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Would a Privatized Social Security System Really Pay a Higher Rate of Return

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  • John Genakoplos
  • Olivia S. Mitchell
  • Stephen P. Zeldes

Abstract

Many advocates of social security privatization argue that rates of return under a defined contribution individual account system would be much higher for all than they are under the current social security system. This claim is false. The mistake comes from ignoring accrued benefits already promised based on past payroll taxes, and from underestimating the riskiness of stock investments. Confusion arises because three distinct reforms are muddled. By privatization we mean creating individual accounts (which could, for example, be invested exclusively in bonds). By diversification we mean investing in stocks, and perhaps other assets, as well as bonds; diversification might be undertaken either by individuals in their private social security accounts, or by the social security trust fund. By prefunding we mean closing the gap between social security benefits promised to date and the assets on hand to pay for them. Any one of these reforms could be implemented without the other two. If the system were completely privatized, with no prefunding or diversification, the social security system would need to raise taxes and/or issue new debt in order to pay benefits already accrued. If the burden were spread evenly across all future generations via a constant proportional tax, the added taxes would completely eliminate any rate of return advantage on the individual accounts. We estimate that the required new taxes would amount to about 3 percent of payroll, or about a quarter of all social security contributions, in perpetuity. Unlike privatization, prefunding would raise rates of return for later generations, but at the cost of lower returns for today's workers. For households able to invest in the stock market on their own, diversification would not raise rates of return, correctly adjusted to recognize risk. Households that are constrained from holding stock, due to lack of wealth outside of social security or to fixed costs from holding stocks, would gain higher risk-adjusted returns and would benefit from diversification. If this group is large, diversification would raise stock values, thus helping current stockholders, but it would lower future stock returns, thus hurting young unconstrained households. Overall, since the number of truly constrained households is probably not that large, privatization and diversification would have a much smaller effect on returns than reformers typically claim.

Suggested Citation

  • John Genakoplos & Olivia S. Mitchell & Stephen P. Zeldes, 2000. "Would a Privatized Social Security System Really Pay a Higher Rate of Return," NBER Working Papers 6713, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  • Handle: RePEc:nbr:nberwo:6713
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    References listed on IDEAS

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    1. Olivia Mitchell & Flávio Ataliba F. D. Barreto, 1997. "After Chile, What? Second-Round Social Security Reforms in Latin America," Revista de Analisis Economico – Economic Analysis Review, Ilades-Georgetown University, Universidad Alberto Hurtado/School of Economics and Bussines, vol. 12(2), pages 3-36, June.
    2. Mitchell, Olivia S & Zeldes, Stephen P, 1996. "Social Security Privatization: A Structure for Analysis," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 86(2), pages 363-367, May.
    3. Feldstein, Martin & Liebman, Jeffrey B., 2002. "Social security," Handbook of Public Economics,in: A. J. Auerbach & M. Feldstein (ed.), Handbook of Public Economics, edition 1, volume 4, chapter 32, pages 2245-2324 Elsevier.
    4. John Geanakoplos & Olivia S. Mitchell & Stephen P. Zeldes, "undated". "Social Security Money's Worth," Pension Research Council Working Papers 97-20, Wharton School Pension Research Council, University of Pennsylvania.
    5. Arthur B. Kennickell & Martha Starr-McCluer & Annika E. Sunden, 1997. "Family finances in the U.S.: recent evidence from the Survey of Consumer Finances," Federal Reserve Bulletin, Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System (U.S.), issue Jan, pages 1-24.
    6. Alan J. Auerbach & Jagadeesh Gokhale & Laurence J. Kotlikoff, 1994. "Generational Accounting: A Meaningful Way to Evaluate Fiscal Policy," Journal of Economic Perspectives, American Economic Association, vol. 8(1), pages 73-94, Winter.
    7. Olivia S. Mitchell, 1998. "Social security reform in Latin America," Review, Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, issue Mar, pages 15-18.
    8. Martin Feldstein, 1997. "Transition to a Fully Funded Pension System: Five Economic Issues," NBER Working Papers 6149, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
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    Cited by:

    1. Attanasio, Orazio & Kitao, Sagiri & Violante, Giovanni L., 2007. "Global demographic trends and social security reform," Journal of Monetary Economics, Elsevier, vol. 54(1), pages 144-198, January.
    2. Arza, Camila, 2008. "The Limits of Pension Privatization: Lessons from Argentine Experience," World Development, Elsevier, vol. 36(12), pages 2696-2712, December.
    3. Christine Mayrhuber & Thomas Url, 2000. "Redistribution and Contribution Equivalence Austrian Old Age Security," WIFO Monatsberichte (monthly reports), WIFO, vol. 73(9), pages 547-557, September.
    4. Bossi, Luca, 2008. "Intergenerational risk shifting through social security and bailout politics," Journal of Economic Dynamics and Control, Elsevier, vol. 32(7), pages 2240-2268, July.
    5. Börsch-Supan, A. & Härtl, K. & Leite, D.N., 2016. "Social Security and Public Insurance," Handbook of the Economics of Population Aging, Elsevier.
    6. Elder, Erick & Holland, Larry, 2000. "Social Security reform: the effect of investing in equities," Financial Services Review, Elsevier, vol. 9(1), pages 93-106, 00.
    7. Nikola Altiparmakov, 2013. "Is There An Alternative To The Pay-As-You-Go Pension System In Serbia?," Economic Annals, Faculty of Economics, University of Belgrade, vol. 58(198), pages 89-114, July - Se.
    8. Binswanger, Johannes, 2007. "Risk management of pensions from the perspective of loss aversion," Journal of Public Economics, Elsevier, vol. 91(3-4), pages 641-667, April.
    9. repec:eee:hapoch:v1_179 is not listed on IDEAS
    10. Alonso-García, J. & Devolder, P., 2016. "Optimal mix between pay-as-you-go and funding for DC pension schemes in an overlapping generations model," Insurance: Mathematics and Economics, Elsevier, vol. 70(C), pages 224-236.
    11. Kubicek, Jan, 2005. "Contribution rates to funded pension systems in the new member countries," Research in International Business and Finance, Elsevier, vol. 19(2), pages 266-280, June.

    More about this item

    JEL classification:

    • D91 - Microeconomics - - Micro-Based Behavioral Economics - - - Role and Effects of Psychological, Emotional, Social, and Cognitive Factors on Decision Making
    • H55 - Public Economics - - National Government Expenditures and Related Policies - - - Social Security and Public Pensions

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