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The Ladder

A Blog from New America's Asset Building Program

Asset Building News Week, Feb 6-10

Published:  February 10, 2012
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The Asset Building News Week is a weekly Friday feature on the The Ladder, the Asset Building Program blog, designed to help readers keep up with news and developments in the asset building field. This week's topics include jobs, income inequality, housing, the unbanked, retirement security, personal finance, and economic mobility. Stay tuned for next week, which will likely be dominated by the release of the President's FY 2013 budget proposal on Monday, which tends to send Washington, DC into a budget-centric tizzy.

Jobs, Income, and Inequality

With the release of an encouraging January jobs report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, debate has begun about the real story behind the numbers. A Boston Globe piece ponders who is not accounted for in these figures because they have dropped out of the labor force, but the Economix blog at the New York Times says that the apparent drop in the unemployment numbers is due to an updated population estimate, not to a drop in the labor force. The Wall Street Journal reports that household income is also on the rebound, but that increased consumer credit might not be a totally positive sign. As they explain, “economists don’t all agree that the stepped-up credit signals consumers see their finances on the mend and are ready to resume borrowing. Some economists say the Fed data also could be a worrying signal, reflecting consumers who have exhausted savings and are resorting to credit cards to pay for essentials.”  Finally, Megan McArdle at The Atlantic looks at a number of scenarios related to income inequality’s rise and/or demise and urges everyone to “be wary of confident extrapolations in either direction” and to look carefully at the data.

Housing

Five major banks and state and federal officials have reached agreement on a $25 billion settlement aimed at addressing foreclosure practices, including that of “robo-signing.” Of the settlement, $17 billion will go directly to homeowners in what President Obama called “some measure of justice to families who have already been the victims of abusive practices.” The LA Times reports that “an additional $5 billion would be paid in cash to California and more than 40 other states as restitution for foreclosure paperwork problems and other improprieties by the servicers in the foreclosure process. Officials said hundreds of thousands of homeowners would probably get $1,700 to $2,000 each under that part of the deal.” Andrew Leonard at Salon.com notes that this settlement is “peanuts” compared to a 1998 multi-billion dollar tobacco settlement, but that its significance is key, because it contributes to a broader effort on the part of the Obama administration to address profound damage to the housing sector that is a threat to the economic recovery.

Banking the Unbanked… and Unbanking the Banked

Florida announced the start of its very own Bank On program, hailed as a positive development for the 7% of Floridians who remain unbanked. The Detroit Free Press reports that consumers are playing it safe with their money, noting that “total deposits at FDIC-insured institutions reached a record $10 trillion at the end of September, up from $8.4 trillion when the recession officially began in December 2007.” That said, the LA Times reports that 610,000 consumers transferred money from major banks to smaller financial institutions between October and December 2011 in response to potential fees. While researchers explained this was “certainly not the massive departure banks might have feared,” it nevertheless did indicate a modest backlash given how unusual it is “for bank customers to move funds in protest at all, despite widespread dissatisfaction over service, rates and fees at banks.” Closing bank accounts can be cumbersome for many reasons (many of them on the consumer side of things) but bank fees to close accounts might play a role for some. The Boston Globe reports on a Pew study from last year that shows that “six of 10 of the nation’s largest retail banks charge fees to close accounts.”

Retirement Security and Personal Finances

Business Insider reports that only 4% of employers are confident in their employees’ ability to sustain themselves in retirement. This compares to 30% just last year. Notably, the piece says that “since 2006, twice as many employers are automatically enrolling employees into a defined contribution plan.” This might help with addressing something Carl Richards at the New York Times calls “financial willpower.” Automating saving is a helpful way to overcome one’s own anti-saving tendencies. This is the fundamental premise behind the AutoSave program. Speaking of automation (albeit of a different variety), the San Francisco Chronicle reports that mobile wallet payments for everyday purchases are on the horizon, as companies navigate how to make consumers comfortable with this new technology. Perhaps younger more tech-savvy generations will seek this option out as they age into financial independence. The ease of payment with this technology however, raises some concern about individuals’ ability to control personal spending when there is even less of a tangible reminder of the purchase than there is now with a debit or credit card or cash. A recent Washington Post op-ed suggests that “the collapse of major banking institutions, the mortgage crisis and the many problems associated with mounting consumer debt have told us that personal finance education must be a part of our curriculum.” By targeting students in the early grades (pre-high school), advocates hope that financially capable students will become tomorrow’s financially capable consumers. On a related note, the GAO just published a report on an interesting forum they hosted in October 2011, “Financial Literacy: Strengthening Partnerships in Challenging Times.” Forgive the use of “financial literacy” and the classic, formulaic GAO-style title, and you’ll find some worthwhile information inside.

Economic Mobility

The Senate Budget Committee held a hearing yesterday entitled "Assessing Inequality, Mobility, and Opportunity." Scott Winship, a Brookings Fellow who will be speaking at New America later today, addressed the Committee (his remarks are here as a pdf). Our event later today, Economic Mobility: What's the Problem and What to do about it? will also feature Heather McGhee from Demos and Shawn Fremstad from the Center on Economic and Policy Research. The event will be live webcast here and you can also follow along on Twitter. We look forward to a rousing discussion about the challenges of discerning the true dimensions and impact of economic mobility in the U.S.

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