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Posts Tagged ‘Social Security Trust Fund’

Social Security Groundhog Day

You may have seen the movie “Groundhog Day” which was released in 1993.  In the movie, Bill Murray plays weatherman Phil Connors who was sent to Punxsutawney , PA to cover Groundhog Day, only to find himself repeating the same day over and over again.  No matter what he does, he can’t seem to escape Groundhog Day.

The annual report from the Trustees of the Social Security Administration seems like its own version of Groundhog Day.  Every report seems to be a repeat of the prior one.  The reports warn of the coming insolvency of Social Security and Medicare, but it’s projected to be far enough into the future, that no one seems to worry too much.

The 2012 report estimates the Social Security system will become insolvent in 2033, three years earlier than what was predicted a year ago.  The fiscal status of Social Security has been known for years, yet Congress and President Obama reduced the employee’s contribution rate to the Social Security system from 6.2% to 4.2% for 2011 and 2012.  The rate reduction was intended to stimulate the economy, and they argued it would have no long-term impact on the solvency of Social Security.  Anyone with a rudimentary understanding of economics and finance could tell you paying less taxes into a system that is already paying out more than it receives, will have a negative effect.  Only Washington politicians are surprised by the updated figures, or at least act surprised.

The staunch defenders of this ridiculous argument also contend the system is solvent for more than the next two decades.  They point to the trillions of dollars in the Social Security Trust Fund as the saving grace to the system.  You can read this article to learn the fallacy of this belief.

There are a couple of other facts in the report which might cause concern.  In 2011, the government collected $691 billion of Social Security Taxes and paid out $736 billion in benefits.  It appears there was a $45 billion shortage in 2011, but there wasn’t.   The Social Security Administration collected $111 billion of interest on its IOU’s from the US government, so it reported a surplus of $66 billion, rather than a deficit.  So where did the $111 billion of interest come from?  It’s part of the $1 trillion of additional debt the U.S. Treasury issued over the past year.

It’s easy to get lost and confused by the Federal government’s accounting methods, which may be intentionally arcane.  So here is the bottom line… call it what you want, but the U.S. government borrowed an additional $45 billion to pay out Social Security benefits in 2011.  If you read the report and analyze the projections, you’ll see this number is only going to grow exponentially over the next two decades.

What is it going to take to change the situation?  I really don’t know if we’ll ever realize what’s happening as long as the government keeps sending out checks.  But what happens if they stop?  It’s unlikely to occur, at least for a long time, but what would have happened if the U.S. Treasury wasn’t able to borrow the additional $45 billion? Since there are no real assets in the Social Security Trust Fund, $45 billion in checks would not have been sent.

So in essence, it’s like we’re stuck in our own Social Security Groundhog Day, but there is a difference between us and the character Phil Connors; Phil Connors recognized he was stuck and tried to change it.  Sadly, most of us don’t believe we’re living our very own Groundhog Day.

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A New Record

On Wednesday, the United States of America established a new record, although it may not be one we want to boast about.  As of the close of business on Wednesday, the U.S. total debt exceeded $15 trillion.

This bad news gets worse… don’t expect the debt increase to stop or slow down anytime soon.  We’re already two months into the current budget year without an approved budget (that’s a different matter).   However, the 2012 Budget proposals put forth so far expect to add at least another $1 trillion to the debt, which is approximately $3 billion per day.

Interestingly enough, there was very little media coverage regarding this matter.  There was more coverage about Occupy Wall Street, the Supercommittee and the Penn State scandal than our debt breaking the $15 trillion barrier.  After all the acrimony earlier this year about raising the debt ceiling, it might not be considered important news.

Here are a few details about our national debt which might interest you.

