December 8, 2023

Media Decoder Blog: Golden Globes Ratings Surge

The latest edition of the Golden Globes soared in the ratings on Sunday night as Tina Fey and Amy Poehler — two graduates of “Saturday Night Live” — proved that good writing and experience with live television comedy can translate into widespread plaudits.

Sunday’s broadcast on NBC drew the best ratings for the show in six years. The viewer total rose almost three million over the result from 2012, to 19.7 million from 16.8 million viewers. The numbers were even better in the category that NBC sells to its advertisers, viewers between the ages of 18 and 49. In that group, this year’s show grew to a 6.4 rating, up 28 percent from the 5 rating the show scored in 2012.

The last time a “Globes” show did that well was 2007, when it had 20 million viewers and a 6.5 rating in the 18-49 category.

Beyond the appeal of Ms. Fey and Ms. Poehler, this year’s show also had the benefit of a group of movies that performed well at the box office, including the big winner, “Argo,” as well as “Lincoln,” “Les Miserables” and “Zero Dark Thirty.”

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Bucks Blog: Checking Social Security Benefits Online

Back in the spring, I wrote about how the federal government, to cut costs, has stopped mailing annual Social Security statements to most workers. Instead, the agency now invites workers to register and check their benefits online.

It’s important to check your statement, to make sure your annual income — the basis for calculating your retirement benefits — is correctly recorded.

I was skeptical that I’d remember to check my statement each year if it didn’t prompt me by arriving in my mailbox, but I was willing to give the system a try.  After a bit of a hassle about choosing a password and security questions, I was able to register online in May. I then promptly forgot about the whole thing.

Until last week, that is, when I got an e-mail from the Social Security Administration, reminding me to go online to check my statement. So far, so good!

As I had feared, though, I had forgotten my log-in credentials and couldn’t seem to locate them in my records. So I went through the process of requesting my username and password, which required me to enter my Social Security number and birth date, and answer three security questions that I’d previously established when I registered. That allowed me to obtain my username, and to quickly reset my password and gain access to my statement.

The most recent income totals looked correct. Plus, the statements also provide information about what your payment will be at “full” retirement age, which varies by year of birth, as well as if you retire early, at age 62. The difference is striking. My total benefits at full retirement, age 67, are estimated to be about $600 more a month than if I retire at age 62.

The statement also estimates your monthly benefit if you become disabled, and, if you’re a parent, what your children’s survivor benefits would be if you were to die.

The site allows you to print your statement, and there’s also an option to deactivate your online account, should you change your mind about using the Internet to monitor your statements. (Workers who are 60 and older and not yet receiving benefits still get paper ones mailed.)

Have you checked your Social Security statements online? Did you receive an e-mail reminder?

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Bucks Blog: Many Employers Have Restored Suspended 401(k) Matches, Analysis Finds

Towers Watson

An analysis of 260 employers that suspended their 401(k) matching contributions in the depths of the recession has found that most have restored them, although some now offer a lower level of benefits.

The report, from the professional services firm Towers Watson, found that about three-fourths of the employers that suspended matching contributions after 2008 have now brought them back.

The finding is encouraging, Towers Watson said, since so-called defined contribution plans like 401(k)’s are now the predominant retirement vehicles for workers. Still, about a quarter of the companies have not reinstated their matches — and that’s “problematic,” the report notes, because matching contributions are a crucial tool in getting employees to participate in retirement plans.

Of the companies that have reinstated their matches, 105, or about three-fourths, reintroduced the original match. The most common level of matching contributions is half of up to 6 percent of an employee’s salary.

Slightly less than a quarter of the companies that had suspended the matching benefit brought it back at a lower level — about half their previous match, the analysis found. And 3 percent reinstated the matching benefit at a higher level to help make up for the lost benefits.

The suspensions occurred from January 2009 through January 2010, although the vast majority occurred in the first half of 2009. The median length of the suspensions was 12 months.

The reinstatements began in 2010. Employers in manufacturing and health care have the highest reinstatement rates.

Did your employer suspend 401(k) matches during the downturn? Have they been restored?

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Bucks: When to Collect Social Security? A New Calculator

Last week, we reviewed AARP’s new Social Security calculator, which helps you figure out when to begin collecting benefits. This week, we’re going to take a look at some more tools that will help you make this decision. Below, we take a look at the first one.


Evaluating new financial products and services.

Deciding when to begin collecting Social Security benefits may be one of the most important decisions retirees make. It’s certainly one of the more complex, especially for married people.

