Sunday assorted links

1. What is it like being a Freemason?

2. Why so few annuities?

3. Jennifer Doleac’s list of advice threads for economists and academics.

4. Steve Pearlstein on Elizabeth Warren and private equity.

5. “When thinking about whether new generations can or cannot afford housing keep in mind that the currently existing stock of houses will all be sold to a new generation.” — That’s Alex T. on Twitter!


'keep in mind that the currently existing stock of houses will all be sold to a new generation'

So, Prof. Tabarrok has never seen older houses being bulldozed so as to build new houses (especially townhouses, when the zoning worked out profitably)? How long has he lived in Fairfax County, where that sort of thing was fairly common for a while?

Housing stock changes, and much of the houses built in the last couple of decades in the U.S. are not exactly likely to last another generation.

Sold, inherited, foreclosed, bulldozed, acquired by tax lien holder, . . . What will be the price?

So, Prof. Tabarrok has never seen older houses being bulldozed so as to build new houses (especially townhouses, when the zoning worked out profitably)?

Irrelevant to the point. If old houses are replaced by newly constructed ones, then those *new* houses will be sold to a new generation.

Or an old generation of Chinese landlords. But what's the difference, I guess?

Yes, this is correct... but also... what is Alex T's point? At some point the home price to income ration will fall? Okay?

Just read the responses to his tweet. It’s an unbroken string of about 25 people pointing out how vapid and meaningless his statement is. Embarrassing.

2. Primarily, the fees are too high. Counter party risk over decades is a bit of an issue as well (see long term care insurance).

In certain circumstances (providing for a spendthrift or potentially future cognitively impaired spouse, for example) it might make sense.

Agreed. I think the linked post misses the point.

Simple annuities are extremely expensive because they need to be risk free. Complex annuities are too hard to understand and not competitively priced.

I'd add to that that the vast majority of retirees already have one or more annuities from DB pensions or social security.

Yes, fees are a big problem with actually existing annuities. In a low-interest rate environment, fees must be squeezed here, just like they have on other financial products (yay, Vanguard).

Social Security fills much of the social need for annuities today. Having one big actuarial pool helps a lot with risk management. For people seeking more lifetime income, "buying" more Social Security by deferring commencement to age 70 and spending down other assets to bridge the gap is much more compelling than buying an annuity from an insurer.

+1, the flexibility in SS allowing you to use early retirement for a decrease in monthly checks or to use later retirement to increase monthly checks gives people a lot of the value in annuities.

The type of annuity that might make sense is usually sold as "longevity insurance" or "deferred income annuity." This is essentially an annuity that won't pay anything until/unless you reach age 85,

Americans can fund a Qualified Longevity Annuity Contract ("QLAC") from a qualified retirement account, such as a 401(k) or IRA, with up to 25% of the funds in the account or $125,000., whichever is less.

The price is quite reasonable at age 70 as there's a good chance you won't live to 85 anyway, or if you do you won't live so long after that. And presumably if you're in reasonably good health at age 70 you might have the illusion this is likely to continue for decades, and thus such an annuity may appear to be a good deal.

The weakness of all non-government annuities remains the lack of protection from inflation, for you might find that if you do live long enough to collect the payments may only be enough to fund a weekly hamburger.

Re: 2, 3, 4, 5.

Seen in this week's Barron's "Mailbag."

George Bernard Shaw, "If all the economists were laid end to end, they'd never reach a conclusion."

#2. 20 yrs at one of the worlds premier wealth management firms...

Annuities are tools. What problem do you need to fix that an annuity is the right tool? You dont know? Dont buy one.

Annuities are insurance contracts. Insurance is not free.

Most people use the tool wrong. Sometimes its not their fault. Annuities are sold wrong.

From a link some time ago - things I wish people knew - just how much money it takes to bullet proof an inflation indexed annuity for life.

The authors are okay. But really, beware of annuity salesmen bearing free lunch seminars.

"From a link some time ago - things I wish people knew - just how much money it takes to bullet proof an inflation indexed annuity for life."

Yep. Then people would realized how much wealth public employees are actually retiring with. What would it cost to buy an annuity equivalent to a California teacher, cop or firefighter pension with guaranteed cost-of-living increases and spousal survivorship benefits? It's a BIG number.

Yep. Or Soc. Sec. Or SSDI.

Much less so. Soc Sec does not pay anywhere near the level of CA public employee pensions (the average monthly check for new retirees is just $1400 -- or $17K/yr). And average SSDI checks are lower still.

And yet it takes 13 point something percent of the national payroll to provide even those modest benefits.

