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Франко Модильяни
(1918 - 2003)
Franco Modigliani
Источник: Economist, 7/27/96, Vol. 340 Issue 7976, p64, 1/2p
IN AMERICA'S debt-laden culture, no borrowing mechanism seems too ludicrous. Unless, perhaps, it is a retirement-savings-account-linked credit card. From early next year such cards will be available from Banc One, a well-known regional bank. Is this an example of marketing gone mad? Or is it simply the logical extension of the industry's efforts to entice consumers into taking on debt?
Banc One claims it is the latter. Its card is the brainchild of Franco Modigliani, a Nobel prize-winning economist, and Francis Vitagliano, a pension-fund compliance manager. Their avowed serious intent is to encourage people to save more money through their personal retirement accounts. But how can a credit card achieve this?
The theoretical answer is that some people are currently deterred from putting money into their 401(k) pension plans (defined-contribution plans that let employees make the big investment decisions) because they are then restricted from getting their hands on the money. So rather than saving for retirement, they might set aside money in savings accounts that can be used to buy a new car or move house. By attaching a credit card to 401(k) plans, Banc One will allow otherwise reluctant savers to tap their otherwise illiquid funds.
The problem is that retirement savings are deliberately supposed to be illiquid. They are meant to represent money that has been locked away for the future, not a pool of cash to be tapped when convenient. That was the intention of the tax laws in 1986 that converted 401(k) plans from ordinary savings vehicles into tax-advantaged retirement accounts.
Moreover, pension-industry consultants are disturbed by the prospect of savers drawing down credit on their 401(k) plan, little realising that there can be significant opportunity costs. Indeed, Banc One's card has drawn attention to a broader trend: for banks to offer loans collateralised by savings plans.
Again, such loans seem sensible in theory. People can borrow money and, in effect, pay interest to themselves rather than to a bank. However, there is no free lunch. Although such loans are interest-free, the money is not invested in the market while it is borrowed, and so ceases to earn the returns that are needed to finance retirement. That means that in certain circumstances the loan may well end up costing far more than a straightforward consumer loan from a bank.
In this respect, the new credit card is simply the latest twist in banks' efforts to wring new business from customers. Unlike most credit-card debt, 401(k) borrowing would be largely free of credit risk for a bank (although, should it call in the collateral, the funds would lose their tax advantage). So a small interest charge would represent almost pure profit.
There is another risk for Banc One and others who follow its lead. Imagine droves of retirees whose savings fall short because they have borrowed too heavily against their 401(k) plans. Class-action lawyers would have a field day arguing that these hapless folk were lured into such recklessness by irresponsible bankers. If that were to happen, the issuers of such cards could quickly be discredited.


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