That was the conclusion Russell Settle, a retired economics professor who taught at the University of Delaware, came to when he tried to figure it all out. After talking about it with a friend, another economics professor who was also unable to find answers to his questions, they decided to write a program of their own. “It was far more complicated than we ever imagined,” he said.

Professor Settle and his partner, Jeffrey Miller, worked on their program part time for nearly two years. What they came up with is, which generates the optimal age when you (and your spouse, if you have one) should begin collecting benefits.

“Our calculator provides information that allows a person to pick any claiming strategy they want, and they can see how much it costs them relative to the optimum,” said Professor Settle. “Our findings show that life is much more complicated than simple rules of thumb suggest,” referring to the oft-cited advice for most people to wait until 70 if possible.

To start, the Web site asks you to enter basic information: the year you were born, gender, life expectancy and estimated benefit amount, which can be found on an old statement or the Social Security Web site. Once you do that, and provide an e-mail address, a free customized report should arrive in your inbox within a couple of hours.

I ran a couple of different scenarios: one for a married couple and another for a 62-year-old single woman we’ll call Betty, who expects to receive a monthly benefit of $2,000 at her full retirement age.

Betty’s three-page report included a graphic analysis that showed the optimal time to take benefits and the total amount she could expect to receive during her life, based on different life expectancies. The results? If Betty doesn’t expect to live beyond age 78, she should begin taking her benefits at age 62. The graph shows how much in lifetime benefits she would give up for each additional year she waited.

But if Betty expects to live until she’s 86, the program shows that the optimal age for her to collect is 68. Of course, if she’s still alive and well into her 90s, waiting to collect until 70, when she could collect the maximum, would make the most sense. With longevity on the rise, many financial experts advise healthy people to delay benefits, if they can afford to.

Deciding when to file for benefits get incredibly more complicated for married couples (in this case, a 62-year old man and a 58-year-old woman who expect to collect monthly checks of $2,100 and $1,500, respectively).  Their report came in at a whopping 40 pages! But don’t let that discourage you. You don’t have to slog through every page. Once you get the hang of reading the charts, the results are really illuminating and easy to understand.

The first analysis was based on what it called a normal planning horizon, or a life expectancy of 82 years for him and 86 years for her.  If they pursued the optimal strategy, they would collect a total of $610,000 in benefits over their collective lifetimes. To do so, the wife should file for benefits at 62. The husband should file for spousal benefits on her record at age 66. Then, once he hits 70, he should begin collecting retirement benefits on his own earnings record.

A grid shows how much less they would collect at every possible age combination, from 62 to 70. For instance, if the husband and wife started benefits at 64 and 63, they would collect 10 percent less than the optimal amount.

The advice changes for the couple if you want to plan for a much longer life — and many planners would probably suggest that you should. But with this tool, you can plainly see how much you’ll leave on the table by collecting benefits at a suboptimal time.

Though the calculator does a good job of illustrating all that, the analysis is limited. It does not take into account that some people may work part-time while collecting benefits before their full retirement age, which could cause at least some of their benefits to be withheld and recalculated later (but it does have a lengthy discussion about the topic on its site). It also doesn’t help you figure out if you can afford to delay Social Security. It doesn’t factor in how much you’ve saved or if you have a pension. It also doesn’t account for any children who may be eligible to collect benefits on a parent’s record.

And here’s another limitation: the calculator only provides the total value of your benefits over your lifetime, so you won’t know how much you will collect each month if you pursue one of their recommended strategies. Without those numbers, it’s hard to ascertain if you can make that strategy work with your other savings. But the company is working on adding those figures.

Moreover, the calculator only works for single and married people, not widows, widowers and divorcees; those versions are still in the works.

Of course, like other tools, it doesn’t come with a crystal ball, which means you’re going to have to decide on a reasonable life expectancy. Many financial planners suggest that seemingly healthy people base their calculation using longer time horizons. But the results do compare how the optimal strategy would change using three different life expectancies, which is really informative.

Give it a try and let us know what you think in the comment section below.

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Michigan Cuts Jobless Benefit by Six Weeks

Democrats and advocates for the unemployed expressed outrage that a such a hard-hit state will become the most miserly when it comes to how long it pays benefits to those who have lost their jobs. All states currently pay 26 weeks of unemployment benefits, before extended benefits paid by the federal government kick in. Michigan’s new law means that starting next year, when the federal benefits are now set to end, the state will stop paying benefits to the jobless after just 20 weeks. The shape of future extensions is unclear.

