When Plans Collide

Would corporate retirement plans be threatened by the adoption of Social Security private accounts?

As the debate rages over whether Americans should be allowed to “carve out” some of their Social Security payroll tax to create individual accounts (IAs) for retirement, one potentially volatile question has gone largely unasked: How would the existence of the private IAs affect participation in corporate 401(k) plans?

Severely, according to J. Mark Iwry, a nonresident senior fellow at The Brookings Institution. “The consequence of the carve-out approach is to undermine the employer systems by leading employees to divert their contributions away from 401(k)s and into the new accounts,” he says. Such a diversion, he suggests, could lead plan sponsors to cut back on their own pension programs, or at least stop building them up.

The dire prediction, says Iwry, stems from his speculation about the cost-benefit analysis that will confront employees. Most of the proposals for installing IAs envision making the accounts attractive enough to entice employees to take the carve-out. But Iwry, a former Treasury official who oversaw retirement savings policy and regulation from 1995 to 2001, suggests that many employees —especially low-income ones—will weigh the government-sponsored IA against the cost of making a voluntary contribution to their corporate plan.

“In making that calculation, employees who have an opportunity to contribute to a 401(k) couldn’t help but notice that the 401(k) contribution is coming out of pocket,” notes Iwry. “It’s a salary reduction that cuts their take-home pay.” By contrast, the carve-out contribution to an IA would be money already earmarked for payroll taxes, and thus never a part of take-home pay. “The apparent cost of a contribution to a Social Security individual account will seem cheaper,” he says, “far less than the apparent cost of the 401(k) account.”

Accept No Substitutes

Amid the many vociferous objections raised to the idea of IAs—which even supporters agree wouldn’t stop Social Security’s slide—worries about a possible threat to 401(k)s have raised hardly a murmur. One member of the President’s Commission to Strengthen Social Security, Prof. Olivia Mitchell of the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, says, “I can’t recall any particular conversation on the President’s Commission where this came up.” But even Michael Tanner, director of health and welfare studies at the Cato Institute—a strong supporter of Social Security private accounts—concedes that the introduction of IAs “probably will have a small negative impact” on company-based retirement savings. And Mitchell points out that the possibility of such an impact “is certainly worth thinking about.”

A February report by the Congressional Research Service (CRS), part of the Library of Congress, outlined the ways 401(k) participants might react to private Social Security accounts. Their actions “would depend on their perceptions of the potential for the accounts to increase their retirement income, their expectations about the future benefits they will receive from the traditional Social Security program, and their attitudes toward risk,” the report said. The CRS noted that if employees believed that the reduced Social Security benefit and an IA would lead to adequate retirement income, some might choose to offset their individual-account saving by setting aside less in other programs, or borrowing more. Further, the report said, workers “might invest their 401(k) contributions more conservatively, seeking to reduce the increased investment risk that would result from replacing part of Social Security with IAs.”

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