Should Social Security Switch to a Defined Contribution Plan?

After discussing defined benefit (DB) and defined contribution (DC) retirement plans in class yesterday, I was  intrigued to explore the issue further.  Professor Kimball mentioned that DC plans are starting to replace DB plans, but what is motivating this switch?  And are there any implications for social security?  After a little research, I’ve concluded that, given the growth in life expectancies, DB plans are unsustainable.  As such, firms are necessarily switching to DC plans to avoid insolvency.

This year, the Society of Actuaries released new life expectancies for the first time since 2000.  Since 2000, men’s life expectancy has grown from 82.6 years to 86.6 and women’s has grown from 85.2 years to 88.8.  Driven by increases in technology and better health care, this upward trend is only expected to increase (Professor Kimball joked that we may be one of the last generations to die).  Prior to this revision of life expectancy, outstanding private sector liabilities related to DB plans hovered around $2 trillion.  After this revision, these outstanding liabilities are expected to grow at least another 7%, bringing outstanding liabilities to $2.14 trillion, which represents over 13% of US GDP!

As anyone familiar with a balance sheet knows, liabilities must be paid, and paying down the above mentioned DB liabilities is no easy task.  Considering that life expectancy, and in turn outstanding DB liabilities, is expected to grow further, it’s not surprising that firms are switching to DC plans from DB.  Indeed, while some 60 million Americans are still covered by DB plans, since 1979, DB enrollment has fallen from 38% of Americans to 14%.  In the past decade alone, enrollment in DC plans has more than doubled to include over 40% of Americans.  Given the magnitude of outstanding DB-related liabilities, firms have had little choice but to initiate this switch.

But is the switch from DB to DC a bad thing?  After research, I believe it’s a wash.  That said, did find some strong evidence suggesting that, under the right circumstances, DC plans can offer higher returns than DB.  A study by Dartmouth College found that the typical DC 401K-retirement plan, “provide an expected annuitized retirement income that is higher across nearly every point in the probability distribution than the typical defined benefit plan.”  

That said, if you check my sources, you’ll see that this study was performed before the Great Recession, when the market collapse took a huge toll on many nest eggs.  But even with such a dramatic downturn, DB and DC plans still perform similarly; over the last 10 years, DB benefits have only outperformed DC plans by 0.86%, with most of this underperformance caused by a failure of individuals to make maximum contributions to their plan.

Based on this data, I should be indifferent between DB and DC plans because I know my retirement income will likely be similar under both options.  That said, I am in largely in favor of DC plans because they eliminate the liabilities associated with DB plans.  So how is this relevant to social security?  Personally, I believe a gradual shift from government-sponsored DB payments (ie: social security payments) to government-mandated DC contributions will solve social security’s sustainability issue.

According to the Heritage Foundation, the expected insolvency date of social security is approaching faster and faster; in the last five years, this date has declined 8 years and is currently set at 2033.  However, given current conditions, the Heritage Foundation predicts that insolvency could come as early as 2024 (when originally started, social security was designed to remain solvent until 2058).  Given that social security represents 22% of the US federal budget, insolvency is no trivial issue, and reform is needed sooner rather than later.

I propose that this reform should include a switch from a DB plan to a DCB plan.  While social security payments should remain intact for current and soon-to-be beneficiaries, I believe that social security tax should gradually be replaced with a social security “withholding.”  Like a 401K contribution, I propose that this withholding should be invested, tax-free, in a retirement account on an individual basis.  Essentially, this withholding is equivalent to automatic-enrollment in a government-mandated 401K plan.  As individuals continue to work,  instead of paying taxes to fund social security, they will pay witholdings to help fund their own retirement plan.

With respect to investment decisions, the government should have a default option requiring individuals to purchase relatively safe indexes (like the Russell 2000 or the S&P 500).  If individuals would like, they should be allowed to invest up to half of their withholdings on indexes of their choice (I limit investment to indexes because, as Malkiel makes obvious in A Random Walk Down Wall Street, indexes are the safest way to make money.  On average, even profession money mangers cannot outperform indexes tracking the market).  Once individuals reach retirement age (ie: the age they would have qualified for social security) they can begin making withdrawals from this retirement account.

I believe this plan effectively addresses the sustainability of social security.  It eliminates the need for the government to pay DB payments in the form of social security.  Furthermore, it forces individuals to save for retirement by replacing a significant portion of their taxed income with government-mandated savings.  While this is not a perfect system, I believe it is much more sustainable than social security, and it has the double-benefit of encouraging savings and investment literacy.  As always, I welcome any of your suggestions as we collectively try to address the issue of social security sustainability.