Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Falling inflation has some hidden traps too

Lord knows I don't miss $4 gas.

But the latest round of flat and falling consumer prices reported by the government may hold some perils for the unwary too.

Near-zero inflation means Social Security beneficiaries won't get cost-of-living increases for the next couple years, for the first time since COLA adjustments became automatic in 1975. Some Medicare prescription insurance premiums will rise, however, so some retirees will take a pay cut. The big question, outlined as clearly as I've ever seen by Felice Baker at Northwestern U.'s Medill Washington Project, is whether lower prices for other stuff will outweigh the higher premiums.

Your ability to put extra money in your 401(k) may be crimped too. Just as workers are feeling secure enough for the first time in nearly a year to increase contributions instead of cutting them, federal inflation adjusting formulas point to a $500 cut in maximum contributions, to $16,000. That won't make much difference to many workers, who only put maybe $4,000 or $5,000 a year into their plans. IRS is expected to announce Oct. 15 whether it will cut the limit or simply freeze it at the current $16,500.

And think about low inflation now when you next fill out your federal and state income tax returns. Senior economist Gerald Prante of the Tax Foundation says the current year-over-year monthly average 0.19 percent uptick in the Consumer Price Index effectively freezes personal exemptions, standard deductions, how much you can itemize, tax bracket boundaries, and virtually everything else on which you base your calculations.

This follows the largest increase in nearly two decades last year. You decide if the turnaround means stability or hitting the windshield.

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