Modest benefits? 1 in 4 retirees depend on Social Security for at least 90% of their income.

Also, poverty among the elderly is lower than among the general population. In 1935, old age was an almost universal poverty risk.

Social insurance actually works.

Yeah, but everyone in my country is eligible for an old age pension. It's not that difficult when done on a national scale and paid out in the national currency. It's only $25,400 US a year for a couple, but it's enough to keep kangaroo meat on the table.

2. Economists are an optimistic bunch: buy an annuity to insure against the "risk" of living too long, buy an index fund because there's no "risk" that asset prices will plummet and the Fed won't come to the rescue.

While all investment is risky, some investment ideas are better than others. If you're 75, ensuring funds don't run out before life becomes an issue, and Bitcoin or pot stocks won't solve it.

On average a 75 year old Australian male has 12 years of life left. That's more than a full business cycle.

Yeah, but if you're unlucky (lucky?) that's 25 years. And then, what will your younger wife do when you die and they stop paying out your Pension? What if you're already 87, your savings gone, but you need a nursing home now?

Stop paying out your pension? Fortunately that doesn't happen in Australia. To get the old age pension you have to be old and not dead. That's it. So if you are a self funded retiree and you somehow manage to blow all your money you will still get the old age pension and that will keep you above the poverty line.

But I definitely recommend holding onto enough money to give you choice about what nursing home you get into. If you have no money the best you will get is adequate care. Some places are okay but in others they are just hoping you'll die soon.

2. There are a lot of bad annuities that taint the whole thing. Basically, anything associated with a free steak dinner. But there are good annuities too. Basically, anything endorsed by the Bogleheads.

So why don't people choose them? I've thought about this. I think it's a combination of suspicion about the bad kind, and that the qualities of investor for the second kind are very rare. You have to be a planner with a long time horizon, knowledgeable about the intricacies of investment, and have a somewhat fixed life plan as well.

How many people have all three? Not me. Or at least in theory I like to think I have a dynamic and wholly changeable life plan, even in retirement.

1. It is literally a secret society, or as they like to say, a society with secrets. If they worshipped, say, a devil-like god, secretly, they would probably not mention that bit.

#1 - It's like the story in Mailer's opus, "The Naked and the Dead", there's a sub-plot about the mysterious general, having a secret he refuses to share, and the speculation is that the man is gay. The same theme is present in Conrad's "The Secret Sharer".

Bonus trivia: Tyler COWEN (sic) of George MASON university bares a striking similarity in word order to the Tyler Cowan (sic) ritual of Masonic society, said Tyler standing outside the lodge to ward off the Cowan, who is expressly trying to steal secrets from the Masons. I may have that backwards, but that's the gist. The Tyler, in a sort of hazing, is supposed to stand outside even if the roof of the lodge is pouring water on top of his head and into his boots. True. Google this "Tyler cowan mason ritual" (sic). TC himself has visited the open to the public Masonic obelisk lodge in Alexandria (Virginia), which has a funky interior I recall from years ago when visiting it once. Was George Washington masonic? George Mason?

* The Naked and the Dead is a 1948 novel by Norman Mailer. It was partly based on his experiences[2] with the 112th Cavalry Regiment during the Philippines Campaign in World War II.

Boys will be boys. I understand the Catholic Knights of Columbus have similar frat boy initiation "rites."

Do mason still need to believe in God?

Interesting theories about the Masons' originations. Some tie it to the 1307, and on, suppressions (began Friday the 13th October 1307 in France) of the Knights Templars who went "underground" and this was a way to meet and interact. Also, tying masons and Templars are stories/theories about the 1380 English Peasants Revolt which was led in part by a Walter (Wat) the Tyler who "theoretically" could have been a mason/Templar "heir." In that civil unrest, the Knights Hospitallers (now Knights of Malta) were especially targeted, which Knights (another crusading religious order) had received some Templars' properties. All theory and all unproved.

I've read The Secret Sharer and not thought of a homosexual connection. Although, that could explain the captain trying so hard to get the man clear. I thought the new, young captain saw too much of himself in the unfortunate murderer (oxymoron?). Melville's Billy Budd comes to mind.

Anyhow, I read most of Conrad's books - was a fan. He evinced a low opinion of Yankee shipping. I think he said something like such a murder would have taken place in an American ship . . .

Of a market town near us WKPD reports:

in 1381 during the Great Uprising, the Abbey was sacked and looted again. This time, the Prior was executed; his severed head was placed on a pike in the Great Market.


I am very worried about housing. Alex's tweet does nothing to change my mind.

