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Borrowing from yourself: 401(k) loans and household balance sheets

  • Geng Li
  • Paul A. Smith
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We examine 401(k) borrowing since 1992 and identify a puzzle: despite potential gains from borrowing against 401(k) assets instead of from other sources, most eligible households eschew 401(k) loans, including many who carry relatively expensive balances on credit cards and auto loans. We estimate that households with access to 401(k) loans could have saved about $3.3 billion in 2004--about $200 per household--by shifting debt to 401(k) loans. We find that liquidity constrained households are most likely to borrow against their accounts; however, the fastest growth has been among higher income, less liquidity constrained households. From 1992 to 2004, we do not find significantly different growth in wealth between households eligible for loans and those ineligible for loans. The recent tightening of terms and standards in mortgage and consumer lending has likely increased 401(k) borrowing, which could improve household balance sheets, if handled correctly. However, the improvement could be short-lived if the economic downturn leads to reduced contributions or significantly higher 401(k) loan defaults.

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Paper provided by Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System (U.S.) in its series Finance and Economics Discussion Series with number 2008-42.

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Date of creation: 2008
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Handle: RePEc:fip:fedgfe:2008-42
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  1. Brahima Coulibaly & Geng Li, 2007. "Choice of mortgage contracts: evidence from the Survey of Consumer Finances," Finance and Economics Discussion Series 2007-50, Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System (U.S.).
  2. Telyukova, Irina, 2008. "Household Need for Liquidity and the Credit Card Debt Puzzle," University of California at San Diego, Economics Working Paper Series qt4c67r71r, Department of Economics, UC San Diego.
  3. Amromin, Gene & Huang, Jennifer & Sialm, Clemens, 2007. "The tradeoff between mortgage prepayments and tax-deferred retirement savings," Journal of Public Economics, Elsevier, vol. 91(10), pages 2014-2040, November.
  4. Jappelli, Tullio & Pischke, Jörn-Steffen & Souleles, Nicholas, 1995. "Testing for Liquidity Constraints in Euler Equations with Complementary Data Sources," CEPR Discussion Papers 1138, C.E.P.R. Discussion Papers.
  5. Choi, James J. & Laibson, David & Madrian, Brigitte C., 2004. "Plan Design and 401(k) Savings Outcomes," National Tax Journal, National Tax Association, vol. 57(2), pages 275-98, June.
  6. Love, David A., 2007. "What can the life-cycle model tell us about 401(k) contributions and participation?," Journal of Pension Economics and Finance, Cambridge University Press, vol. 6(02), pages 147-185, July.
  7. Love, David, 2006. "Buffer stock saving in retirement accounts," Journal of Monetary Economics, Elsevier, vol. 53(7), pages 1473-1492, October.
  8. Irina A. Telyukova & Randall Wright, 2006. "A Model of Money and Credit, with Application to the Credit Card Debt Puzzle," 2006 Meeting Papers 45, Society for Economic Dynamics.
  9. Karen M. Pence, 2002. "401(k)s and household saving: new evidence from the Survey of Consumer Finances," Finance and Economics Discussion Series 2002-6, Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System (U.S.).
  10. Barber, Brad M. & Odean, Terrance, 2004. "Are individual investors tax savvy? Evidence from retail and discount brokerage accounts," Journal of Public Economics, Elsevier, vol. 88(1-2), pages 419-442, January.
  11. repec:fth:pennfi:69 is not listed on IDEAS
  12. Bergstresser, Daniel & Poterba, James, 2004. "Asset allocation and asset location: household evidence from the survey of consumer finances," Journal of Public Economics, Elsevier, vol. 88(9-10), pages 1893-1915, August.
  13. James M. Poterba & Steven F. Venti & David A. Wise, 1993. "Do 401(k) Contributions Crowd Out Other Persoanl Saving?," NBER Working Papers 4391, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  14. Eric M. Engen & William G. Gale, 2000. "The Effects of 401(k) Plans on Household Wealth: Differences Across Earnings Groups," NBER Working Papers 8032, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
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