  • The U.S. population is approximately 310 million people, which means there is approximately $48,000 of debt for every man, woman and child.
  • The debt is divided into two broad categories; intragovernmental debt and debt held by the public.  The intragovernmental debt is $4.7 trillion and the debt held by the public is $10.3 trillion.
  • The intragovernmental debt is essentially money owed to the Social Security system. When politicians refer to the Social Security Trust Fund, this is what they mean.  Its debt the government owes itself.
  • Even though it may be considered an independent government agency, the U.S. Federal Reserve is now the largest stakeholder of the debt held by the public.  The Fed currently holds $1.665 trillion of U.S. Treasury Securities.
  • China is the second largest holder of debt, with $1.148 trillion.
  • As a result of the Federal Reserve’s quantitative easing, its stake in U.S. debt obligations increased by over $850 billion over the past year.

I may be a bit cynical, but unfortunately I don’t think there is much hope Congress will act to stem the flow of red ink in the near term.  They battled a few months ago and agreed the debt will rise to over $16 trillion by the end of 2012, so I don’t expect much to happen on the political front.  The lack of media coverage is an indication of the lack of interest by Congress in this dubious milestone.

On the bright side, one thing that’s preventing us from being crushed by our own debt is that nearly one-third of the $15 trillion of Treasuries is effectively being held by the federal government (i.e., Social Security and the Federal Reserve).  Thus, our real debt to investors is effectively $10 trillion.  Not a good situation, but better than $15 trillion.

At the same time, it’s not a healthy position for the government to hold so much of its own debt.  Congress may have played fast and loose with the Social Security funds, but the day has arrived when the Social Security payments exceed the taxes collected.  It’s going to put more strain on the budget, and the real cash flow of the federal government, as Social Security starts cashing out its intragovernmental loans.

It’s also not great for the Federal Reserve to continually increase its Treasury holdings.  As I and others have previously written, the Federal Reserve essentially printed money to buy up a huge chunk of government debt issued over the past 12 months.  Quantitative easing may have some economic benefits, but there are tremendous long-term risks from this strategy.

Americans like to break records, and we just broke another one.  Unfortunately, it’s an honor we could have done without.  The real question is what are we going to do to stop the hemorrhaging and get our fiscal house in order?  We just set a new record, and it’s only a matter of months before we break the $16 trillion mark.

The Fight Over Social Security Reform

February 4, 2011 1 comment

If you’re tuned into the political scene, you know the fight for Social Security is heating up.  Irrespective of your political allegiances or persuasion, this is a battle that you should pay attention to. 

Social Security and Medicare currently cost approximately $1.5 trillion annually, which was 43% of all federal spending in 2010.  The Congressional Budget Office has predicted that the Social Security will pay $130 billion more in benefits in the coming year, than it receives in Social Security taxes.  The 2% reduction in employee Social Security taxes for 2011, which was part of the tax compromise between President Obama and the Republicans, caused the shortfall to increase substantially.

Recently, a couple of influential House Republicans floated the idea of raising the retirement age again, allowing younger taxpayers to invest a portion of their Social Security dollars in private investments, and issuing vouchers for seniors to purchase medical coverage.  Not surprisingly, these proposals sparked an impassioned response from the more ardent advocates of the current system.  Sen. Charles Schumer claimed, ““They want to privatize Social Security. Privatize equals end — no more.”  Such bold statements may be expected as some political strategists have suggested that Social Security is an issue favorable to Democrats, and one that they should try to use to regain some of the political clout they lost in the 2010 mid-term elections.  

If you read through some of my prior posts, you’ll discover that I believe the current system is broke and needs to be reformed.  I may not agree with any or all of these ideas, but I give the proponents credit for taking on this politically-charged issue and considering ideas for reform.  It may not be popular to talk about Social Security reform, but it needs to be done.

Exaggeration and misleading information is part of the fabric of modern American politics, but we need to get beyond it.  Social Security touches the lives of virtually every American.  Accordingly, we need to debate the issues and work towards a solution and not get bogged down in the typical Washington political spin cycle.

The Social Security Trust Fund is one area of this debate where few politicians are willing to be truthful with the American people.  As I pointed out in a prior article, the Social Security Trust Fund doesn’t exist.  Despite what you hear about trillions of dollars in this so-called trust fund or lockbox, it’s not real money.  It’s nothing more than paper IOU’s from the government to itself. 

