Friday, February 04, 2005

More SS

Reader P.K. writes in:

My column this morning wasn't the finest - sometimes the magic works, sometimes it doesn't. Anyway, this may be a better explanation of how the clawback works.

Suppose you invested $1000 a year (constant dollars) in a fund that pays 3 percent real interest. Then after 40 years you would have about $77,000. Suppose that your life expectancy is 20 years at retirement, and that you can buy an annuity with present value equal to that lump sum. Then you would get about $5,000 annually.

The Bush plan, as far as we can tell, is that if you elect to take the private account, your conventional benefits are cut by $5,000 per year. So investing in bonds gets you right back where you started.

If you buy risky assets, and do better than 3 percent, you may end up with, say, $7,000 per year; in that case you have a net gain of $2,000.

But if you do worse, and end up with a lump sum only large enough to buy, say, a $3,000 annuity, your benefits are still cut by $5,000, and you're $2,000 a year worse off.

So what's really happening with the private accounts is that people will be encouraged to take a mortgage on their Social Security benefits, and to speculate in the stock market.

And, of course, all of this has zero bearing, at best, on long-term government finances. In practice, whoever is running America in 2050 will probably end up bailing out the unlucky, so it's a major net negative.