Prices in many places are already going up far beyond the rate of inflation. Something recent and bad: Investors are buying up houses in bulk by the dozens and hundreds now and are jacking up rents. Gentrification will force millions of people out and they all need a place to go.

That's the thing: Everybody needs a place to live. We are going to have a lot more everybody's if current predictions about immigration immigration hold true. So we won't just need enough housing for Americans here today and their descendants but we will need housing for tens of millions of newcomers and their descendants as well. Even if the government greatly increases the amount of subsidized housing (which I see no desire to do), I am still not sure it would be enough.

And yet tens of millions of Americans today cannot to buy housing at market rates and cannot really afford the rent they pay, either. We are rapidly becoming a nation of fewer homeowners as well as a rent-poor nation. That has enormous implications for the future which nobody seems to even notice, much less discuss.

Ownership rates are in line with historical trends.

Kevin Drum posts about this a few times a year. Rent inflation is also essentially nonexistent as % of median income.

Don’t extrapolate Palo Alto to the entirety of the US.

Ownership, in the sense of owner-occupied housing, varies hugely. Pretty much the pricier the area, the lower the rate:

New York



But ownership rates are line with historical rates. Which means it has not changed. And rents have not changed per median income. Which makes sense, given government restrictions on building. Rent seeking has risen proportionally to income. Completely in line with economic theory.

So......thanks for pointing out that Palo Alto (California) is more expensive than Pueblo (Colorado).


"About 40% of young adults, ages 25 to 34, were homeowners in 2018, according to federal data analyzed by Freddie Mac. That is down from about 48% in 2001"

No. Not wrong, but thanks for the demonstration of sheer idiocy.


Are you really this dumb? Or does motivated reasoning chop off 40 IQ points? Or are you a liar?

You’re so wrong it’s almost impossible to believe it’s in good faith.

By the way, that’s Mother Jones. In case anyone wants to accuse someone of linking partisan data. This is partisan, in the favor of anonymous.

You’re either terrible at math or a liar.

Or it's another "anonymous" messing with you.

As I say, I think regional differences are much more interesting, and probably the real source of housing anxiety.

After all, everyone knows that the problem is not that you can't buy a house, it's that you can't buy a house where you want one.

Which is not the kind of problem that public policy should address.

There was a bit on NPR, which I think was legit, claiming that anywhere in the world with a consumer mortgage market, the government was involved, somehow made it happen.

So they are involved, most places, but that doesn't mean they can make everyone happy

Regarding your rent to median claim: it doesn't seem to track with at least some data: CPI for rent ( and median income ( Rent is up 228% and median income is up 20%. Housing might be more affordable because many other things are cheaper (I don't buy that but it is a possibility), but the rent inflation as a % of median income is certainly not nonexistent.

What about the future though? We're going to have a much higher population. Just building higher won't help when people can't afford market rate prices. Climate change can also affect where people will be able to build in the future.

I posted a graph for New York State up above, it shows increasing home ownership as you leave Manhattan and head out Long island. Of course, right?

America is big and people will be able to buy houses somewhere, but Manhattan ain't getting any bigger.

> I decided a long time ago that it is the economists who are dumb.

I'll be charitable, and suggest that this person does not understand the true goal of economists.

The truth about Masonry:

Brazil's ruling class is made up of a bunch of corrupt devil-worshipers:

It is not true at all.

1) President Capitain Bolsonaro is a born-again Catholic. He has been baptized in the River Jordan. Do you know who else has been baptized in the River Jordan?

He has overwhelming support among Evangelicals. He is pushing anti-homossexuals, anti-Muslims, anti-communist, pro-family, pro-business policies.

According to Evangelical leader Mr. Malta, God chose Mr. Bolsonaro to be lresident and helped him to survive a terrorist attack to deliver Brazil from communism.

2) President Captain Bolsonaro has ordered federal investigations against crime. I can assure you his anti-graft crusade is going strong. Evidently, Brazil is a nation of laws and people have a constitutional right to due process.

3) Mr. Moro is being the target of corrupt leftist who are trying to free corrupt, leftist former president Lula. There is no reason to believe Mr. Moro has commited any impropriety whatsoever.
4) Mr. Eduardo Bolsonaro is a very comptetent person who studied in the United States and leads the House of Representative's Foreign Affairs Committee. He is a food friend of Mr. Trump's.

Brazil's destruction of its rainforests is a global catastrophe enabled by its fascist leader. John Bolton should team up with AOC to launch an invasion of Brazil to make it a democracy that respects the planet.

