Earlier this week, Alicia Munnell posted a blog on MarketWatch about the merits of investing Social Security trust fund assets in the stock market. That's significant, because Munnell is the director of the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College. She is an expert on retirement planning and regularly publishes academic papers on the subject.
This idea is different than the one to privatize Social Security that came up under the George W. Bush administration. Munnell argues that investing the trust funds will prevent Congress from using any Social Security surpluses to cover general budget deficits. Stock market gains and losses could be smoothed out over time, and theoretically, at least, there'd be less reliance on the payroll tax for funds.
Some worry that government investment in the private sector might not be a good idea, since the government might exert influence on decisions in the corporate sector. But anyone who watches lobbyists in action knows that if anything, corporations influence decisions made in Congress.
In any case, Munnell dismisses the concern, saying U.S. public pensions own lots and lots of equities and there doesn't appear to be a problem of power imbalances.
The other solutions to shoring up Social Security involve either cutting benefits or raising taxes -- neither of which the public is eager to embrace. But these are not foolproof solutions anyway. The main problem with this approach, which was undertaken during the Reagan administration a couple of decades ago, is that once the trust funds are shored up, Congress raids any surpluses. What we have in place of the surplus are I.O.U.s.
"The problem is that if Congress uses the annual surpluses from Social Security to cover deficits in the rest of the budget, no real saving occurs," Munnell writes.
This argument points to a big problem of reckless misuse of funds by elected officials. If we were to continually raid our retirement savings to pay for current expenses, we'd have nothing saved up for retirement. Yet somehow this practice is perfectly acceptable at the national level.
It appears we can't trust our leaders with our trust funds, so the safer place to put the money is in the stock market. Does this strike you as somewhat ironic?
What do you think? Should Social Security funds be invested in the stock market?
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Barbara Whelehan is a co-author of "Future Millionaires' Guidebook," an e-book written by Bankrate editors and reporters. It is available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, iBookstore and other e-book retailers.