WASHINGTON - Congressional efforts to boost the nation's savings rate by tinkering with Individual Retirement Accounts could backfire, according to two economists at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.

"We believe the proposals will probably be even less effective in generating savings than the current programs," Jonathan McCarthy and Han N. Pham wrote in the September issue of Current Issues in Economics and Finance.

The House and Senate are considering measures that would allow depositors to withdraw IRA funds without a penalty for educational, housing, and medical expenses. Lawmakers also are debating whether to create a "back-loaded" IRA, in which only the interest earned would be tax- free. The proposed changes are aimed at boosting the national savings rate, which has dropped from a high of an average 8.5% of annual income during the 1960s to 2.3%.

The researchers said the legislative changes appear to have little consumer support. Few will invest in a back-loaded IRA when they can get an immediate tax writeoff from a front-loaded account, they said. The back- loaded accounts also lack the employer contributions of 401(k) plans, they said.

Also, the easier withdrawal features would allow people to use the accounts for short-term cash management, rather than long-term savings. That could actually lower the savings rate, they said.

"Such programs by themselves are probably insufficient to reverse the recent decline in the savings rate," the economists wrote. "Thus, a major turnaround in the national savings rate will require much more ambitious initiatives."

These initiatives should include a complete overhaul of the tax system to favor savings over spending, massive deficit reduction, and a significant change in people's views toward savings, the authors said.

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