Friday, July 24, 2015

2015 Trustees Report on the Social Security Trust Fund

Each year the Trustees of the Social Security and Medicare Trust Fund release a report on the status of the funds. No sooner was this year's report released than did the Huffington Post publish an article with the title "2015 Trustees Report of Social Security Confirms that Expanding Social Security is Fully Affordable". You can read the full article here. The article attempts to dispute concerns that the Social Security Trust Fund is on a path to insolvency to put forth a broader argument for expanding Social Security benefits. 

An expansion of benefits is, in fact, needed to provide for a reasonable and adequate standard of living for a generation of retirees, expected to grow to 70 million over the next fifteen years. However, it's imperative that we also have a clear understanding of just where Social Security now stands, where it's headed and what its sustainability may be for future generations. Moreover, as the article and Trustee report both point out, the urgent and imminent demise of the Disability Insurance portion of the Trust Fund (i.e., 2016) is a cause for great concern. How to address DI's insolvency, however, is the subject of much controversy.

Despite the thrust of the Huffington Post article, the actual 2015 Summary of the Social Security Trustee's Report clearly states, "Beyond Disability, Social Security as a whole as well as Medicare cannot sustain projected long-run program costs under currently scheduled financing". This statement, in one of the opening paragraphs of the Trustee report should make it quite clear that there is a very serious problem with the future solvency of the Social Security program. The report goes on to state that, "After 2019, Treasury will redeem trust fund asset reserve until depletion of the total trust fund reserves in 2034". Hard to see how this statement could be misinterpreted, but let's take a closer look at the numbers.

As the Huffington piece correctly points out, while in 2014 the outflows of Social Security benefits and costs exceeded the inflows from payroll and other taxes, the fund balance still grew through the addition of interest income to the fund (an amount that exceeded this net program outflow). Now, you may be curious about the source of this interest income, which is really the subject of a much longer discussion. But basically, the story begins with Congress borrowing annual surpluses from the Social Security Trust Fund, for many years now. 

Social Security Trust Fund surpluses (amassed due to favorable demographics in prior years) have been routinely diverted by Congress to support a broad range of (non-retirement related) budgetary imbalances. In place of the cash extracted, the Treasury has substituted a special class of US Treasury bonds. So much swapping of Treasury bonds has taken place, in fact, that the Social Security Trust Fund is now the world's largest holder of US Treasury bonds, surpassing both China and Japan. This means that in order for the Social Security Trust Fund to meet its 2034 date of insolvency (and continue to pay partial benefits of 75% of scheduled) the US Treasury has to either pay off these bonds through taxes, or find third party sources of capital to refinance the bonds as they come due. Oh, the amount? It's $2.8 trillion, with a "t".

Diverting funds from Social Security now to shore up Disability, as has been proposed, would resolve the immediate crisis of the Disability Insurance portion of the Trust Fund, but it would further compromise the solvency of Social Security. It's borrowing from Peter to pay Paul, something our Congress manages to do with great skill, but something that also simply trades one problem for another. As the Trustees of the Social Security Trust Fund state unequivocally in their report "legislation is needed to address all of Social Security's imbalances...[and]...lawmakers need to act soon to avoid automatic reductions in payments to DI beneficiaries in late 2016".

So let's avoid the attempt to mischaracterize the status of Social Security, or to needlessly politicize the discussion along party lines. It's math. And something needs to be done to fix it now. You can read more about what can be done in the blog post below, What's Wrong with Bernie Sanders' Plan on Social Security and How to Fix it, or in my new book Up in Smoke: How the Retirement Crisis Shattered the American Dream.