WASHINGTON - If American financial firms have not openly salivated over the idea of gaining custody of even a small sliver of the funds in the Social Security system, it likely has been because most politicians seemed afraid even to propose it.
Until this year.
In a startling turnaround, bankers are just about guaranteed that the next occupant of the White House will support the creation of some kind of personal retirement accounts, a move that could drive billions of dollars into the hands of the private sector.
"All of the current proposals for increasing retirement savings were not even on the table a year ago," said Steve Bartlett, president of the Financial Services Roundtable. "I was met with some skepticism from people who thought that it would never happen. We went from noninterest to every candidate making their own proposal."
Vice President Al Gore and Texas Gov. George W. Bush have both floated versions of the idea as part of their Social Security reform plans. Republican and Democratic camps are holding out private accounts as a viable way to revamp Social Security. Both candidates' plans would let consumers open retirement accounts at financial institutions and use them to invest. Each candidate assures that benefits for retirees already covered would not change.
The Gore and Bush proposals differ in their designs and funding sources. Mr. Gore's plan would create private accounts separate from Social Security in which consumers could deposit funds and receive government matches based on their income. Mr. Bush's plan would take a portion of Social Security taxes and direct the funds into individual accounts.
Mr. Gore's "Social Security Plus" borrows from the retirement savings plans proposed by President Clinton in his last two State of the Union addresses. However, Mr. Gore's plan is simpler and far more generous, matching contributions from low-income savers by as much as a 3 to 1.
For example, a couple with annual income of $30,000 or less would earn $3 in government funds for every $1 contributed to the account. A couple earning between $30,000 and $60,000 would receive an equal match to their savings. The government would match deposits of a couple making between $60,000 and $100,000 a year at 33%, and couples with higher incomes would not be eligible. Annual contributions would be capped at $1,000 until 2006 and gradually rise to $2,000.
All told, the program's estimated cost is $200 billion over 10 years.
Though Mr. Gore's plan would promote savings and involve a significant influx of government cash into the financial system, industry officials are concerned that its matching funds as well as investment and other restrictions could produce too much red tape. They have urged that the accounts be as simple as possible to administer."The only concern is if Congress makes it too complicated or too costly," Mr. Bartlett said. "Every complication adds cost and denies some segment of Americans the ability to invest. If the government's going to provide a match, they should just provide a match."
A senior policy analyst at the American Bankers Association agreed that enhanced savings accounts would best serve banks if the setup does not entail jumping through government hoops. "Anything that could decrease the administrative costs to the accounts is attractive to everybody," Doug Johnson said.
Mr. Bush's private retirement accounts would not include government-matched savings, but would divert a small percentage of each employee's Social Security taxes-unspecified, but probably around 2%-into a retirement account. That would equal about $13.2 billion for 2001 alone. Individuals could then invest the funds in stocks and bonds. The Bush plan provides more choice to investors than does the Gore plan, which limits investment to broad-based mutual funds or corporate stock funds to reduce risk.
Some critics have said Mr. Bush's plan may not have enough incentives for people to invest in the accounts beyond the amount transferred from Social Security. To address this concern, Mr. Bush supports securing Social Security surplus funds for the private accounts. Some Republicans endorse a "lock box" plan that would automatically funnel Social Security surplus funds into the accounts.
"It takes the Social Security surplus, whatever that happens to be at the end of the year, and rebates that back to the public," Rep. Mark Sanford, R-S.C., said in a June 20 news conference.
Rep. Sanford's proposal would ensure that surplus funds are put into private savings accounts at local banks instead of being spent by the government, he said.
Of the estimated $4.19 trillion budget surplus over the next 10 years, $2.3 trillion comes from the Social Security.
Despite debate over details of the different plans, industry executives said they are flexible and hope the fiery political rhetoric does not result in gridlock.
St. Louis-based Edward Jones Investments has long been championing the benefits of private retirement accounts, said a company executive. The firm would pursue the accounts, even if the process generated reams of federal forms, principalMichael Esser said.
"Here at Jones, we would be happy to do the paperwork," Mr. Esser said. "To us," personal accounts "seem like a very proactive way to get Americans saving for their own retirement."
Experts said one way to keep things simple would be to base the accounts on the highly successful individual retirement accounts.
"If you use current IRA or 401K accounts as an example and model new accounts after them, people would be able to overcome the hurdle of using new accounts," said Paul G. Merski, chief economist for the Independent Community Bankers of America.
Mr. Esser added that banks could easily tie retirement accounts to existing IRAs to offer customers complete retirement packages.
"I think the IRA has been a very successful savings incentive. However, it's limited in its ability to help people save for retirement because the limit is so low," Mr. Esser said. "Tying [personal retirement accounts] to an IRA could make these accounts more attractive and might overcome the cost problem."
Retirement savings has been a hot issue in Congress this year, too. A House vote on legislation to increase the cap on IRA contributions to $5,000 from $2,000 could occur as early as next week.