3. Do not take academic advice from anyone who can't even figure out how to use Twitter properly.

Better - Don't take advice from anyone who uses Twitter; it shows only that they have too short an attention span to offer anything productive.

I've been Twitter free since it was invented and my reading comprehension has not deteriorated.

On the annuity front, I would also add that there are very real risks these days that we might turn some medical corner and suddenly catch a lot more life expectancy. Expecting your annuity company to be solvent is its own risk.

For instance, suppose they finally start figuring out low immunogenicity organs with 3D cell printers. If the product gets good enough, we might suddenly be able to cure basically every form of congestive heart failure, CAD, and a few other fun things. Once we can do one organ, it may well be possible to do others (livers, kidneys, etc.). Maybe this is more than 20 years away, maybe you will be so happy that your annuity corporation goes broke that you won't care ...

But isn't this the same logic if you outlive your cash? Particulalry as we already have social security on board?

Okay, so say you doubt that there is systemic risk from your cohort outliving the projections. You also have political risks. Maybe president Ocasio Cortez elects to begin taxing your income stream at 78% to save the planet. Maybe you will decide to move abroad only to find that President Bannon prohibits US firms from sending too much currency abroad. Large piles of money dedicated to paying out a decade hence seems like a very tempting target for politicians. And remember if you own your own home (which is a far better income stream with how taxes currently treat rent) you are going to be some version of wealthier than most Americans.

The risk with annuities are not just dying young, they are also systemic. Could be wrong, and annuities will always come out okay ... but what are the odds the entire US (and frankly international) housing market will all crash at the same time?

Given that social security is already an annuity that I am forced to buy, one much more likely to be politically favored, I will most likely not be buying an annuity when I grow older. Of course, I am also one of those savers who will most likely never work through the nest egg regardless.

If we turn a corner in medical technology, the retirement age should go up, perhaps with exemptions for people working certain physically demanding jobs.

Focus on "should". Is it politically feasible? It amounts to redistribution from people who are just past retirement age to people who are just before retirement... Anyway, it's no use for existing annuity contracts. Those will have to be sufficiently low % compared to new biz to not bankrupt the provider. In my experience, older people are fooled by life expectancy. When below 75, they tend to reject the same NPV they would accept in droves at 85, because the sticker amount is so much higher at 85...

2. Insurers are likely to price annuities very conservatively and make them unattractive to customers for several reasons:
1) the long term government bonds (30yr) are very illiquid and yield badly compared to 10yrs, 30yr corporate bonds are very rare, regulators forbid insurers to hedge annuities against stocks
2) customers seeking annuities are more cautious, have better lifestyles and are likely to die older than their peers, the anti-selection bias is high
3) fraud is very high with annuities: hidden deaths by relatives, usurpation of parent identity (Jeanne Calment style),... Fraud monitoring is very problematic and very costly for private insurers as annuities are often only on average a few hundred dollars per month.

Good points to add to Sure’s above. You can also say that the type of people who might buy an annuity (low discount rates) are also the same type who get jobs with pensions. If you have a pension why buy an annuity?

Sure's point on unexpected medical progress is total science-fiction. The risk of double taxation with annuities is very real.

Maybe medical technology advances are impossible, I don't know. But I don't put a zero chance on them happening. It seems to me that we are currently missing some crucial bits of insight into the way that animal organisms work, we know the code (DNA) so we know it cannot be that complicated (unless you are ghost in the machine type of person). But we cannot translate that code into an operating piece of equipment. I do wonder if some Newton gets a few bright ideas and it could all then be really easy to solve things like aging, or grow new limbs or organs. An analogy would be Einstein's insights in the early 20C where physics was sort of understood but crucial pieces of insight were missing. All of a sudden Einstein provided these and everything since then in Physics has sort of been working out the implications of his insights.

Total science fiction? Perhaps.

But we also use to say that about pneumonia. With the introduction of penicillin we saw pretty large drop in the death rate for the elderly.

In the space of about 10 years we went from having basically nothing, to being able to cure about 90% of such infections even in the elderly.

Or consider one of the most common causes of mortality in the elderly, falls and hip fractures. Right now if an elderly person falls (due to impaired balanced and mobility from age) and breaks their hip, the over/under for death is about one year out. There are multiple devices that prevent these breaks, but they have issues with weight, comfort, and accessibility. Suppose somebody finally builds a fast enough gyroscope with a small enough power source that you can basically where a belt and be automatically balanced through some sort of AI.

Increases in elderly lifespan have happened before, and may well happen again. If everybody lives 2 years longer, that looks pretty bad for the balance sheet of your counterparty.

