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The Politics of Social Security

Kerry to Use Study to Call Bush Plan a Wall Street Windfall

By Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 22, 2004; Page A02

President Bush's push to create individual investment accounts in the Social Security system would hand financial services firms a windfall totaling $940 billion over 75 years, according to a University of Chicago study to be released today.

Sen. John F. Kerry plans to use the paper, by economist Austan Goolsbee, as he campaigns in Florida today, hoping to open a new line of attack against Bush. The Democratic presidential nominee is expected to say that Bush's Social Security plan is a sop to Wall Street donors, who are among the Bush campaign's biggest financial backers.

Bush has expressed strong support for allowing workers to divert some of their Social Security taxes to accounts that could be invested in stocks and bonds. But he has never embraced a specific proposal to revamp Social Security, even after his own Social Security Commission presented him with three reform options. Goolsbee, an informal Kerry economic adviser, examined the option that is often cited as the most realistic.

Under that plan, workers could invest as much as 2.5 percent of their earnings -- or about 40 percent of their share of Social Security taxes -- in private accounts, which Goolsbee anticipates would be managed by private investment firms once their balances reach $5,000. He estimated that annual management fees would be 0.8 percent, a conservative figure, he said, considering that management fees across the spectrum of mutual funds average 1.09 percent.

The result: Over 75 years, fees would total $940 billion, more than a quarter of the $3.7 trillion deficit the Social Security system will run over that time period. That would be the largest windfall in U.S. financial history, Goolsbee said, more than eight times the revenue loss that Wall Street suffered during the 2000-02 stock market collapse.

Scott Stanzel, a spokesman for the Bush campaign, called the analysis "a Kerry campaign pseudo-study" and "an attempt to divert attention from the fact that John Kerry does not have a plan to strengthen Social Security."

Financial and insurance industry officials have donated $20.7 million to Republicans this campaign season, compared with $11.4 million they have given Democrats, according to the nonpartisan Political Moneyline.com. But Kerry has showcased his support from executives to bolster his contention that his fiscal policies would ease market anxieties over record budget deficits.

Still, the Kerry campaign's economic policy director, Jason Furman, said the candidate would not hesitate to link Bush's Social Security position to his donor base.

"This study makes it clear when you choose individual accounts, seniors get hurt, the economy gets hurt, and the only institutions that benefit are the financial institutions that get nearly a trillion dollars in additional revenues," Furman said.

Michael Tanner, a Cato Institute analyst who has pushed for individual accounts, said Goolsbee's administrative cost estimate is slightly higher than Cato's, which put management fees at as much as 0.65 percent, but "not unrealistic."

White House officials questioned why Goolsbee assumes management of the accounts would shift from the federal government to private fund managers. Bush's Social Security Commission suggested that shift could happen but did not mandate it.

The windfall to Wall Street is unavoidable, Tanner said. "The question is whether we're giving young workers more of a return [on investment] than they'll be getting today."

© 2004 The Washington Post Company