, your Roth 401(k) contributions and all accumulated investment earnings on those contributions are free from federal income tax when distributed from the plan. (403(b) and 457(b) plans can also allow Roth contributions.)

Who can contribute?

Unlike Roth IRAs, where individuals who earn more than a certain dollar amount aren’t allowed to contribute, you can make Roth contributions, regardless of your salary level, as soon as you’re eligible to participate in the plan. And while a 401(k) plan can require employees to wait up to one year before they become eligible to contribute, many plans allow you to contribute beginning with your first paycheck.

How much can I contribute?

There’s an overall cap on your combined pretax and Roth 401(k) contributions. You can contribute up to $17,500 of your pay ($23,000 if you’re age 50 or older) to a 401(k) plan in 2014. You can split your contribution any way you wish. For example, you can make $10,000 of Roth contributions and $7,500 of pretax 401(k) contributions. It’s up to you.

But keep in mind that if you also contribute to another employer’s 401(k), 403(b), SIMPLE, or SAR-SEP plan, your total contributions to all of these plans–both pretax and Roth–can’t exceed $17,500 ($23,000 if you’re age 50 or older). It’s up to you to make sure you don’t exceed these limits if you contribute to plans of more than one employer.

Can I also contribute to a Roth IRA?

Yes. Your participation in a Roth 401(k) plan has no impact on your ability to contribute to a Roth IRA. You can contribute to both if you wish (assuming you meet the Roth IRA income limits). You can contribute up to $5,500 to a Roth IRA in 2014, $6,500 if you’re age 50 or older (or, if less, 100% of your taxable compensation).*

Should I make pretax or Roth 401(k) contributions?

When you make pretax 401(k) contributions, you don’t pay current income taxes on those dollars (which means more take-home pay). But your contributions and investment earnings are fully taxable when you receive a distribution from the plan. In contrast, Roth 401(k) contributions are subject to income taxes up front, but qualified distributions of your contributions and earnings are entirely free from federal income tax.

Which is the better option depends upon your personal situation. If you think you’ll be in a similar or higher tax bracket when you retire, Roth 401(k) contributions may be more appealing, since you’ll effectively lock in today’s lower tax rates. However, if you think you’ll be in a lower tax bracket when you retire, pretax 401(k) contributions may be more appropriate. Your investment horizon and projected investment results are also important factors. Before you take any specific action be sure to consult with your own tax or legal counsel.

Are distributions really tax free?

Because your Roth 401(k) contributions are made on an after-tax basis, they’re always free from federal income tax when distributed from the plan. But the investment earnings on your Roth contributions are tax free only if you meet the requirements for a “qualified distribution.”

In general, a distribution is qualified only if it satisfies both of the following:

  • It’s made after the end of a five-year waiting period
  • The payment is made after you turn 59½, become disabled, or die

The five-year waiting period for qualified distributions starts with the year you make your first Roth contribution to your employer’s 401(k) plan. For example, if you make your first Roth contribution to the plan in December 2014, then the first year of your five-year waiting period is 2014, and your waiting period ends on December 31, 2018.

But if you change employers and roll over your Roth 401(k) account from your prior employer’s plan to your new employer’s plan (assuming the new plan accepts Roth rollovers), the five-year waiting period starts instead with the year you made your first contribution to the earlier plan.

If your distribution isn’t qualified (for example, if you receive a payout before the five-year waiting period has elapsed or because you terminate employment), the portion of your distribution that represents investment earnings on your Roth contributions will be taxable, and will be subject to a 10% early distribution penalty unless you are 59½ or another exception applies.

You can generally avoid taxation by rolling your distribution over into a Roth IRA or into another employer’s Roth 401(k), 403(b), or 457(b) plan, if that plan accepts Roth rollovers. (State income tax treatment of Roth 401(k) contributions may differ from the federal rules.)*

What about employer contributions?

While employers don’t have to contribute to 401(k) plans, many will match all or part of your contributions. Your employer can match your Roth contributions, your pretax contributions, or both. But your employer contributions are always made on a pretax basis, even if they match your Roth contributions. That is, your employer’s contributions, and investment earnings on those contributions, are not taxed until you receive a plan distribution.

