Does a falling stock market mean the end for efforts to add personal accounts to Social Security? It shouldn't. While skeptics gloat about the plummeting Dow Jones index, personal accounts pass the test of a bear market with flying colors.
Imagine you were offered the following deal: You could invest part of your Social Security taxes in a personal retirement account, as President Bush and many others favor. However, your account could only hold stocks, with no bonds or other stable investments as you aged. Making matters worse, you would retire during the biggest bear market since the Great Depression, with the S&P 500 stock index falling from 1500 in April 2000 to around 900 today.
Guess what? You still win, beating Social Security's returns hands down. Even in a bear market seemingly tailor-made for opponents of reform, workers would reap substantial gains from personal accounts. Not just in dollars, but in control, ownership and personal security.
Stocks typically return 7 percent after inflation. A worker retiring in today's bear market would have received about 6 percent average returns, far above the 2.5 percent return an average couple can expect from Social Security (even after including all survivors and disability benefits). Higher rates of return, compounded over decades, could double or even triple a worker's retirement nest egg and make addressing Social Security's financing problems substantially easier.
Moreover, however bad the market's recent performance, a worker retiring today would have begun investing in the late 1950s when the Dow Jones index was just one-tenth its current value. Over 20-year periods the stock market has never once lost money. And even a worker retiring in the Great Depression would have received a 4 percent average return--greater returns during the Depression than under Social Security!
Even so, most workers diversify as they age. According to a 2000 study, a typical worker in his 60s has only 40 percent of his assets in stocks. Such a worker would have lost just 3.25 percent last year, since bond prices rose while stocks fell. That's the power of diversification.
Finally, personal accounts would be voluntary. No worker is forced to take an account, and no worker with an account is forced to invest even a penny in the stock market. Under plans from President Bush's reform commission, all workers over age 55 would remain in the current system and receive every penny they're promised. Current and near-retirees have nothing to fear from reform, while younger workers would finally have a choice.
It's this element of choice, control, and ownership that keeps Americans supporting personal accounts even when the politicians and pundits get the jitters. A Zogby International poll conducted for the Cato Institute from July 8-12 -- a period when the Dow Jones Industrials Index fell almost 700 points -- shows 68 percent of likely voters supporting voluntary personal accounts. That's up from 54 percent support in mid-1999, when the Dow was near its peak.
Despite the market, 55 percent of working-age voters think personal accounts are less risky than the current system, which can remain solvent only with substantial tax increases or benefit reductions. By a two-to-one margin, likely voters think the lesson of the Enron scandal is that workers need more control over their retirement savings, including personal accounts for Social Security. They don't do not think that markets are dangerous and that accounts shouldn't be allowed. Individual control is a recurring theme: Voters cited it as the main reason for favoring personal accounts, even over higher benefits and the ability to pass on the account to their heirs.
An idea shows its strength when times seem the toughest. For a proposal to let workers invest part of their Social Security taxes in the stock market, these would seem to be tough times. But even today, personal accounts would increase Americans' retirement income. And even today, Americans support them. That's why today's stock market doesn't contradict the case for personal accounts. It confirms it.
Andrew Biggs is a Social Security analyst at the Cato Institute and a former staff member of the President's Commission to Strengthen Social Security.