And if you wish to be pessimistic there are the flip side risks. We may develop a new strain of influenza that drastically increases the odds of all the elderly dying young. We may start having massively resistant infections that lower life expectancy. And of course we can look to places like Venezuela for political risks that collectively reduce lifespan.

Annuities are priced to your own personal risks and there are plenty of systemic risks.

2. I think there is another issue that limits the market. The investor needs to have enough capital to invest so that the cash flow from the annuity will be material, and yet not so much that the risk that they are trying to mitigate (running out of money) is a real risk.

The very people most likely to find the idea attractive - conservative, cautious, and successful enough to have that much capital - probably aren't going to want to put 100% of their assets into an annuity. Let's run some numbers.

Right now for a $2000/mo single lifetime for a 65 year old male (roughly in the range of the Social Security benefit many will expect), Schwab is quoting a cost of about $381K (it scales linearly with increased benefit amount). The cost for a female is about $404K.

So if a 65 year old couple each bought a $2000 lifetime immediate annuity from Schwab, it would run about $785K today.

If you assume a maximum of 1/3 of assets go to an annuity, you are up to $2.3 million in assets, approaching the point at which the "running out of money" protection from an annuity is perhaps less interesting.

Like any insurance, self-insurance is cheaper if you can swing it.

That $785K would present $2,617 per month at a 4% yield rate and that amount would grow over time at the rate of inflation. Furthermore, the entire capital would still be available to be passed on to heirs.

It's hard to see a strong value in giving up $785K to gain roughly $1,300 per month in income. Particularly since that difference will dwindle over time, as the $4K is not adjusted for inflation.

All real estate is local. Lots of housing in the US that is currently occupied will be abandoned because no one wants to live there anymore. The question is whether there will be enough housing where people want to live, which is to say, where the jobs are. Right now we don’t have enough housing in our economically dynamic metros, and too much housing in rural and stagnant metros. I don’t see that changing, Gavin Newsome’s best efforts notwithstanding.

#2 - It's hard for me to take very seriously any article or comment about annuities that presumes they're all the same. The possible payout streams vary widely.

#2: Wouldn't the attractiveness of annuities depend on the price? If anyone wants to estimate prices, here is Schwab's estimator:

#5: It's also true that on any income redistribution scheme, the average person breaks even. Maybe we are concerned about more than averages?

Thanks, Brian. Those quotes are hard to find. The industry is deliberately opaque, and offers complicated products with uncompetitive prices. But they also suffer an adverse selection problem. Still, a 6%+ yield at age 65 is not bad compared to the recommended 4% spending rule.

I don't understand why people are freaking out about annuities. Neither Arnold nor anyone else here has mentioned that annuities are transferable upon death, like any other property right, unlike a defined benefit plan. Fixed annuities are generally risk free investments with modest but steady returns and you are protected from loss. You gain about 3-5% a year and you don't lose any money. What's not to like for a risk averse investor?

Somebody above said annuities are like defined benefit plans. The difference is you can designate any beneficiaries upon death, like a life insurance plan, with annuities. You can't do that with a defined benefit plan.

That will depend on annuity type. The one that's being discussed here is a lifetime annuity which will slowly eat up the assets and end on death of the beneficiary. You are talking about a plan that pays out a fixed yearly income for longer than life, presumably by not eating into the principal? Much less attractive payouts, even more of a lemon for the sales staff.

I can understand why an investor would question annuities.
1. Would I lock in an investment in any company for 40+- years? Counterparty risk.
2. Would I bet against interest rates and inflation not doubling or more for 40 +- years?
3. Using 2019 interest rates, an investor using the annuity principal payment and purchasing 1-10 year t bills, can calculate what % interest
rate increase within Y years, will guarantee a larger return while keeping principal.
4. The basic annuity provides for loss of principal upon death. Die prematurely and lose $X000,000.
5. With all these and other unknowns, am I better holding the cash or accepting a few % guaranteed return?

All good points. Another is that individuals have their own portfolios of assets and circumstances to be considered. The real question isn't just an abstraction about trading off their mutual funds for assured income and insurance against the financial risk of living a very long time. Instead, it's whether to layer an annuity on top of Social Security, maybe homeownership, perhaps an anticipated inheritance, any continuing work income or opportunity, other pension, possible availability of willing and financially strong relatives in a crisis (or not), health status and health care terms, availability of liquidity, and so on.

This resembles the optimal portfolio and withdrawal rate analyses for retirement portfolios, which again make sense in the abstract (assuming that's all someone has to live on and spending will be stable forever), but which also need to be considered in the context of one's real circumstances to develop a sensible plan.

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