Americans are more savvy about investing their money today than ever before. They also are less confident about the future of the federal Social Security system than at any time in the past.
Polls have shown most Americans feel they could do a better job than the government managing the money currently diverted from their paychecks into the Social Security fund. They probably are right.Studies have shown that if portions of the Social Security funds taken from employers and employees since the 1930s had been invested in stocks instead of low-yield bonds, the fund would be paying higher benefits and would be looking at a stable future rather than facing bankruptcy by 2029.
But, just as individual investors are routinely cautioned that past performance of any particular mutual fund or individual stock cannot predict future performance, there are no guarantees that Social Security funds invested in the stock market would be absolutely safe.
For that reason, recommendations made by the Social Security advisory council in a report this week should be considered carefully for their potential to provide solvency for the trust fund and safeguard the retirement money of individuals.
There is much evidence to support the idea of either allowing individuals to invest portions of their Social Security funds in the stock market or mandating that the government do it for them.
One of the most compelling reasons is the fact that Social Security will begin paying out more than it collects in 2013 and will be broke by 2030, meaning millions who have paid into the fund most of their working lives would receive no benefits.
Another is that private investment accounts would likely earn future recipients many times what retirees now receive. Other possible benefits would be a boost for the federal budget and an expanded American economy through the increased investment funds made available to businesses.
But in debating the issue and ultimately making a decision, lawmakers must find a plan that minimizes the risks of bad investments and low stock values at the time of retirement. There is also the problem of starting a new system of private investing for future beneficiaries while maintaining benefit payments to those already retired or due to retire soon.
The advisory council has proposed three possible plans to move billions of dollars from safe government bonds to the historically more profitable stock market. Two would allow more individual choice in investing than the third, but all would make drastic moves toward privatization.
It makes sense to allow Americans to take advantage of higher-yield investments. It's obvious that the current system of handling Social Security funds is no longer viable and changes will have to be made - and soon. Most Americans have the knowledge or could quickly learn what they need to know in order to participate in investment choices.
But for those who are incapable of handling their own investments, the government should offer safer alternatives.
The opportunity exists to fix the broken system and make it viable in the long term, but changes must be thoroughly thought out and well-planned to avoid disastrous losses of retirement security.