6 posts from March 2013

Personal income: One Dakota leaps, the other stumbles (kind of)

The Bureau of Economic Analysis just released figures on personal income, and Ninth District states fared comparatively well (see charts). Montana and Minnesota ranked in the top five in per capita income growth, and Michigan was ninth.

But the Dakotas stole the headlines, being the top and—maybe surprisingly—bottom state in terms of both total and per capita income growth last year. North Dakota was head and shoulders above other states, seeing a rise of 9.9 percent in per capita income. The next closest was Ohio, at 3.8 percent. Total personal income in North Dakota rose by 12.4 percent, thanks to strong worker migration to the state as well as rising wages.

Its southern sibling didn’t fare so well last year. In fact, South Dakota was the only state in the union to see a decline in per capita (-1.3 percent) or total personal (-0.2 percent) income. The likely culprit is agriculture, a volatile sector that suggests the state’s 2012 performance is not something to fret over.

Rewind to 2011. Farm income in South Dakota that year hit a record $4.6 billion—more than double 2010 levels—and was a big reason the state led the country in income gains in 2011, at 12 percent. Fast forward to 2012, a year with severe drought that hurt South Dakota ranchers and farmers more than in many neighboring states. Total farm income dropped to $3.3 billion—still a decent year on average. But the $1.3 billion drop in annual farm income last year represents significantly more than the $60 million drop in total state income recorded by the BEA.

Personal income in 2012 -- 3-28-13

Minneapolis Fed launches new housing data website

Looking for more data clues to the growing rebound in housing markets? The Minneapolis Fed has your data fix, thanks to a new, special-focus website designed to enhance the public’s understanding of housing and mortgage trends.

Launched by the Bank’s Community Development Department, the Housing Market and Mortgage Conditions in the Ninth District website offers graphs, maps and at-a-glance synopses of mortgage originations, mortgage performance and home prices in the Ninth District and nationwide (see example below). It also features an archive of housing-related articles and reports from the Community Development, Public Affairs and Research departments.

Housing website rollout -- 3-26-13

Negative equity in homes improving, but not everywhere

Signs of housing and financial recovery are becoming more common, including recent data from CoreLogic showing that the percentage of homeowners with negative equity is slowly dropping in many states.

Despite modest improvements from fourth quarter 2011 to fourth quarter 2012, almost 22 percent of homeowners nationwide with a mortgage owed more on their loan than the domicile was worth (see chart). With the exception of Michigan, all district states have negative equity rates considerably below the national average.

District states also saw decent improvements over the prior year, including Minnesota, whose rate dropped by 2 percentage points. The lone exception was Wisconsin, whose rate rose by 0.8 percentage points and was one of relatively few states that saw rates tick up slightly.

CoreLogic negative equity FOR BLOG -- 3-20-13

So far, few employers cutting workers to part time in response to Affordable Care Act

Like it or not, the Affordable Care Act will offer an interesting economic experiment on incentives (or punishments, depending on your view) and subsequent business behavior.

Given its requirement that full-time employees receive health insurance, critics of the law, for example, believe many employers will shift to more part-time workers. So far, that appears not to be the case, according to a recent Minneapolis Fed ad hoc poll of more than 200 contacts from around the district (see methodology below).

The survey asked: Has your company or organization shifted to more part-time workers in response to the Affordable Care Act (federal health insurance requirements)?

Only 4 percent said they had shifted to more part-time workers, while another 7 percent said they planned to do so. But 89 percent said they had not made, nor were planning, such a move.

Based on the comments received with the poll, the relatively low change rate could be based on three factors. First, many responding organizations employ fewer than 50 people and are exempt from some provisions of the act. Second, some commented that it is too early to know the effects of the law’s detailed regulations. “We’re just beginning to figure out the impact of the Affordable Health Care Act,” commented a Minnesota respondent. “Once we understand that, we’ll adjust accordingly.” Finally, some businesses do not function well with part-time workers.

