Thursday, January 27, 2005

The "miracle" of Chile


Under the Chilean program - which President Bush has cited as a model for his plans to overhaul Social Security - the promise was that such investments, by helping to spur economic growth and generating higher returns, would deliver monthly pension benefits larger than what the traditional system could offer.

But now that the first generation of workers to depend on the new system is beginning to retire, Chileans are finding that it is falling far short of what was originally advertised under the authoritarian government of Gen. Augusto Pinochet.

For all the program's success in economic terms, the government continues to direct billions of dollars to a safety net for those whose contributions were not large enough to ensure even a minimum pension approaching $140 a month. Many others - because they earned much of their income in the underground economy, are self-employed, or work only seasonally - remain outside the system altogether. Combined, those groups constitute roughly half the Chilean labor force. Only half of workers are captured by the system.

Even many middle-class workers who contributed regularly are finding that their private accounts - burdened with hidden fees that may have soaked up as much as a third of their original investment - are failing to deliver as much in benefits as they would have received if they had stayed in the old system.

Dagoberto Sáez, for example, is a 66-year-old laboratory technician here who plans, because of a recent heart attack, to retire in March. He earns just under $950 a month; his pension fund has told him that his nearly 24 years of contributions will finance a 20-year annuity paying only $315 a month.

"Colleagues and friends with the same pay grade who stayed in the old system, people who work right alongside me," he said, "are retiring with pensions of almost $700 a month - good until they die. I have a salary that allows me to live with dignity, and all of a sudden I am going to be plunged into poverty, all because I made the mistake of believing the promises they made to us back in 1981."...

Over all, Chile has spent more than $66 billion on benefits since privatization was introduced. Despite initial projections that the system would be self-sustaining by now, spending on pensions makes up more than a quarter of the national budget, nearly as much as the spending on education and health combined....

The problems have emerged despite what all here agree is the main strength of the privatized system: an average 10 percent annual return on investments. Those results have been achieved by the pension funds largely through the purchase of stocks and corporate and government bonds - investments that helped fuel an economic expansion giving Chile the highest growth rate in Latin America over the last 20 years...

Among the complaints most often heard here is that contributors are forced to pay exorbitant commissions to the pension funds. Exactly how much goes to such fees is a subject of debate, but a recent World Bank study calculated that a quarter to a third of all contributions paid by a person retiring in 2000 would have gone to pay such charges...

overnment officials like Mr. Larraín and Mr. Scolari acknowledge that "commissions are high and need to come down." They say that "more competition is needed" to foster lower fees. But existing regulations frustrate the creation of new funds - something that seems just fine to pension funds that have become a powerful political and economic force.

"The dynamic of the market," Mr. Larraín said, "is one of consolidation and concentration."

Somebody else said it in a different context, I think, but it's certainly true. What Mr. Larrain is saying is that privatized Social Security would only work if capitalism doesn't work.

Talk about confidence schemes...

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