Personally, I believe many politicians are too afraid to tell the truth, especially the ones who have been in Washington for years.  I think the American people would be outraged if they fully understood how Congress has spent so much money and put our nation on a path that is not fiscally sustainable.  Thus, it’s far easier for politicians to perpetuate the lie that this huge pile of money exists, rather than admit the truth.

The fight for the future of Social Security is just beginning.  I welcome you to join the discussion and debate, whether on this forum, or somewhere else.  I’m all for vigorous debate of the ideas and issues surrounding Social Security.  I’m less concerned about pontificating my ideas than trying to communicate the facts and truth, so you have the information necessary to make well-informed decisions on this issue.  This is why I keep harping on the non-existent Social Security Trust Fund.  Congress can’t make good decisions based upon a faulty premise that they have $2.5 trillion of money which doesn’t really exist.  I hope you’ll join the discussion.

Saving Social Security

Because Social Security impacts the lives of so many people, reforming the Social Security system is probably going to be one of the greatest fiscal and political challenges facing this generation. 

Nearly one-sixth of the population is receiving benefits, and this percentage will grow as the Baby Boomers move into retirement.   The increasing number of beneficiaries will also make it harder for the government to pay the promised benefits.  Social Security and Medicare already consume over one-third of the federal budget, and cost over $1 trillion each year.  The cost will only increase, and despite what politicians say, there is no Social Security Trust Fund to draw upon.  It’s only a bunch of paper IOU’s from the government to itself.  The excess Social Security taxes have been spent on other programs.

Unless some significant reforms are made, I predict a crisis will occur in the next decade.  Here are a few examples of modifications that will help sustain Social Security.

  • The retirement age should be adjusted every decade.  As the average life expectancy goes up or down, so should the age for receiving benefits.
  • Benefits should be adjusted based upon financial need, especially for disability and survivor benefits.
  • Increase taxes, but only after other benefit reductions have been enacted.  In the 75-year history of Social Security, benefits have not been curtailed, but the tax rate has nearly quadrupled.

I don’t see any way that current beneficiaries can be paid if money is taken out of the system, so complete privatization is off the table.  However, there needs to be a lot more transparency of the amount of taxes you pay on an annual basis, and the calculation of your projected benefits.  If Social Security must benefit everyone paying into the system, then let’s treat it more like a private pension plan. 

Having squandered nearly $2 trillion of excess Social Security taxes that was intended to pay benefits to the Baby Boomers, politicians and the Social Security administrators need to be held more accountable for their management of our money.  Social Security is not a 401(k), but more information can be provided than simply showing how much you have earned each year and the estimate of your future benefits.

Ideally, I think Social Security benefits should transition back to a program that is primarily a benefit for people who have little retirement assets or other income to support themselves.  Stop treating it like a private pension plan, where you pay a lot of money into the system, and expect to receive it back with a rate of return.   There will need to be a grandfathering for those who are currently receiving benefits and those close to retirement, but over time, the benefit structure can change.

Allow Social Security to be part of the safety net for those who are vulnerable and in need.  The benefits may not be great, but that’s okay.  It’s not intended to give you a lavish or comfortable lifestyle.  The purpose is to provide basic sustenance so that you can still live independently.  The cost of such a program should decrease dramatically, which should also reduce the tax burden and free up more money for you and I.  Therefore, the reduction in benefits should also be coupled with greater incentives for people to put more money into their own retirement plans.

 In the past few articles, I have made my case for why Social Security is in trouble, and offered some ideas of how to reform the system.  I hope that I’m wrong and the system won’t face a major crisis within the next few years, but from what I know I don’t see how that’s possible. 

I doubt you have agreed with all of my analysis, opinions and ideas.  Good.  My intention was to provoke your thinking and encourage a discussion.  The problem is enormous and no one has all the answers, especially not me, but I do believe that by working with all different types of people, we can avert a crisis and keep Social Security sound for many years to come.

The Politics of Social Security Reform

The current political discourse is probably one of the greatest barriers to reforming the Social Security system.  As I have tried to explain in the past several posts, Social Security is on the verge of an epic crisis, which will not be easily resolved. 

