Social Security Privitization, British Experienceposted by Ron Beasley at 1/14/2005 01:20:00 AM
NOTE: YOU ARE VIEWING AN ARCHIVED POST AT RUNNING SCARED'S OLD BLOG. PLEASE VISIT THE NEW BLOG HERE.
The U.S. news media have provided readers and viewers with little information about how privatization has worked in other countries. Now my colleagues have even fewer excuses: there's an illuminating article on the British experience in The American Prospect, www.prospect.org, by Norma Cohen, a senior corporate reporter at The Financial Times who covers pension issues.The British experience, the same and different:
Her verdict is summed up in her title: "A Bloody Mess." Strong words, but her conclusions match those expressed more discreetly in a recent report by Britain's Pensions Commission, which warns that at least 75 percent of those with private investment accounts will not have enough savings to provide "adequate pensions."
The details of British privatization differ from the likely Bush administration plan because the starting point was different. But there are basic similarities. Guaranteed benefits were cut; workers were expected to make up for these benefit cuts by earning high returns on their private accounts.The flip flop.
The selling of privatization also bore a striking resemblance to President Bush's crisis-mongering. Britain had a retirement system that was working quite well, but conservative politicians issued grim warnings about the distant future, insisting that privatization was the only answer.
The main difference from the current U.S. situation was that Britain was better prepared for the transition. Britain's system was backed by extensive assets, so the government didn't have to engage in a four-decade borrowing spree to finance the creation of private accounts. And the Thatcher government hadn't already driven the budget deep into deficit before privatization even began.
Even so, it all went wrong. "Britain's experiment with substituting private savings accounts for a portion of state benefits has been a failure," Ms. Cohen writes. "A shorthand explanation for what has gone wrong is that the costs and risks of running private investment accounts outweigh the value of the returns they are likely to earn."
Many Britons were sold badly designed retirement plans on false pretenses. Companies guilty of "mis-selling" were eventually forced to pay about $20 billion in compensation. Fraud aside, the fees paid to financial managers have been a major problem: "Reductions in yield resulting from providers' charges," the Pensions Commission says, "can absorb 20-30 percent of an individual's pension savings."
American privatizers extol the virtues of personal choice, and often accuse skeptics of being elitists who believe that the government makes better choices than individuals. Yet when one brings up Britain's experience, their story suddenly changes: they promise to hold costs down by tightly restricting the investments individuals can make, and by carefully regulating the money managers. So much for trusting the people.The British realize they must go back.
Meanwhile, there is a growing consensus in Britain that privatization must be partly reversed. The Confederation of British Industry - the equivalent of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce - has called for an increase in guaranteed benefits to retirees, even if taxes have to be raised to pay for that increase. And the chief executive of Britain's National Association of Pension Funds speaks with admiration about a foreign system that "delivers efficiencies of scale that most companies would die for."That's Right, the British want to reform their system so it looks like the current Social Security System in the United States. That should tell you all you need to know.
The foreign country that, in the view of well-informed Britons, does it right is the United States. The system that delivers efficiencies to die for is Social Security.
Other Social Security Posts