What else do I need to know?

Like pretax 401(k) contributions, your Roth 401(k) contributions and investment earnings can be paid from the plan only after you terminate employment, incur a financial hardship, attain age 59½, become disabled, or die.

Also, unlike Roth IRAs, you must begin taking distributions from a Roth 401(k) plan after you reach age 70½ (or in some cases, after you retire). But this isn’t as significant as it might seem, since you can generally roll over your Roth 401(k) dollars (other than RMDs themselves) into a Roth IRA if you don’t need or want the lifetime distributions.

Employers aren’t required to make Roth contributions available in their 401(k) plans. So be sure to ask your employer if they are considering adding this exciting feature to your 401(k) plan.

Roth 401(k) Roth IRA
Maximum contribution (2014) Lesser of $17,500 or 100% of compensation Lesser of $5,500 or 100% of compensation
Age 50 catch-up (2014) $5,500 $1,000
Who can contribute? Any eligible employee Only if under income limit
Age 70½ required distributions? Yes No
Potential matching contributions? Yes No
Potential loans? Yes No
Tax-free qualified distributions? Yes, 5-year waiting period plus either 59½, disability, or death Same, plus first time homebuyer expenses (up to $10,000 lifetime)
Nonqualified distributions Pro-rata distribution of tax-free contributions and taxable earnings Tax-free contributions distributed first, then taxable earnings
Investment choices Limited to plan options Virtually unlimited
Bankruptcy protection Unlimited At least $1,245,475 (total of all IRAs)

After the Military: Tips for Your Financial Transition to Civilian Life

A drawdown is looming. You’re separating at the end of active service. You’ve decided to retire after a long career. No matter why you’re leaving the military, a big part of preparing for your civilian life is taking steps to proactively address the financial issues you might face. Here are some tips to help ease the transition.

Get your road map ready

An impending separation from service may be both exciting and anxiety-provoking for you and your family. Your lifestyle, income sources, and benefits will be changing. Major decisions that may affect your finances include:

  • Where you decide to live
  • Whether you’ll be selling or purchasing a home
  • Whether you and/or your spouse will need to find new employment
  • Your plans to return to school
  • Your eligibility for benefits (e.g., from the military or a future employer)

To help you prepare for your transition to civilian life, the Department of Defense, along with other agencies, has developed a program called Transition GPS. All servicemembers who are retiring, separating, or being released from a period of at least 180 days of active duty must participate in this program. Transition GPS includes preseparation counseling, briefings, and workshops that cover topics such as education and training, employment and career goals, financial management, and VA benefits. You’ll also prepare an Individual Transition Plan. For more information, visit the DoD Transition Assistance Program (TAP) website at www.dodtap.mil.

Prepare a realistic budget

Having a realistic budget is important. Once you leave the military, it’s likely that your living expenses will increase because you won’t be receiving tax-free allowances, and costs for insurance, housing, groceries, and other day-to-day expenses may be higher. Preparing a budget that reflects your new sources of income and expenses, and adjusting it when necessary, can help you stay on track as you adapt to your new financial circumstances.

Here are some questions to consider as you prepare your working budget:

Income

  • Will you be eligible for separation pay or cashing in unused leave? These can be sources of short-term income if necessary.
  • What about retirement pay? Make sure you understand how much you’ll receive, if applicable, and what other sources of retirement income you’ll be eligible for.
  • What salary can you expect from your new career?
  • Will your spouse be working?
  • Will you be eligible for any veterans benefits that will provide ongoing income?

Here’s a tip:  If you’re unable to find a job right away, you may qualify for unemployment compensation, but your eligibility may be affected by any retirement or separation pay you receive. Unemployment benefits vary from state to state, so for more information you’ll need to contact your local unemployment office.

Expenses

  • Will the general cost of living (for example, gas, food, and utilities) be higher in your new location?
  • How will your health expenses change? Will you have access to employer-sponsored health insurance?
  • What will your housing costs include (e.g., rent or mortgage payment, property taxes, and insurance)?
  • Will you need to purchase and insure a vehicle?
  • What about other expenses, such as commuting costs, clothing, and child care?

