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Late's Get Personal

BY Robert Dodge
by Robert Dodge on 10/5/00.

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 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 forgos 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.

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. Bush does participate in a 401(k) savings plan offered to state employees, said Bush spokesman Mike Jones. 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.

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 IRAs. A Gore spokeswoman 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.

Gore will not have to rely just on his government pension, thanks to his own real estate holdings and investments made by his family. Gore also stands to inherit a portion of a trust set up by his father for his mother, Pauline. The largest asset: stock in Occidental Petroleum Corp..