Saving Social Security

July 8, 2008

Today’s Washington Post has an article reporting on the vague proposals Obama and McCain have made for saving Social Security.

An interesting twist on this debate is that some Democrats prefer to ignore this problem altogether (blogged about previously here). They get annoyed anytime someone in their own party uses the “crisis” word in describing the system. Excerpt:

Some Democrats are questioning Obama’s decision to address Social Security at all. The program is expected to bring in less in taxes than it disburses in benefits sometime in the next decade, although the Social Security Board of Trustees estimates that interest on the program’s bond holdings will keep it from running a deficit until at least 2041.

“From the standpoint of the Democratic Party, I would think it would make the most sense to leave it alone,” said Dean Baker, an Obama supporter and co-director of the D.C.-based Center for Economic and Policy Research. “It’s not an immediate, pressing issue.”

Saying the system is not in crisis is fine if they can back it up with facts, but the argument above is simply false: there are no “bond holdings” in the Social Security Trust Fund!


Don’t Panic!

January 23, 2008

A friend of mine came to me today and said she was going to move her entire 401k into bonds and make all future contributions to a money market fund “until the bear market is over”. Without telling her specifically what to buy (because I have no idea), I was able to convince her out of this crazy notion.

Here are some quick thoughts on how I think you should allocate your 401k:
You should come up with an asset allocation (stocks, bonds, commodities, gold, real estate, etc.) based on the number of years until you can retire. Run the model once per year and reallocate accordingly. All 401k contributions out of your paycheck should go into equity mutual funds, regardless of your age.

Especially for Retirement Accounts, Take the Long Term View:
For those of us with a long time to go before retirement, we should take a very long-term perspective with our retirement accounts. That means continuous buying of “growth” stocks – emerging markets in particular. Ten years from now we won’t be able to see the difference between stock prices in December 2007 and January 2008 – in future real terms, the difference will be meaningless. But the return you get from incremental purchases at these discounted prices will be huge. Consider that you can buy shares of the same fund for 20% less than you could a month ago. If emerging markets continue to fall… even better! Over the long term, you can make a fortune by “dollar-cost-averaging” into emerging markets. You make money (by buying) when stocks are down, not when they are up.

** My 4Q 2007 Portfolio Review has been delayed because my broker won’t provide my December 2007 statement. Once I get it in the next couple of days I can crunch the numbers. Writing about the good returns I earned in 2007 will be bittersweet considering that I’ve given a big chunk of them back in the first two weeks of 2008!

Social Security Trust Fund Is a Joke

November 17, 2007

Yesterday’s mail brought my annual Social Security statement.  It shows how much money I’ve paid in and how much I would get if I were to become permanently disabled.  It also includes some lies about the Social Security Trust Fund:

In 2017 we will begin paying more in benefits than we collect in taxes.  Without changes, by 2041 the Social Security Trust Fund will be exhausted and there will be enough money to pay only about 75 cents for each dollar of scheduled benefits.  We need to resolve these issues soon to make sure Social Security continues to provide a foundation of protection for future generations.

This statement is very misleading – in reality, the Social Security crisis begins in the year 2017 because there are no actual economic assets in the Social Security Trust Fund.  The Social Security Trust Fund is merely an accounting entry; it shows what the Treasury has borrowed from Social Security.

“In 2017 we will begin paying more in benefits than we collect in taxes.”  So what happens then?  Well, the Social Security Administration will cash in the IOU’s from the Treasury in order to pay benefits.  Since there’s no actual cash set aside to pay, the Treasury will have to get the money from somewhere…either by raising taxes, borrowing from the Chinese, cutting expenditures, or simply printing money.

Good timing that today Paul Krugman would write a column arguing that “Social Security isn’t a big problem that demands a solution; it’s a small problem way down the list of major issues facing America…”

Krugman criticizes Obama for calling the Social Security situation a “crisis.”   After all, this is the type of language used by the Bush Administration a few years ago when they were trying to privatize the whole thing. 

As far as I can tell, acknowledging that Social Security is in crisis (which it is) is not tantamount to calling for privatization… it’s simply acknowledging the above-mentioned reality.

Traditional or Roth 401(k)?

July 21, 2007

In 2005, Congress passed a law creating the Roth 401(k). What follows is an overview of 401(k) options as well as some thoughts to consider when figuring out which one is right for you.

How a regular 401(k) works:

Contributions to your 401(k) are pre-tax, meaning that the contribution amount reduces your taxable income. Any contributions that your employer makes do not count as income to you. At age 59 and a half, when you are able to start making withdrawals, you will pay tax on the distributions at your regular tax rate.


Current Year: You make $100,000 per year and contribute $15,500 to your 401(k) and your employer chips in another $5,000. Your taxable income for the year (from your employer) will be $85,000. This reduction in income results in is a substantial reduction in taxes – especially for those of us who live in high tax places such as NYC.

Retirement: Beginning at age 59 and a half, you start to take withdrawals from your 401(k). Let’s say you withdraw $100,000 per year. That $100,000 will be counted as ordinary income and you will pay federal, state & local taxes on the full amount at whatever your tax rate happens to be at the time.

How a ROTH 401(k) works:

Contributions to your ROTH 401(k) are after-tax, meaning that the contribution amount does not reduce your taxable income. At age 59.5, when can start making withdrawals, you will not pay any tax at all on the distributions. By age 59.5, the majority of the money in your account will not be money you put in (principal) but it will be capital gains on the principal. Thus, you will be paying ZERO tax on the massive amount of capital gains and interest that will compound in your account over the next 40 years!


