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

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

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-a

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Paper provided by Wharton School Pension Research Council, University of Pennsylvania in its series Pension Research Council Working Papers with number 98-6.

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Publication status: Published in Framing the Social Security Debate. Eds. D. Arnold, M. Graetz, and A. Munnell. Brookings Institution, 1998: 137-157.
Handle: RePEc:wop:pennpr:98-6
Contact details of provider: Postal: The Wharton School, 3641 Locust Walk, 304 CPC, Philadelphia, PA 19104-6218
Phone: 215-898-7620
Fax: 215-898-0310
Web page: http://www.pensionresearchcouncil.org/
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  1. Olivia S. Mitchell & Flavio Ataliba Barreto, . "After Chile, What? Second-Round Social Security Reforms in Latin America," Pension Research Council Working Papers 97-4, Wharton School Pension Research Council, University of Pennsylvania.
  2. Olivia S. Mitchell & Stephen P. Zeldes, 1996. "Social Security Privatization: A Structure for Analysis," NBER Working Papers 5512, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  3. John Geanakoplos & Olivia S. Mitchell & Stephen P. Zeldes, . "Social Security Money's Worth," Pension Research Council Working Papers 97-20, Wharton School Pension Research Council, University of Pennsylvania.
  4. 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.
  5. Martin Feldstein & Jeffrey B. Liebman, 2001. "Social Security," NBER Working Papers 8451, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    • 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.
  6. Olivia S. Mitchell, 1998. "Social security reform in Latin America," Review, Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, issue Mar, pages 15-18.
  7. Martin Feldstein, 1997. "Transition to a Fully Funded Pension System: Five Economic Issues," NBER Working Papers 6149, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  8. 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.
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