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WASHINGTON -- Employers must make sure the potential impact of proposed changes to the Social Security system on employer-provided retirement plans is taken into account as Congress begins considering overhauling the national pension system.
The possible effects of several suggested reforms is the subject of a study released late last week by the ERISA Industry Committee, a Washington-based employer trade group. The study was drafted by a task force chaired by Donald H. Sauvigne, program director-retirement and capital accumulation for Armonk, N.Y.-based International Business Machines Corp.
The analysis does not endorse any particular reform, a point emphasized several times by Mr. Sauvigne and other employer representatives as they discussed the report. Instead, the survey examines how proposed reforms, such as creating individual Social Security accounts, could affect employer-provided retirement plans' design, administration and cost.
The creation of individual accounts is simply one of several potential changes to the system currently being discussed by lawmakers and retirement analysts. Other possible changes include raising payroll taxes, cutting benefits, increasing the retirement age, using the budgetary surplus to shore up the system, and combinations of the ideas.
Copies of the report will be sent to each member of Congress and to administration officials dealing with the issue, said Janice Gregory, vp and legislative director of ERIC.
Social Security reform that does not take employer plans into account could impede the ability of employers to offer plans, endanger employers' ability to manage their workforces and actually endanger employees' ability to retire, said Mr. Sauvigne.
"The national debate must expand its vision to include the impact of Social Security reform on other key components of retirement security -- most critically on employer-sponsored retirement plans. . . .Employer-sponsored retirement plans are adaptable: They adapted to ERISA, to the advent of 401(k) plans, and the general expansion of defined contribution plans. They can thrive under Social Security reform if that reform thoughtfully takes their needs into account," according to the analysis.
The report draws five key conclusions:
* Early action on reform will be critical to its success.
* Many proposals impose financial costs that have not been fully examined.
* Both reductions in the Social Security defined benefit and the creation of Social Security individual savings accounts can reshape the plans employers offer to employees in the future.
* Imposition of a means test would undermine the attractiveness of employer plans.
* Administrative issues may prove the most critical and the most intractable in carrying out a successful reform program.
Determining exactly how a given proposal would affect plans is extremely difficult to determine, said Olivia S. Mitchell, professor of insurance and risk management at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School in Philadelphia, during a panel discussion immediately after the report was presented.
"We simply never have experienced an overhaul of the Social Security system of the size and magnitude that we're talking about," she said.
To illustrate the ambiguities of the situation, Ms. Mitchell presented several possible responses to a reform that would maintain Social Security's current pay-as-you-go defined benefit system paid for by benefit cuts and higher taxes.
Workers at companies that don't currently offer pensions would push for pensions and probably delay retirement, she said. Employees of companies with defined contribution plans would probably react much the same way and create demand for defined benefit plans. Workers covered by defined benefit plans would react similarly, though the defined benefit plans would probably become more attractive, she said.
Ms. Mitchell praised the ERIC study for highlighting the difficulty in predicting the outcome of particular responses to reform. She called on ERIC to sponsor further research, particularly in regard to how international companies design their pension plans to fit into different national social security systems.
Another speaker spelled out some of the considerations Congress will be taking into account as it debates reform. Charles P. Blahous, policy director to Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., a key player in the Social Security debate, said any reform would have to be implemented in a way that increased net national savings, rather than simply shifting money from the treasury bills Social Security currently invests in to individual retirement savings accounts. He also warned that the term "means testing," or making a benefit contingent on a beneficiary's income, means different things to different people and that instituting such a system could cause serious problems.
Mr. Blahous also said the retirement age must increase.
"We are playing with fire if we don't recognize the fact that we're all going to have to work a little longer," he said, adding that the current system does not reward beneficiaries who choose to continue working past retirement age.
Administrative questions associated with the overhaul of the system must also be thought out carefully, he said. They should not be "left on the doorstep of the employer" to answer, said Mr. Blahous.
Single copies of "The Vital Connection: An Analysis of the Impact of Social Security Reform on Employer-Sponsored Retirement Plans" cost $40. Written requests can be faxed to the ERISA Industry Committee at 202-789-1120 or mailed to the ERISA Industry Committee, 1400 L St. N.W., Suite 350, Washington, D.C. 20005