Philadelphia Reflections

The musings of a physician who has served the community for over six decades

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Health Savings Accounts: Classical Model
New topic 2015-09-03 22:42:59 description

Longevity, a Moving Target

In the last fifty or so years, American life expectancy has increased by thirty years, enough extra time for three extra doublings at seven percent. So, 2,4,8. Whatever money the average person would have had when he died in 1900, is now expected to be eight times as great, since he dies thirty years later in life. And even if he should lose half of it in some stock market crash, he will still retain four times as much as he formerly would have, at the earlier death date.

The lucky reason increased longevity might rescue us is the doubling rate started soaring upward at about the time it got extended by improved longevity in 1900 (when life expectancy was 47). In particular, look below at the whole family of curves. Its yield turns increasingly upward for interest rates between 5% and 10%, and every extra tenth of a percent boosts it appreciably more. Let's take a small example. Why don't we invest everything in "small" capitalization companies? Because there aren't enough of them to support such a large diversion to a frozen account. We are therefore forced to concentrate in large capitalization corporations, yielding only 11%. A few tenths of a percent extra yield might be squeezed out of this curiosity. Life expectancy is slowly but steadily lengthening. And so on. It's useful for the nation to realize that having everybody live longer is a good thing, just as long as too many extra people don't get sick with something expensive.

In the past century, inflation has averaged 3% per year, and small-capitalization common stock averaged 12.7%. That results in an after-tax growth of 9.7%. Some people consider 3% inflation to be good for the economy, many do not. The bottom line: many things have changed, in health, in longevity, and in stock market transaction costs. Those things may have seemed to have deviated very little, but with the simple multipliers we have pointed out, that upturn in income at the end of life becomes steadily magnified. If you do nothing at 3%, your money will be all gone in thirty-three years. That is if you leave your savings in cash. While it is true there are risks with all choices, the option of being a deer in the headlights is a poor one. There's a small but critical margin, and everyone must collectively struggle for very small improvements in it.

If you work at things just a little, you take advantage of the progressive widening of two curves, also shown on the graph: three percent (for inflation) remains pretty flat, but seven percent (for investment income) starts to soar much earlier. Up to 7%, there is a reasonable choice between stocks and bonds; but if you need more than 7% you must invest in stocks. Future inflation and future stock returns may remain at 3 and 7, forever, or they may get tinkered with. But the 3% and 7% curves right now are getting further apart with every year of increasing longevity. Some people will get lucky or take inordinate risks, and for them, the 10% (large-company stocks) investment curve might widen from a 3% inflation curve a whole lot faster. But except for desperate gamblers, every single tenth of a percent net improvement, will cast a long shadow. That means blue-chip common stocks are best, except during a black swan crash where all bets are off, but bonds are probably least bad.

{top quote}
Save it, or Spend it. You can't do both. {bottom quote}

But never forget the reverse: a 7% investment rate will certainly grow much faster than 4% will, but if people allow this windfall to be taxed, gambled or swindled, the proposal you are reading will fall short of its promise. We are offering a way to minimize taxes, the other two risks are your own problem. Our economy operates between a relatively flat 3% and a sharply rising 4-5%. In other words, it wouldn't have to rise much above 3% inflation rate to be starting to spiral out of control. Our Federal Reserve is well aware of this, but the public isn't. A sudden international economic tidal wave could easily push inflation out of control, in our country just as much as Greece or Portugal if they leave the Euro. Another issue: As developing, nations grow more prosperous, our Federal Reserve controls a progressively smaller proportion of international currency. Therefore, we could do less to stem a crisis that we have done in the past.

To summarize, on the revenue side of the ledger, we note the arithmetic that a single deposit of about $55 in a Health Savings Account in 1923 might have grown to about $350,000 by today, in the year 2015, because the stock market did achieve more than 10% return. It might be more realistic to say $250 at birth rather than $55. but the principle is sound. You can't do it twice, but it ought to work, once. There is therefore considerable attractiveness to the expedient of extending HSA limits down to the age of birth, and up to the date of death. It's really up to Congress to do it.

If the past century's market had grown at merely 6.5% instead of 10%, the $55 would now only be $18,000, so we would already be past the tipping point on rates. You do have to leave some extra room. In plain language, by using a 10% example, $55 could have reached the sum now presently thought by statisticians -- to be the total health expenditure for a lifetime. But by accepting a 6.5% return, the same investment would have fallen well short of enough money for the purpose. Unlike the municipalities that gambled on their pension fund returns, that sort of trap must be anticipated to be avoided. Things are not entirely hopeless, because 6.5% would remain adequate if our hypothetical newborn had started with $100, still within a conceivable range for subsidies for the poor. But the point to be made provides only a razor-thin margin between buying a Rolls Royce, and buying a motorbike. If you get it right on interest rates and longevity, the cost of the purchase is relatively insignificant. That's the central point of the first two graphs. For some people, it would inevitably lead to investing nothing at all, for personality reasons. Some of the poor will have to be subsidized, some of the timid will have to be prodded.

This is more of a research problem than you would guess: a round-about approach is to eliminate first the diseases which cost so much, choosing between research to do it, or rationing to do it. Right now we have a choice; if we delay, the only remaining choice would be rationing.

Commentary.This discussion is, again, mainly to show the reader the enormous power and complexity of compound interest, which most people under-appreciate, as well as the additional power added through extending life expectancy by thirty years this century, and the surprising boost of passive investment income toward 10% by financial transaction technology. Many conclusions can be drawn, including possibly the conclusion that this proposal leaves too narrow a margin of safety to pay for everything. The conclusion I prefer to reach is that this structure is almost good enough, but requires some additional innovation to be safe enough. That line of reasoning will be pursued in a later chapter.

Revenue growing at 7% will relentlessly grow faster than expenses at 3%. As experience has shown, it is next to impossible to switch health care to the public sector and still expect investment returns at private sector levels. Repayment of overseas debt does not affect actual domestic health expenditures, but it indirectly affects the value of the dollar, greatly. With all its recognized weaknesses, a fairly safe description of present data would be that enormous savings in the healthcare system are possible, but only to the degree, we contain next century's medical cost inflation closer to 2% than to 10%. The simplest way to retain revenue at 7% growth is by anchoring the price leaders within the private sector. The hardest way to do it would be to try to achieve private sector profits, inside the public sector. This chapter describes a middle way. Better than alternatives, perhaps, but nothing miraculous. .

Originally published: Sunday, June 07, 2015; most-recently modified: Sunday, July 21, 2019