Here’s a tip:  Have a plan in place to reduce your expenses if necessary. Identify items in your budget that you consider discretionary and would be willing to cut at least temporarily. It will likely be much easier to pay off debt now while you have a steady paycheck from the military rather than later when your job situation might be uncertain.

Save for transition expenses

Some of your costs will be covered through transition assistance (for example, storage and shipment of household goods), but it’s likely that you’ll have expenses for which you won’t be reimbursed, such as housing deposits. Having some savings set aside in a transition fund that you can easily access may help you avoid having to dip into your long-term savings and investments to cover unexpected expenses. It will also decrease the odds that you’ll rack up credit-card debt that you’ll have to pay off down the road.

Before leaving the military…

Housing Determine how much you can afford to pay for housing, and contact a local real estate agent who can show you properties available to rent or buy. Visit and evaluate the area where you’d like to move.
Health care Schedule medical and dental appointments, and review and copy your records. Learn about your postseparation or retirement health insurance options and determine whether you’ll need transitional insurance.
Life insurance Review your life insurance needs. Decide whether it’s cost-effective to convert your SGLI policy to VGLI, or whether you should purchase an individual policy. If you have FSGLI coverage for your spouse, remember that it’s not convertible to VGLI, so look at options for replacing your spouse’s coverage.
Estate planning Update your estate plan, including your will, powers of attorney, and other documents to reflect your new situation.
Retirement planning Decide what to do with your Thrift Savings Plan (TSP) account, if you’ve contributed. If you’re seeking employment in the civilian sector, learn about any new options for retirement savings, such as contributing to a tax-deferred employer sponsored retirement plan. If you’re retiring, consider how your military retirement pay fits into your overall retirement income plan.
Education planning Make sure you understand your education benefits that can help you pay for college or vocational training. Consider transferring Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits to dependents. While you’re still on active duty, take tests that can help you earn college credit or a license or certification, and find out whether any of your military training may be substituted for college credit.
Career planning Attend relevant employment workshops and counseling. Attend job fairs and network with potential employers and recruiters. Military spouses can connect with the Spouse Education and Career Opportunities (SECO) program for career planning help atwww.militaryonesource.mil/seco.

Here’s a tip:  Don’t wait until the last minute. Make saving for your transition a priority, and start as far ahead of time as possible to ensure that you have several months of savings set aside to cover transition expenses.

Review and revisit

After your transition is complete and your income and expenses have stabilized, update your budget to reflect your new circumstances. It’s also a good time to review your financial goals. Now that your focus has shifted from your short-term priorities, you can refocus on pursuing your long-term goals to prepare for your next stage in life.

What I’m Watching This Week – 10 November 2014

The Markets

In the wake of the midterm election results that gave Republicans control of both houses of Congress, domestic equities took a break from their recent volatility. Though the S&P 500’s increase was relatively modest, it still managed to regain the 2,000 level and go on to set three fresh record highs in the process. The Dow industrials not only set their own new record but also had the week’s biggest gain, while the Nasdaq and Russell 2000 ended the week basically flat. Declines in oil prices continued to make headlines as the price of West Texas Intermediate crude fell below $80 a barrel.

Market/Index 2013 Close Prior Week As of 11/7 Weekly Change YTD Change
DJIA 16576.66 17390.52 17573.93 1.05% 6.02%
Nasdaq 4176.59 4630.74 4632.53 .04% 10.92%
S&P 500 1848.36 2018.05 2031.89 .69% 9.93%
Russell 2000 1163.64 1173.51 1173.32 -.02% .83%
Global Dow 2484.10 2527.85 2516.73 -.44% 1.31%
Fed. Funds .25% .25% .25% 0% 0%
10-year Treasuries 3.04% 2.35% 2.32% -3 bps -72 bps

Chart reflects price changes, not total return. Because it does not include dividends or splits, it should not be used to benchmark performance of specific investments.

