It's January in Washington, so it must be time for the President to decry the lousy national savings rate and put forth a savings account plan to solve the problem.
Indeed, President Clinton proposed in his State of the Union message last week that the federal government spend $54 billion over 10 years to match deposits into Retirement Savings Accounts made by as many as 76 million low- and moderate-income Americans. He also urged Congress to spend another $17 billion to provide a 50% tax credit for small-business contributions to employee retirement plans.
"We should do more to help all working families save and accumulate wealth," the President told House and Senate lawmakers and a large national television audience. The proposed accounts would "enable every low- and moderate-income family in America to save for retirement, a first home, a medical emergency, or a college education. I propose to match their contributions, however small, dollar for dollar, every year they save."
That's where it usually stops, right? First comes a lot of political bluster, followed by banking industry accolades for anything that will boost savings and swell the vaults of fragile community banks that are losing deposits at an alarming rate. Then, quietly, executives question the practicality of a big government plan, and Republicans and Democrats go to war over the details.
Last year, the President's proposals for a similar product known as a Universal Savings Account (USA) - and separate personal accounts for government investment of Social Security funds in the stock market - died, barely having cleared the drawing board.
Some industry officials who have reviewed the initial details of this year's proposal are intrigued. Among other things, they consider the plan friendlier to the private sector. Different from the ill-fated USAs, there would be no separate government accounts, but Uncle Sam would provide matching funds into accounts offered by financial institutions or 401(k) plans.
"The bank would have a new, long-term deposit product made attractive by the government match," said Kenneth A. Guenther, executive vice president of the Independent Community Bankers of America.
That the President has focused his plan more on part-time and low-income workers is less threatening to companies that offer individual retirement accounts and other investment products, said Liz Liess, vice president and director of retirement policy for the Securities Industry Association. Securities firms, she said, probably could support a relatively narrow plan that draws people into the markets - as long as it is combined with higher contribution limits on IRAs and other reforms.
"I'm actually thinking this is a positive step," Ms. Liess said. "Last year, the Social Security reformers went on the defensive with the USA proposal. We saw it as a threat to the current private, employer-provided system, which is working pretty well."
Business opportunities could open up for money managers.
"As the investment managers, we would really support something along these lines," said Lee D. Harbert, a managing director in the defined contribution group of Barclays Global Investors in San Francisco.
Yet supporters and critics agreed that it would be an uphill battle to enact such a plan in the turbulent politics of an election year. For instance, Mr. Guenther said, speculation is swirling that Republican front-runner George W. Bush will quietly urge the GOP to oppose a tax cut this year to help his chances of becoming President.