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Is US Treasury paying too high a price for IRA saving program?

Has the individual retirement account (IRA) program substantially increased the nation's savings rate? Or has it just cost the federal Treasury a bundle in lost tax revenues?

At least one study indicates that the new savings generated by the IRA program are far outweighed by the tax loss.

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Once the province of those lacking employer-sponsored pension plans, IRAs have been available to virtually anyone with a paying job for a couple of years. These accounts allow people to deposit up to $2,000 (pre-tax and deductible) a year to gather tax-free interest until retirement.

The Life Insurance Marketing and Research Association (LIMRA) found that 53 percent of the $40 billion socked away in IRAs for the 1982 tax year (including deposits made through April 15, 1983) was from current earnings rather than money ''moving sideways'' from other savings accounts.

''That's higher than most people expected,'' says Dr. Elizabeth Johnston-O'Connor, project director for LIMRA. ''We're projecting 56 percent for 1983. It's the first time in a long time we have been encouraged to save, instead of penalized.''

However, the findings of a study by the US League of Savings Institutions, in Chicago, suggest a different view. The league estimates that $30 billion was kicked into IRAs for calendar 1982 (a briefer period than the LIMRA study covered), but only $3 billion was actually new economic savings attributable to the IRA tax incentives. Much of the rest may have come from current earnings, but it was money that people would have saved anyway, says Dr. James W. Christian, chief economist for the league.

Meanwhile, he notes, the tax expenditure - the federal revenue lost by providing the IRA tax benefits - was $12.4 billion.

All this makes the IRA program a ''frightfully expensive'' way to encourage savings, Dr. Christian says. What the IRA program has done, however, is to create a pool of new retirement capital.

Dr. Christian says that raising our low personal savings rate is going to take action more radical than the IRA. (It's hard to get a clear picture of the personal savings rate. The Commerce Department says savings fell from $110.2 billion in 1980 to an annual rate of $92.3 billion for the second quarter of 1983. Corresponding figures from the Federal Reserve Board, on the other hand, show a rise from $166.7 billion to $209.3 billion.)

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The big problem, Dr. Christian says, is a demographic imbalance. People in the huge ''baby boom'' generation are coming into their prime borrowing years as they buy houses and start families. But the prime saving generation - those in their late 40s and 50s, emerging from the obligations of child rearing and starting to put money away for retirement - is comparatively small. This group started life as Depression babies, and there weren't too many of those.

What's needed are ''broad-based tax incentives,'' Dr. Christian says, such as 100 percent tax exemption for interest and dividend income - politically tricky though that would be.

Offering another view is Ronald Ruther, head of the financial planning practice of the Chicago office of Arthur Andersen & Co. ''The IRA program has to have made an impact on people's savings habits,'' he says. He projects a big surge in participation by a younger group of savers - those in their 30s and early 40s - over the next several years. ''Every one of them will have IRAs,'' he says, as soon as they earn enough to establish them. Younger savers will realize that an IRA makes the most sense if it is maintained for decades. ''But for individuals 50 years old or more, it's not that meaningful in terms of total retirement benefits.

''The trend is for the general population to participate in a meaningful way'' in providing for their retirement. Given the problems of the social security program, he says, ''More reliance will have to be placed on the private sector.''

He also predicts that the $2,000 limit on IRA deposits will rise substantially over the years, like the cap on Keogh plan deposits.

Dr. Christian, however, does not agree that the nation's young people will jump onto a savings bandwagon: ''Nobody saves at that age because (A) they all think they're immortal, and (B) they just don't have the cash. Their savings, if they have any, are contingency savings - a cushion against an emergency.''

If today's young people do buckle down and save more than young people of years past did, it will be for negative reasons, he says. ''They see they don't have the material well-being their parents had.''

Meanwhile, about 21 percent of all US households are reckoned to have IRA accounts. Deductions for IRAs showed up on 11.8 million tax returns filed for 1982, according to an Internal Revenue Service spokesman. There is estimated to be roughly $75 billion to $80 billion in IRA assets around the country on deposit with various custodians: banks, thrifts, mutual funds, insurance companies, and brokerage houses.

Still, though, not everyone eligible for an IRA has one. Some observers worry that IRAs haven't really caught on among small savers - whose need of a tax shelter is less acute, but who certainly need the retirement savings as much as anyone. Despite the media blitz on IRAs, they haven't really been talked up to people one-to-one by their supervisors or benefits managers.

And employers have been unenthus-iastic about offering payroll-deduction IRAs. One problem is competition from the 401(k) retirement program (see related story in this section). This program exempts employers from payroll taxes. But all the employer gets out of a payroll-deduction IRA program is some extra paperwork and maybe thanks from the employees.

Susan E. Clapsaddle, marketing manager for group retirement plans at the Fidelity Group, a Boston mutual-funds organization, is concerned because corporate IRA plans have netted such a small proportion of those who could take part. The 200 companies with corporate IRA programs through Fidelity employ a half-million people - but only 5 percent of them participate. ''It does bother me quite a bit - when these people could be having the money removed slowly and painlessly from their paychecks.''

Experts remind people that they can deposit less than $2,000 a year in their IRAs; that a two-career couple can sock $4,000 away each year (couples with a nonworking spouse are limited to the $2,250 ''spousal'' IRA); and that IRA deposits can be made any time before the year's tax return is filed, up until April 15 of the following year.

Of course, likelihood of having an IRA goes up with income. In the $50,000 -plus annual-income range, IRA participation is over 60 percent. Some 60 percent of all IRA dollars are in banks and savings and loans, with mutual funds, insurance companies, and brokerages getting the rest, divided more or less evenly.

At the upper end of the scale, though, there are indications that more sophisticated savers are shifting their IRAs from banks and S&Ls - which still have around 60 percent of IRA dollars - into brokerage houses and mutual funds.

Brokers warn that retirement money should not be used for speculation, but they argue that conservative equity investments are the best way to provide for a comfortable retirement.

''Yes, there is a shift from banks to brokerages,'' says Andrew H. Freund, senior vice-president of the financial services division for Prudential-Bache Securities in New York.

IRA savers are beginning to look more to investments than to what Mr. Freund calls ''prosaic'' certificates of deposit (CDs). Stocks, unlike CDs, are not backed by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, and that backing is important to many people. ''But conservatively chosen stocks can be a relatively safe investment,'' Mr. Freund says.

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