Last Week’s Headlines

  • The U.S. unemployment rate edged down 0.1% to 5.8% in October, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The economy added 214,000 jobs, most of them in restaurants, retail, and health care. The new jobs figure was slightly lower than the 222,000 monthly average so far this year. Meanwhile, October’s 3-cent increase brought the average hourly wage to $24.57; that average is up just under 2% over the last 12 months.
  • Saudi Arabia announced it would cut its price for oil sold to U.S. customers and raise prices for Asian customers. On top of increased Alaskan oil production during October, that caused the price of crude oil to drop to its lowest level in more than two years. The Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries said it expects demand for OPEC crude oil to fall nearly 2 million barrels a day to 28.2 million barrels a day by the end of 2017.
  • Lower than expected growth in Germany, France, and Italy led the European Commission to cut its growth forecast for next year. The commission said it now sees the eurozone’s 2014 GDP increasing by 0.8% rather than the 1.2% forecast last spring, while the 28-member EU as a whole is now expected to grow 1.3%. The forecast for 2015 is 1.1% growth for the eurozone and 1.5% for the EU. Eurozone inflation is seen stalling at 0.5% this year and 0.8% next year–far below the European Central Bank’s target 2%. Nevertheless, the European Central Bank left its key interest rate unchanged, though ECB President Mario Draghi once again said fresh stimulus measures will be adopted if necessary.
  • A sluggish global economy also affected the U.S. trade deficit, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis. A 1.5% decline in exports to the rest of the world was a major reason for September’s nearly 7% increase in the trade gap.
  • S. manufacturing activity declined 0.6% in September, according to the Commerce Department. However, the Institute for Supply Management’s manufacturing index suggested a course reversal in October; the index rose 2.4%, and the 59% reading represented the 65th straight month of expansion.
  • S. construction spending was down 0.4% in September as private and public construction fell 0.1% and 1.3% respectively. The Commerce Department said it was the fourth straight monthly decline in private construction spending.

Eye on the Week Ahead

Data from the retail sector will dominate what little economic information is on tap next week. The Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey report also may get extra attention for its implications for the employment picture.

Data sources: Economic: Based on data from U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (unemployment, inflation); U.S. Department of Commerce (GDP, corporate profits, retail sales, housing); S&P/Case-Shiller 20-City Composite Index (home prices); Institute for Supply Management (manufacturing/services). Performance: Based on data reported in WSJ Market Data Center (indexes); U.S. Treasury (Treasury yields); U.S. Energy Information Administration/Bloomberg.com Market Data (oil spot price, WTI Cushing, OK); www.goldprice.org (spot gold/silver); Oanda/FX Street (currency exchange rates). All information is based on sources deemed reliable, but no warranty or guarantee is made as to its accuracy or completeness. Neither the information nor any opinion expressed herein constitutes a solicitation for the purchase or sale of any securities, and should not be relied on as financial advice. Past performance is no guarantee of future results.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJIA) is a price-weighted index composed of 30 widely traded blue-chip U.S. common stocks. The S&P 500 is a market-cap weighted index composed of the common stocks of 500 leading companies in leading industries of the U.S. economy. The NASDAQ Composite Index is a market-value weighted index of all common stocks listed on the NASDAQ stock exchange. The Russell 2000 is a market-cap weighted index composed of 2,000 U.S. small-cap common stocks. The Global Dow is an equally weighted index of 150 widely traded blue-chip common stocks worldwide. Market indices listed are unmanaged and are not available for direct investment.

Social Security Claiming Strategies for Married Couples

Deciding when to begin receiving Social Security benefits is a major financial issue for anyone approaching retirement because the age at which you apply for benefits will affect the amount you’ll receive. If you’re married, this decision can be especially complicated because you and your spouse will need to plan together, taking into account the Social Security benefits you may each be entitled to. For example, married couples may qualify for retirement benefits based on their own earnings records, and/or for spousal benefits based on their spouse’s earnings record. In addition, a surviving spouse may qualify for widow or widower’s benefits based on what his or her spouse was receiving.

Fortunately, there are a couple of planning opportunities available that you may be able to use to boost both your Social Security retirement income and income for your surviving spouse. Both can be used in a variety of scenarios, but here’s how they generally work.

