The Bush administration is getting ready to offer a new enticement to encourage Americans to be more thrifty, hoping to boost the country's low savings rate.
President Bush will ask Congress to create a new ``family savings account' that would allow people to earn tax-free interest and dividends on money that is squirreled away for a specified number of years, administration officials said.These officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the savings accounts would be part of the president's 1991 budget to be released Jan. 29 and would also be featured in Bush's State of the Union speech to Congress Jan. 31.
The administration is touting the proposal as a key to bolstering the country's lagging international economic fortunes by increasing the pool of money available for investment and lowering the costs American businesses must pay to expand and modernize.
But many private economists remain skeptical, saying that though the proposal would be a popular tax-break for the middle class, it would do little to boost overall savings.
``Our past experience shows that these accounts don't do very much good in boosting savings,' said David Wyss, an economist with DRI-McGraw Hill, a private economic consulting firm. ``The people who will take advantage of them would have saved anyway.'Officials said that the Bush proposal is still being fine-tuned, but they described what the final plan is expected to contain.
It will allow families to contribute as much as $5,000 a year and individuals to contribute as much as $2,500. The accounts would be limited to families with incomes below $120,000 a year and to individuals making below $60,000.
Unlike individual retirement accounts, taxpayers would not be able to deduct their annual contributions from their taxable income. But the interest and dividends would accumulate tax-free. At the end of the required holding period, the accumulated savings could be withdrawn and spent without any tax bite from Uncle Sam.
Sources said the administration is still weighing how long a period to require. Seven years was mentioned as the most likely choice, although there was some sentiment for a longer period, possibly 10 years.
The holding period, whether seven or 10 years, would be a radical departure from IRAs, which require that the investment be held until the taxpayer turns 59 1/2. If the money is withdrawn before that time, a 10 percent penalty is imposed.
The new account has been promoted within the administration by Treasury Secretary Nicholas Brady, whose department has been studying ways to boost America's competitive standing, noting that Americans managed to save only 4.4 percent of their after-tax income in 1988, just one-fourth of the Japanese savings rate.
``This is a straightforward effort to try to change behavior,' said Sidney Jones, assistant Treasury secretary for tax policy. ``It is a very simple concept, very understandable and very forthright.'
The administration's plan, once it is unveiled, will compete for support with a rival plan pushed by Sen. Lloyd Bentsen, D-Texas, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. Bentsen's plan would expand the coverage of the current IRAs.
All workers were allowed fully deductible IRAs before passage of the 1986 tax overhaul. That law made them available only to workers not covered by a company pension and to covered workers with incomes under $25,000 and couples under $40,000. Partial deductions are allowed couples with incomes under $50,000 and individuals with incomes under $35,000.
Bentsen and various private economists have questioned whether the administration's family savings accounts would do much to stimulate savings since taxpayers would receive no immediate benefit from their contributions, unlike the IRA.
Critics say the administration chose a back-ended approach to supplying tax benefits in order to minimize the near-term budgetary impact.
``The administration hasn't got the nerve to propose the old-fashioned IRA, which would increase next year's deficit, so they are proposing to increase the deficit 10 years down the road,' said Henry Aaron, an economist at the Brookings Institution.