At present, there are more than 50 million Americans receiving Social Security benefits, which is approximately one-sixth of the U.S. population.  The U.S. government will spend a whopping $1.15 trillion on Social Security and Medicare in 2010, which is 32.5% of all federal spending.  These factors alone illustrate the importance of Social Security in our society.

Since it impacts the lives of so many Americans, the same old tired political clichés need to be abandoned.  Someone who believes Social Security is bankrupt and in need of reform is not necessarily a cold, heartless person looking to steal money from the elderly and see them live out their final days impoverished and alone.  At the same time, a person who believes in maintaining Social Security as a safety net for other people is not automatically a socialist or reckless spender. 

I believe the first thing that needs to happen is for politicians (of all political parties and persuasions) to come clean about the current status and future of Social Security.  Politicians who continue to maintain that we have nothing to worry about for the next 30-40 years are disingenuous at best, and dishonest at worst.  I don’t know if they are more afraid of the panic that might erupt if people knew the truth, or if they are afraid they will lose their power and position.  We may not like the current situation and future prospects, but continuing to pretend like there isn’t a problem is only going to make it worse.  The longer we wait, the fewer options we have, and the more painful the process is going to be.

It may sound rather egalitarian, but it’s time to respect our differences and come together to work towards a solution.  We need to set aside the labels of liberal vs. conservative; Democrat vs. Independent vs. Republican; socialist vs. capitalist, etc.  Everyone has something to bring to the table of ideas. 

For the conservative, reform is not about entitlements, welfare or socialism.  Your advocacy of individual freedom, personal responsibility and fiscal restraint is commendable.  At the same time, there are real people, with real situations, who need help.  Retain your conservative principles, yet show compassion for those who are hurting, destitute or in need, even if it is a result of their poor decisions.

For the liberal, change is not about greed or simply saving money.  Your consideration for people is admirable, but at the same time there are limits to what can and should be done.  Just like your personal finances, there is only so much money to go around, and you can’t spend what you don’t have. Maintain your compassion for those in need but recognize the realities and fiscal limitation of what can be provided.

Reforming Social Security won’t be easy, but it will be near impossible unless the political discourse is transformed.  If nothing changes, then little will be done.  If I’m correct, a crisis will erupt within the next decade, and we will be forced to address the issue.  Unfortunately, opportunities and alternatives will be lost because politicians refused to modify their approach to reforming Social Security.  It doesn’t have to be this way, and hopefully our leaders will rise to the occasion, or we’ll elect those who will.

Social Security Reform: Changing Perceptions

At present, there is a dichotomy in the perceptions and expectations of the Social Security system.  They are:

  • Social Security is a progressive/socialistic system of wealth redistribution – it takes money from one class of people (the workers) and gives it to another (the retirees).
  • Social Security is an individual pension plan – each person who pays into the system is entitled to a guaranteed benefit in return.

Wealth redistribution is contradictory to individual ownership.  The conflict between these perceptions will not be easily reconciled and will need to be confronted before serious reform will take place

A fundamental purpose of Social Security is to make sure that everyone has a basic level of survivor, disability or retirement benefits.  The need for these benefits is based on the presumption that the person does not have the wherewithal to provide for themselves, thus the government must step in to assist.  Whether or not you like the moniker, it is a socialistic concept.  In contrast, pure capitalism allows each person to fend for themself, irrespective of the consequences.

The Social Security Administration has also created an expectation that you will receive future benefits in return for the taxes currently paid in.  Each year you get an earnings history and a projection of your future benefits.  This is very analogous to a defined benefit pension plan, in which you are guaranteed a lifetime benefit based on your age and earnings history.  Armed with this information, is it any wonder people have a perception and expectation that they are entitled to a certain benefit and any potential reduction is seen as taking something that belongs to them?