File and suspend

Generally, a husband or wife is entitled to receive the higher of his or her own Social Security retirement benefit (a worker’s benefit) or as much as 50% of what his or her spouse is entitled to receive at full retirement age (a spousal benefit). But here’s the catch: under Social Security rules, a husband or wife who is eligible to file for spousal benefits based on his or her spouse’s record cannot do so until his or her spouse begins collecting retirement benefits. However, there is an exception–someone who has reached full retirement age but who doesn’t want to begin collecting retirement benefits right away may choose to file an application for retirement benefits, then immediately request to have those benefits suspended, so that his or her eligible spouse can file for spousal benefits.

The file-and-suspend strategy is most commonly used when one spouse has much lower lifetime earnings, and thus will receive a higher retirement benefit based on his or her spouse’s earnings record than on his or her own earnings record. Using this strategy can potentially boost retirement income in three ways.

  1. The spouse with higher earnings who has suspended benefits can accrue delayed retirement credits at a rate of 8% per year (the rate for anyone born in 1943 or later) up until age 70, thereby increasing his or her retirement benefit by as much as 32%.
  2. The spouse with lower earnings can immediately claim a higher (spousal) benefit.
  3. Any survivor’s benefit available to the lower-earning spouse will also increase because a surviving spouse generally receives a benefit equal to 100% of the monthly retirement benefit the other spouse was receiving (or was entitled to receive) at the time of his or her death.

Here’s a hypothetical example. Leslie is about to reach her full retirement age of 66, but she wants to postpone filing for Social Security benefits so that she can increase her monthly retirement benefit from $2,000 at full retirement age to $2,640 at age 70 (32% more). However, her husband Lou (who has had substantially lower lifetime earnings) wants to retire in a few months at his full retirement age (also 66). He will be eligible for a higher monthly spousal benefit based on Leslie’s work record than on his own–$1,000 vs. $700. So that Lou can receive the higher spousal benefit as soon as he retires, Leslie files an application for benefits, but then immediately suspends it. Leslie can then earn delayed retirement credits, resulting in a higher retirement benefit for her at age 70 and a higher widower’s benefit for Lou in the event of her death.

File for one benefit, then the other

Another strategy that can be used to increase household income for retirees is to have one spouse file for spousal benefits first, then switch to his or her own higher retirement benefit later.

Once a spouse reaches full retirement age and is eligible for a spousal benefit based on his or her spouse’s earnings record and a retirement benefit based on his or her own earnings record, he or she can choose to file a restricted application for spousal benefits, then delay applying for retirement benefits on his or her own earnings record (up until age 70) in order to earn delayed retirement credits. This may help to maximize survivor’s income as well as retirement income, because the surviving spouse will be eligible for the greater of his or her own benefit or 100% of the spouse’s benefit.

This strategy can be used in a variety of scenarios, but here’s one hypothetical example that illustrates how it might be used when both spouses have substantial earnings but don’t want to postpone applying for benefits altogether. Liz files for her Social Security retirement benefit of $2,400 per month at age 66 (based on her own earnings record), but her husband Tim wants to wait until age 70 to file. At age 66 (his full retirement age) Tim applies for spousal benefits based on Liz’s earnings record (Liz has already filed for benefits) and receives 50% of Liz’s benefit amount ($1,200 per month). He then delays applying for benefits based on his own earnings record ($2,100 per month at full retirement age) so that he can earn delayed retirement credits. At age 70, Tim switches from collecting a spousal benefit to his own larger worker’s retirement benefit of $2,772 per month (32% higher than at age 66). This not only increases Liz and Tim’s household income but also enables Liz to receive a larger survivor’s benefit in the event of Tim’s death.

Things to keep in mind

  • Deciding when to begin receiving Social Security benefits is a complicated decision. You’ll need to consider a number of scenarios, and take into account factors such as both spouses’ ages, estimated benefit entitlements, and life expectancies. A Social Security representative can’t give you advice, but can help explain your options.
  • Using the file-and-suspend strategy may not be advantageous when one spouse is in poor health or when Social Security income is needed as soon as possible.
  • Delaying Social Security income may have tax consequences–consult a tax professional.
  • Spousal or survivor’s benefits are generally reduced by a certain percentage if received before full retirement age.