The measure, passed by a Republican-led Legislature, took advocates for the unemployed by surprise: the language cutting benefits next year was slipped quietly into a bill that was originally sold as way to preserve unemployment benefits this year.

The original bill was aimed at reducing unemployment fraud and making a technical change so the state’s current long-term unemployed could continue receiving extended unemployment benefits from the federal government for up to 99 weeks — benefits that would have been phased out next week without a change in the state law to make the unemployed in the state eligible to continue receiving benefits. Republican lawmakers amended it to cut the length of benefits starting in January.

“It turns the clock back 50 years at a time when unemployment is at historic highs since the Depression,” Representative Sander M. Levin, Democrat of Michigan, said in an interview, adding that he worried that the state would set a precedent that would be followed by other states, including Florida, that are thinking of curtailing their unemployment programs. “I think that Michigan should not be to unemployment insurance what Wisconsin has become to collective bargaining.”

But Republicans and business groups said that cutting benefits was necessary, because the unemployment trust fund, which was ill-prepared to cope with the recession, is insolvent. The state owes the federal government $4 billion that it borrowed to keep its program afloat, and unemployment taxes on businesses have already been raised, and will need to be raised more, to repay the money. The Michigan Chamber of Commerce called the new law “a huge win for job providers,” and said it could save up to $300 million a year.

Mr. Snyder issued a statement after signing the bill trumpeting the fact that it would preserve the extended benefits this year — and making no mention of the fact that it would cut state benefits beginning next year. “Snyder Signs Bill to Protect Unemployed,” was the headline of the news release that his office sent out. “Now that we have continued this safety net, we must renew our focus on improving Michigan’s economic climate,” he said in the statement.

Sara Wurfel, a spokeswoman for Mr. Snyder, said in an e-mail that he signed the bill because 35,000 Michiganders would have lost their extended benefits this week, and an additional 150,000 would have lost them by year’s end, if the state’s law had not been altered. She said that about 250,000 people collected more than 20 weeks of benefits in 2010.

Advocates for the unemployed called it a bad trade. “We have a temporary change to help some jobless workers that is imposing an indefinite or permanent cost on future jobless workers,” said Rick McHugh, a staff lawyer for the National Employment Law Project, which opposed the law. “And that does seem doubly unfair when the temporary help for current jobless workers is almost totally paid for by the federal government.”

But business groups saw the state’s need to change its unemployment law as an opportunity to make the cuts to benefits that they have long sought.

“The business community, the chamber included, were opposed to a one-sided benefits increase,” said Wendy Block, the Michigan Chamber of Commerce’s lobbyist responsible for health policy and human resources initiatives, and unemployment insurance. She said that while the extended benefits were currently paid for by the federal government, the money comes from a fund that is financed by federal unemployment taxes on employers. “Employers will ultimately see higher federal unemployment taxes to pay for this,” Ms. Block said.

More than half the states together owe the federal government more than $46 billion that they borrowed to pay for their unemployment programs during the downturn. Many states had salted away too little money in their unemployment trust funds during good times — often because they cut taxes on employers — and saw their funds depleted by the length and depth of the recession, and the slow pace at which businesses have begun hiring again. Now some other states are thinking about reducing unemployment benefits.

In Florida, where the unemployment rate hovers at 11.5 percent, even higher than Michigan’s current rate of 10.4 percent, lawmakers are zeroing in on a similar bill. The Florida House also approved a bill this month to reduce the number of weeks unemployed workers could receive benefits to 20 weeks, from 26, and make it easier for businesses to deny benefits to applicants. A Senate bill takes a less stringent approach and does not cut the number of weeks workers can receive benefits. (It is unclear how the differences will be resolved.) Doing so would undo a consensus that emerged in the years after World War II that states should pay up to 26 weeks of unemployment benefits. And it would come as the average length of unemployment has risen.

Richard A. Hobbie, the executive director of the National Association of State Workforce Agencies, said “at a time when long-term unemployment is worse than ever, it doesn’t match up well with the trends in the labor market.”

One of the unemployed Michiganders who was warned that her extended benefits could run out next week without action was Melissa Barone, 42, who lost her job with a software company in August 2009, and has been collecting unemployment since then. She has gone back to school to train to be a nurse.

“Maybe what they need to do is look at giving businesses more incentives,” Ms. Barone said, “rather than taking from the guy that is unemployed and needs those funds.”

Lizette Alvarez contributed reporting from Miami.

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