I believe that politicians have been quite happy with this contradiction.  On the one hand, they argue that Social Security is a vital social program that must be funded.  On the other, the promise of a future benefit is justification for collecting taxes presently to fund their current spending (and overspending) habits.  Politicians have positioned Social Security to be a social program and an individual pension plan at the same time.

Lest you misread what I haven’t written, I believe Social Security does provide an important social purpose.  I may not agree with how benefits are calculated and administered, but taking care of the most vulnerable in our society is a good thing.

However, the promise and expectation of future benefits has allowed politicians throughout the decades to raise Social Security taxes and redirect the surpluses into other government programs.  A pension administrator would be guilty of breaching their fiduciary duty (maybe even fraud) if they managed your private pension assets the way the government has mismanaged Social Security.  Of course the politicians revert back to the argument that it’s a government social program, not an individual retirement account to justify their reallocation of Social Security taxes.

In the end, the politicians love the dichotomy, because they can triangulate between the two arguments to serve their immediate purpose.

True reform to Social Security should include a resolution of the conflicting principles and perceptions.  Either it’s a social program designed to provide basic retirement benefits for those who are most in need, and you have no entitlement to receive back any of the taxes you have paid.  Or, it’s a government sponsored pension plan whereby the administrators need to be held accountable for how the money is collected, disbursed and managed.

It can effectively be one or the other, but history has proven it can’t be both.  Let the debate begin and allow the American people decide what they want… after all… we are footing the bill.

Social Security Reform: Increase Taxes

One of the easiest solutions to help resolve the financial crisis of Social Security  is to raise the tax rate.  The rate has been raised four times in the past 75 years.  It started at 2.0% in 1935 and is currently at 12.4%.  Although often lumped together, Medicare taxes are assessed separately from Social Security.  The Medicare tax rate is currently 2.9%.  Combined you pay 15.3% of your earnings in Social Security and Medicare taxes, before any income taxes.

If you’re self-employed, you know that you pay the entire 15.3% tax.  If you are an employee, you pay half of the tax, and technically your employer pays the other half.  Although you don’t see it, trust me when I say that you’re paying it.  How?  Because employers include payroll taxes and benefits into the cost of each employee, which determines how much you get paid.  Said another way, if your employer wasn’t paying half of your Social Security taxes, they could pay you more.

The separate assessment of Social Security and Medicare taxes started on January 1, 1994 when the wage cap on Medicare taxes was removed.  For 2010, you will pay Social Security taxes on the first $106,800 you earn, but you will pay Medicare taxes on all of your earnings, no matter the amount.

One option for increasing Social Security tax revenues is to eliminate the wage cap.  The rate doesn’t change, but the amount of income subject to tax increases.  Some people consider the Social Security wage cap to be a regressive provision.  Thus, eliminating the cap would make Social Security taxes more progressive.

One challenge with this approach is that benefits are calculated based upon the taxes paid in.  If someone continues pays more into the system, they will be entitled to draw more out.  Congress can change the rules to be whatever they want.  However, eliminating the wage cap for paying taxes, but retaining the cap for receiving benefits is a fundamental change to the system and contrary to any other pension benefit calculation.

The other option is simply to raise the rate above 12.4%. This is the solution previous Congresses and presidents have used to solve prior solvency issues.  Each time they raise the rates, they promise the new rate will fix the Social Security problem for decades to come.  When President Carter signed legislation in 1977 that raised the Social Security and Medicare rate to 12.3%, he declared it would make Social Security sound until 2030.  It didn’t happen.  Additional reforms were needed in the 1980’s and 1990’s.  We’re still 20 years shy of 2030, and Social Security is facing a looming solvency issue.

Increasing taxes may need to part of the solution in reforming Social Security, but it should not be the first and only thing that is done.  Like other budgetary issues, there is an income and expense part of the equation.  It’s foolish to only look at one half when you’re trying to solve a problem.  For too long, we have tried keep Social Security sound by pumping more money into the system, but it hasn’t worked. 

Increasing Social Security taxes hasn’t fixed the problem in the past 40 years, and it won’t fix it now.  It’s time to take a new approach and reform the system of benefits, and then determine if additional revenue is needed.