Sarbanes Oxley

According to an unsubstantiated rumor, PricewaterhouseCoopers (the largest of the Big 4 accounting firms) has sent one of three letters to the boards of directors of their audit clients with December year-ends. The first says that the company is likely to pass its tests of internal controls; the second that the company could maybe pass if they bust their humps; the third is that they are unlikely to get a clean opinion. The unsubstantiated rumor also has it that as many as one-third of their clients are getting letter number 3 and are truly, deeply unhappy about it. I will be happy to retract this post as the occasion requires, since my source could be blowing more smoke than Pittsburgh in its heyday. We should know shortly.

Social Insecurity

I’m not a fan of big government. Being an honorary Chicagoboy, I think given any task, chances are, the private sector will do it twice as well for half the cost. So obviously, I think Social Security is a joke, and that private accounts are the way to go. Since it’s the Christmas lull, I put some ink to paper, which me being a financial analyst, means putting it on Excel. I did a simple spreadsheet to see how a private account for a baby boomer household retiring in 2004 would have fared against the government. This is based on commonly available information, so is not a fine tuned model, but it’s enough to make my point.

I took the Census bureau’s household income from 1967 to 2003. I assumed 2004 income levels are the same as 2003 for simplicity sake since it’s not available yet. I assumed the current 6.2% Social Security tax rate is the same from 1967 to 2004 also for simplicity’s sake. The assumption is that the 6.2% tax would go into a government administered private account instead of the general pot. I then took the Dow Jones Industrial Average from July 1, 1967 to July 1, 2004, and calculated the compounded annual returns for the private account. I picked the July 1st mid-year point to correct for year-end fluctuations. I based the returns on the DJIA because it’s available. I would have preferred the S&P 500, or a broad market index such as the Wilshire 5000, but they aren’t available. The good is that the DJIA represents the best of American industry such as GE, Coke, and Boeing. The bad is that it doesn’t truly reflect the technology revolution as say the S&P 500 would. But it’s life.

Assume also that after retirement the account shifts to a low risk interest bearing account earning 5% a year on the unused account balance.

According to their website, the current, unfunded, maximum payout for 2005 Social Security payments is $869 a month; which translates to $10,428 per year.

Assume someone had a stroke of genius in 1967, and enacted the Social Security Reform Act of 1967, shifting all contributions to private accounts and invested the accounts in the DJIA.

Assume further that Incognito’s worker bee household began contributions to the account at age 25 in 1967, retiring in 2004 at age 62. If Nito’s household has always been in the mid-tier household income bracket, his final 2004 household income would be $54,453 a year. Under the plan, his monthly payout from the plan would be $1,417 a month, or $17,000 a year. This is 63% more than the current Social Security payout. The huge difference is that the private account is funded for 20 years of retirement, or to age 82.

Say Nito’s household is in the top income bracket for all or most of his life. His final 2004 household income would be $154,120 a month. His household payments for retirement would be $3,583 a month, or $43,000 a year. Again, this would be fully funded for 20 years of retirement.

Second tier 2004 household income would be $86,867 a year. Monthly payments would be $2,167 a month or $26,000 a year.

Say Nito wasn’t very successful in life. Fourth tier ending 2004 household income would be $34,000 a year. Social Security payments would be $950 a month, or $11,400 a year. Fifth tier ending 2004 income would be $17,984 a year. Social Security payments would be $504 a month, or $6,050 a year. Again the big difference being that it’s fully funded.

So the only time you’ll be below the current Social Security maximum is if both husband and wife make minimum wage all their lives.

Change the number of retirement years from 20 to 15 or 10, and you’ll be living well.

What-if numbers amount to exactly zero ($0). But it makes you think.

Maybe 37 years from now we’ll still be talking about reforming Social Security. Maybe someone will say wow, wouldn’t it have been a great idea to put it in private accounts?

Here is my Excel.

More thoughts: Based on the Census Bureau, there are 112 million households in the U.S. If you take the current annual mid bracket Social Security contribution of $3,376 a year as the average, that’s $378 billion a year. Investing private accounts for Social Security in a broad market index would imply putting 98% of the amount back into the economy (index funds charge about 1% for management fees, going by my rule of thumb for government implies a 2% management fee for lazy bureaucrats.) You can argue that putting $370 billion back into the economy would create a tremendous amount of new jobs, which in theory would cascade into more income, more contributions, etc etc. lifting all boats.

Update: Looks like good ol’ Cato Institute was way ahead of me:

For example, assuming historical rates of return, if individuals born in 1970 were allowed to invest in stocks the amount they currently pay in Social Security taxes, those individuals could receive nearly six times the benefits that they are scheduled to receive under Social Security, as much as $11,729 per month. Even a low-wage earner would receive nearly three times the return on Social Security.

Update 2: Thanks to Cole for pointing out the correct historical rates.

I’ve updated the excel and the numbers blow away the current Social Security payments. Even the lowest bracket is comparable to the current unfunded maximum payout:

The Law & Iraq

Perhaps the essay (noted by Instapundit) by Brett H. McGurk, “A Lawyer in Baghdad” (published in The Green Bag: An Entertaining Journal of Law in the Autumn 2004 issue) describes what most lawyers know, but he gives outsiders (like me) a glimpse into that work. Pointing to some of the great paradoxes of law & occupation, he describes his work in the Green Zone. He notes the lack of precision and clarity in the rules under which the lawyers worked and the tensions in an occupation that also attempts to establish laws that arise from these specific (& fluid) circumstances. The necessity is at once to “affirmatively promote the welfare of the Iraqi people and establish conditions for self determination” which is a “positive mandate. . . far different than the largely negative obligations under the Convention and Regulations” (53-4).

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Guns, Germs And Steel: A Book Review

It’s usually hard to go wrong reading a Pulitzer Prize winner and this book is no exception. Some books concentrate on a particular point in history, a particular event, or even – sometimes fascinatingly – the life of a single person. This book is on the opposite side of that spectrum. The author, Jared Diamond, attempts no less than describing the story of human social and technological development since the end of the last Ice Age, a span of about 13,000 years, in one 500 page volume.

But this is not a “normal” history book. You will not read about the Assyrians or the Hapsburgs. That is a scale so fine as to pass easily through this book’s filter. This book is better described as historical science. Diamond tackles the big, macro-scale questions of “How?” and “Why?” did the human race get to where we are today.

In the preface to this book, Diamond describes the book’s scope:

We all know that history has proceeded very differently for peoples from different parts of the globe. In the 13,000 years since the end of last Ice Age, some parts of the world developed literate industrial societies with metal tools, other parts developed only non-literate farming societies, and still others retained societies of hunter-gatherers with stone tools. Those historical inequalities have cast long shadows on the modern world, because the literate societies with metal tools have conquered or exterminated the other societies.

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Notes from Louisiana

For me, as for most expatriate Louisianians, the holiday season means lots of quality time with my groundcar. Satellite radio definitely makes the experience much more pleasant.

I just got done spending a week in Louisiana for the holidays. While I was there, I ate lots of good food, spent time with friends and family, and read the paper.

And gained some interesting insights thereby…

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