Current Year: You make $100,000 per year and contribute $15,500 to your 401(k) and your employer chips in another $5,000. Your taxable income for the year (from your employer) will be $100,000.

Note: unfortunately, the employer contribution has to go into a traditional 401(k), not the Roth 401(k)

Retirement: Beginning at age 59.5, you start to take withdrawals from your Roth 401(k). Let’s say you withdraw $100,000 per year. That $100,000 will not be counted as income and you will pay zero tax on the withdrawal.

Which should I choose – the Roth 401k or the regular 401k?

There is no simple answer here – it depends upon the individual and also your belief of what your future holds. Consider this hypothetical situation for Sarah & Jane. These gals have a lot in common: they are both 25 years old, earn $100,000 per year, and can contribute $15,500 to a retirement plan this year:

Sarah: Sarah has big-time career ambitions and plans to have a much higher income in the future. She loves to work and plans to do so, either for a company or herself, until at least age 75. She is an “aggressive saver” and already has substantial non-retirement assets. She loves New York City and plans to stay there forever. Also, she expects to get a substantial inheritance from her parents one day. It is very likely that Sarah will be in the highest tax bracket when she retires.

Jane: Today Jane has the same income level as Sarah but Jane has very different ambitions for her career. Jane plans to stop working at age 65 and live off of her 401(k) and perhaps a part-time job. It is unlikely she will have substantial assets outside of her house and 401(k). Given these circumstances it is likely that her tax bracket will be lower in retirement than it is now.

In this example, Sarah’s contribution to the Roth 401(k) will only be $11,250 (because of the $3,750 in taxes she will have to pay on the additional $15.5k in income.) Jane’s contribution into her retirement plan will be for the full $15,500. All other factors equal, Sarah and Jane will probably end up in roughly the same, after-tax position when all is said and done. This is because Jane’s higher contribution now, will result in a much higher future amount due to the miracle of compounding. However, since Jane will owe a bunch of tax on the future distributions, it probably evens out.

Of course, all other factors are never equal… Since Sarah is going to have substantial assets and income in retirement, her tax bracket will likely be very high. Also, it is quite probable that Sarah can afford to pay the $3,750 in additional taxes out-of-pocket and thus not reduce her current contribution at all. In other words, Sarah will contribute the full $15,500 into the Roth 401(k) – she will find the money somewhere to pay the tax.

If she does this for the next 40 years, Sarah will have $5.3 million (assuming a 9% CAGR) – all of which can be withdrawn completely tax free. If she invests in the traditional 401(k), she could owe 40%+ of this amount to the IRS!

Bottom-line: It is very clear to me that “aggressive savers” with high future earning potential should go with the Roth 401(k). For people not in this category, the answer isn’t so clear.

Follow these links for additional resources:

Bloomberg Calculator: Roth 401(k) or Traditional?
Wikipedia: Roth 401(k)
IRS Publication

Asset Price Inflation is Not a Good Thing for Most People

May 12, 2007

What’s not to love about rising asset prices? The Fed has oft argued that to the extent they do not cause an increase consumer prices, lofty home values and stock markets do not lead to inflation. Thus, central banks only aim to stop consumer price inflation, not asset price inflation/appreciation. Given that central banks operate in democracies, this is a politically wise move. However, asset price inflation is not benign and is indeed inflationary. The Buttonwood column of this week’s Economist, gives a few examples of why this is true.

The victims of rising asset prices:

Rising home prices are great for “middle-class people who started climbing the property ladder 20 years ago. But they make life difficult for young people wanting to buy their first home and for those trying to create affordable housing for low paid, but vital, workers, such as nurses.”

For young people starting out in places such as DC, CA, NY/NJ, & Boston, this necessarily means that they have to load up on debt in order to afford an over-valued house. Presumably they will save even less because a large portion of their income goes to pay the mortgage.

High asset prices Now imply lower Future returns:

“The second problem is that, when asset prices are high and yields are low, future returns are likely to be subdued. It thus takes a lot more effort to generate a given lump sum for retirement.”

Given today’s rich valuations in nearly every single asset class I can think of, perhaps “past performance will not be indicative of future results.” Indeed, the best performing asset class for the next ten years is most likely not even on the radar of the ordinary investor in the developed world.

Conclusion: high asset prices are exacerbating the looming retirement crisis

As defined benefit pension plans go the way of the dodo, the rich world will be split into four categories of retirees:


  1. Already wealthy people
  2. Government workers whose retirement is funded by taxpayers

“Have Nots”

  1. Private sector workers who did not save enough
  2. Poor people who rely on government for their subsistence

“The more numerous losers may demand higher taxes to penalize the lucky winners. What the market hath given, investors may find a future government taketh away.”

In one way or another, this almost certain to be the outcome in the United States. The first step could be to take away Social Security and Medicare benefits from the “haves.” The tax code could be modified to penalize people who have “too much” socked away in tax-advantaged accounts. Or perhaps people with passive incomes might have to start paying some form of payroll taxes.

So if this looming retirement crisis is worsened by asset price inflation, then why doesn’t the Fed do something to stop it? Two reasons I can think of. First, there would be blood in the streets if the housing market declined markedly. Same thing if the Fed set out to crash stock & bond markets. The second reason is that, as a nation, we have way, way too much debt. Lower asset prices is deflationary — there is nothing worse to a heavily indebted person (or government) than deflation. To the contrary, inflation is a gift for debtors because it shrinks the “real” value of the debt and interest payments.