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Social Security Debate Brings Finances Into Focus

BY Robert Dodge
by Robert Dodge on 9/19/00.

WASHINGTON _ Vice President Al Gore and Texas Gov. George W. Bush talk frequently and publicly about their divergent prescriptions for Social Security.

Beyond their visions of Americans' retirement security, though, the debate underscores how the two men have prepared privately for their own financial futures.

Gore, who opposes any equity investments involving Social Security, has never owned stocks. Bush, who wants the government to tap the market's higher returns, has had millions invested.

But a review of government filings on their finances shows similarities, too. Neither is expected to be an impoverished senior, and each has passed up opportunities to maximize personal savings and make their sunset years more golden.

Even if their strategies wouldn't make them good role models for working people building a nest egg, they have followed the type of common-sense course backed by financial advisers: Figure out what you want to do _ retire early, save for college, whatever _ and then plan accordingly.

"These guys have political goals, and they are willing to sacrifice better returns over the long term to achieve their other goals," said Phil White, who manages the Plano, Texas, branch office of Prudential Securities.

Their discussion of Social Security's future solvency has given retirement security its highest visibility in years as a campaign issue. But neither figures to be personally dependent on Social Security benefits.

The Texas governor, who did not enter public office until 1995, appears to have been more engaged in building wealth and preparing himself for retirement than Gore has.

Bush, 53, accumulated substantial wealth through a diversified portfolio of stock, bond and real estate investments during a business career that included the energy industry and part-ownership of the Texas Rangers baseball team.

The vice president, 52, has done little formal retirement saving, but he will be able to turn to a traditional, defined-benefit government pension and income from a variety of family holdings.

By chance or by design, the differing investment styles show up in the candidates' ideas about reforming Social Security.

Bush would like to let Americans use the higher average rate of return in the stock market to help cover the shortfall facing Social Security with the retirement of the baby boom generation. During his career, Bush has experienced risk and near-failure in the oil patch, as well as the joy of capital gains from his real estate and Texas Rangers investments.

Gore shuns the stock market as a vehicle for higher Social Security returns, saying he does not want to subject the nation's retirement plan to the risks of such investing.

Records show the vice president appears to have few direct savings or investments outside his government pension. He also has bypassed federal retirement savings options that would have allowed him to invest in the stock market indirectly through mutual or index stock funds. Thus, he has largely missed the pain of a stock market correction, the thrill of profits and the tax consequences of both.

Judged by the conventional measures of investing _ who makes the most of their opportunities? _ the two men deserve different grades, experts say. Gore fares the worse of the two by this standard.

"It's like he is a financial Luddite," said Scott Hodge, director of tax and budget policy at the conservative Citizens for a Sound Economy.

In a 1998 article assessing the vice president's personal investment acumen, Fortune magazine suggested "this potential president could be a financial dolt."

The Gore camp disputes that characterization, saying the vice president willingly forgoes stock ownership as the price of public service.

"To avoid even the appearance of any conflict of interest ... I decided as a matter of personal policy I would not invest in stocks," Gore said recently in New York.

Melissa Ratcliff, a Gore spokeswoman, said the vice president made that decision 24 years ago when he first ran for Congress. Gore, Ratcliff added, has demonstrated his financial acumen by supporting policies that would increase savings and bolster retirement income for workers.

But independent experts note that neither man is running for investor-in-chief.

In light of Gore's political ambitions, he may have made the best investment decision possible, said White, who helps clients invest for retirement. "He has done this by going into mostly fixed-income securities."

Robert Bixby, national policy director at the Concord Coalition, a pro-balanced budget group, cautioned voters against using either candidate's investment record as a yardstick on Election Day. Look at Bush's and Gore's proposals, not their own savings habits, he urged.

"I would ask, 'What will the Social Security program look like in 50 years if their programs are implemented?'" Mr. Bixby said.

Bush distanced himself from stock investing when he began to move onto the national stage. He bought at least $7 million in Treasury notes in 1998, as he sold much of his stock portfolio in anticipation of running for president.

Eliminating potential conflicts of interest may have been politically savvy, but it did severely limit the governor's ability to add wealth.

"This was not a smart thing to do," said Hodge. He noted that Bush could have invested in mutual funds to avoid direct ownership of individual stocks.

Bush, whose annual salary as governor is $115,345, also opted not to participate in a pension plan available to Texas state employees. Vesting in the pension plan takes eight years, a period equal to two full terms as governor, which Bush would not be able to fulfill if elected president.

Mike Jones, a Bush spokesman, could not explain why the governor stayed outside the pension plan. "As an elected official, he has the option not to do that," Jones said.

Bush does participate in a 401(k) savings plan offered to state employees, Jones said. The governor kicks in 10 percent of his monthly salary to the plan. There is no employer contribution.

The state plan allows employees to invest in 11 different mutual funds, which means the governor could continue to own stocks indirectly through mutual funds.

The transactions and a list of Bush's assets are contained in a financial disclosure statement filed when the governor's assets were transferred from a state to a federal blind trust in 1998. It is possible that the manager of the federal blind trust will invest in stocks, although they would be unknown to Bush.

According to the 23-page statement filed with the Federal Election Commission, Bush had no debt and had between $7 million and $14 million from an initial investment of $606,000 in the Texas Rangers baseball team.

Bush also may inherit wealth from his parents, George and Barbara Bush, although no trusts were listed in his financial statement. After the statement was filed last year, Bush purchased a 1,500-acre ranch near Crawford, Texas, for an undisclosed amount. During his tenure as governor, Bush has continued to pay Social Security taxes and will be eligible for benefits when he retires.

Gore participates in the federal government's Civil Service Retirement System program. The vice president, who will earn $181,400 this year, elected not to participate in the Thrift Savings Plan, which allows federal employees to invest in stocks, bonds and mutual funds.

According to his federal financial disclosure statement, Gore has less than $16,000 in two Individual Retirement Accounts at the U.S. Senate Federal Credit Union. Ratcliff said the funds are invested in interest-bearing money market accounts.

Under the federal program, Gore could begin drawing a combined monthly pension and Social Security benefit of about $9,324 based on his government service as vice president, a member of Congress and his tour in the Army. He would be eligible to receive benefits as early as age 60.

Gore will not have to rely just on his government pension, thanks to his own real estate holdings and investments made by his family. The vice president's financial disclosure statement lists those assets, which include a family trust.

The vice president receives royalty income on homes and farmland in his native Tennessee, as well as a home in Arlington, Va.

He also receives royalties from zinc mined from family land holdings and other income from the real estate company of his late father, former Tennessee Sen. Albert Gore Sr.

Gore also stands to inherit a portion of a trust set up by his father for his mother, Pauline. The largest asset: stock in Los Angeles-based Occidental Petroleum Corp. valued at up to $1 million. Despite Gore's attempts to avoid stock investments, he could be affected by the fortunes of the company. But Ratcliff said he would benefit only if there were assets remaining after paying his 87-year-old mother's expenses after her death.

Of course, the job for which they're competing also offers considerable retirement security of its own.

For one thing, the candidate who wins the White House will exit it in great demand for memoirs and public-speaking engagements.

For another, the next president also will be eligible for an additional pension managed by the Treasury Department. It currently provides an annual benefit of $152,000 _ plus $2.2 million for staff, office and travel expenses.