Methodology: On March 12, 2013, the Minneapolis Fed invited, via email, about 1,000 Beige Book contacts from around the Ninth District to answer the special question in a web-based survey. By March 13, 205 contacts had filled out the survey. The respondents come from a variety of industries (see table).

Affordable Care Act ad hoc table -- 3-18-13

Wisconsin public pensions: Retirees gasping, taxpayers exhaling

When the Wisconsin Retirement System released its annual annuity adjustment for pensioners earlier this month, members groaned while taxpayers breathed a sigh of relief.

The WRS is the ninth largest pension fund in the country. It is also among the country’s best funded plans in terms of long-term assets and liabilities; since 2004, its funding ratio has been near 100 percent. Yet starting May 1, certain WRS retirees will see their monthly checks fall by almost 10 percent—unheard of among the millions of public sector pensioners. In fact, it’s the fourth consecutive year of annuity cuts for some retirees. There are several sources behind this seeming financial contradiction. But the most important is that WRS retirees assume the large majority of investment return risk.

Along with worker and employer contributions, pension funds depend heavily on investment returns on their assets. Pension plans assume a certain rate of return—7.2 percent for the WRS, while many others hover around 8 percent—to project member annuities upon retirement. Most pension plans also average returns over five years to “smooth” volatility. But two of the past five years’ returns have fallen well short of the WRS benchmark, including 2008, when two WRS pension funds lost roughly 30 percent of their combined value (see charts).

WRS two charts -- 3-13-13

When investment returns fall short of this benchmark, all other things equal, unfunded liabilities accrue. For most plans, this gap typically requires additional contributions from government employers (via taxpayers) and often existing workers; by and large, retirees are financially exempt.

In sharp contrast, WRS retirees bear the majority of investment risk and therefore reap both more benefits and more hardship. Unlike many public pension plans, the WRS plan offers no automatic cost-of-living adjustment. Instead, it uses investment returns to pad monthly pension checks on a compound basis. Such a policy worked well for retirees during the 1990s, when heady investment returns led to annual pension adjustments (called dividends) averaging almost 7 percent.

But when investment returns go south—which they did during the 2001 and (especially) 2008 recessions—those dividends can be clawed back to ensure the plan’s long-term financial solvency. But a retiree’s annuity can never go lower than the original amount established at retirement. The investment drop in 2008 was so severe—and compounded by a weak 2011—that the WRS has been forced to take back dividends from its Core Fund (which funds roughly 90 percent of annuities) for four consecutive years. (The smaller Variable Fund has no such annuity floor, and investment gains and losses are fully recognized each year.)

The amount of annuity decrease for a retiree depends on the dividends previously earned. Given three previous years of negative adjustments, the Wisconsin Department of Employee Trust Funds anticipates that close to half of all WRS retirees will see no downward adjustment this year because they have no dividends left to take and are back at their original retirement annuity. This year’s clawback also was larger on a percentage basis because of the shrinking pool of retirees with dividends remaining. After this year’s adjustments, virtually anyone who has been retired since 2000 will be back to his or her original annuity level, according to WRS's latest actuarial report.

The good news for retirees is that this is the last year that 2008 returns will be averaged into investment returns for the Core Fund. Barring another market downturn, retirees should see a little more on their monthly checks next year.

Mortgage defaults: District fares better than nation

When times are tough, some people cannot afford to pay on their mortgage. This was especially true during the Great Recession when nearly 9 percent of mortgage loans in the United States were at least 90 days past due or in foreclosure. But today, more people are paying their mortgage, particularly in Ninth District states.

In January 2013, the mortgage delinquency rate dropped to 6.5 percent nationwide, while district states fared better—considerably so in many cases (see chart). The lowest state delinquency rate in the nation goes to booming North Dakota. The fourth lowest is South Dakota, followed by Montana (5th) and Minnesota (6th). Wisconsin is something of an outlier among district states at 27th. The highest seriously delinquent rate goes to Florida, where nearly 15 percent of loans are at least 90 days past due or in foreclosure.

Mortgage delinquencies -- 2-28-13