On the surface, you would think that inflation has hit the lottery. Billionaire-dollar jackpots were infrequent until recently. But lately, the total winnings in the Mega Millions lottery have hit close to or over that magical mark several times. Is it inflation, or something else that has moved these jackpots to a whole new level?
There was a time when winning a million dollars in one of the nation's weekly lotteries was a big deal. Today, million-dollar winnings are no more than consolation prizes for those who picked a couple of winning numbers, but not the whole enchilada. As of today, there have been only a few times that the U.S. lottery has surpassed $1 billion. I don't know about you, but I have played and lost every one of them.
For those who don't know, the lottery is played in 45 states. It is also available in the District of Columbia and the U.S. Virgin Islands. A breakdown of the proceeds of your $2 ticket is interesting. Seventy-five cents funds the jackpot, approximately 35 cents go to non-jackpot prizes and the rest (90 cents) goes to the government. It is much more than that, since winners are required to pay taxes on their gains.
As a rule of thumb, the after-tax lump sum of winning a $1 billion prize is somewhere north of $600 million, since the federal tax rate is about 40 percent. Oh, and don't forget the IRS withholds an extra 25 to 28 percent because the winnings came from gambling. Of course, there are also state taxes to worry about as well, unless you live in a state that doesn't charge a tax on your winnings. Add all of this up and the government's share of your ticket can easily top $1.30.
We all know that the chance of winning the lottery is low, like 300 million to one low. Statistically speaking, that's close to zero. But it is worse than you think. If you do win, there is a 50 percent chance that you will have to share the jackpot with at least one other winner who chose the same numbers. Back in 2016, there was a $1.6 billion Powerball jackpot that had to be split three ways.
But winning anything from the nation's lotteries has become harder and harder overall. Mega Millions and Powerball organizers have been gradually reducing the odds of winning for decades. The largest change was back in 2015 when the lottery added more number combinations, which nearly halved the odds of winning.
Before the change, the odds of winning Powerball, for example, were around 175 million to one. Today, those odds stand at 292.2 million to one. Mega Millions waited until 2017 before adding more number combinations to their game, while also increasing ticket prices. The results are the same. You are now paying more for a product that has reduced your chance of winning.
Nonetheless, we keep playing and losing. Another way organizers are luring more ticket sales from us is to direct more of their revenues toward winning the jackpot, and less on smaller prizes, which are easier to win. Many players do not realize that the advertised jackpot size is based on the amount a winner receives if they chose to be paid out in an annuity over 30 years.
This is where today's higher interest rates inflate the prize. The higher the interest rates are during a drawing will translate into a higher total payout from the life of the annuity fund. The lump-sum option, on the other hand, is directly fueled by ticket sales. In November 2022, when one Powerball jackpot stood at $1.2 billion, the lump sum option was worth less than $600 million.
Is it any wonder, given the reduced probabilities of winning, that there are fewer jackpot winners? That is just fine with the organizers because the jackpots just get bigger and bigger as they are rolled over. That in turn attracts more and more ticket sales, which means you are playing against a bigger and bigger crowd. That in turn reduces the odds of winning even lower, and so goes the vicious circle.
Most people are aware that the odds are stacked against them, so why do we play? Assuming you are not addicted to gambling, I am guessing that like me there is always the hope that for $2 all my wishes will come true. Purchasing a ticket, I usually have at least two days' worth of daydreaming about what I would do with all that money before the next drawing. Come to think about it, that's a cheap dopamine high for my two bucks.
Bill Schmick is the founding partner of Onota Partners, Inc., in the Berkshires. His forecasts and opinions are purely his own and do not necessarily represent the views of Onota Partners Inc. (OPI). None of his commentary is or should be considered investment advice. Direct your inquiries to Bill at 1-413-347-2401 or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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