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Social Security Cliff in Sight
| January 18, 2013
| Mike Shedlock
Posted on 01/18/2013 12:57:10 PM PST by Kaslin
In response to my post Making Social Security Actuarially Sound in a Business-Friendly Manner I have been exchanging emails and phone conversations with Jed Graham at Investor's Business Daily.
Jed thinks benefit cuts will happen, and I agree. However, Social Security cuts are considered the "third rail" in politics.
If you are not familiar with the term, it means anyone espousing cuts cannot be elected.
Retirees Will Outlive Trust Fund
Graham's current position on the viability of Social Security can be found in his January 14 article New Social Security Retirees Will Outlive Trust Fund
For the first time since Social Security's cash crisis in 1983, the program can't afford to pay full benefits for its youngest crop of new retirees through life expectancy, government data show.
The hastening of the Social Security Trust Fund's demise to 2033 means that workers just becoming eligible for Social Security at age 62 face steep future benefit cuts if they live to the average life expectancy, now about 84.
Those abrupt benefit cuts of about 25% a year for today's 62 year olds and workers nearing the early retirement age would come at an especially bad time late in life when savings have dwindled and health care bills are on the rise.
Old Contract Invalid
While the trust fund's nonmarketable Treasuries really IOUs from one branch of government to another have no value to offset the cost of benefits, they provide Social Security the legal authority to run cash deficits until they're spent.
Under current law, a worker who just turned 62 would face a 25% benefit cut once the trust is spent in early 2033.
Workers now 55 would, on average, lose two full years' worth of benefits, the equivalent of a 9.2% cut in lifetime benefits.
Cliff Now in Sight
Jed and I are 100% in agreement that the alleged "trust fund" is nothing more than "nonmarketable Treasuries really IOUs from one branch of government to another
" that have no real value.
As Jed states, those IOUs provide the Social Security administration the "legal authority to run cash deficits until they're spent.
The key points are as follows: There is no lock box, there is no fund, there is a deficit, and IOUs in a pretend piggy bank are not the same as marketable bonds.
Amusingly, I got into an exchange with a reader just a few days ago over the IOU concept. Reader Elliot wrote "You don't seem to understand bonds. They're just an IOU. The Chinese give us $$, we give them an IOU, and then we spend the dollars."
Clearly, one major difference is the trust fund has nonmarketable IOUs, not marketable bonds.
I responded to Elliot that "You cannot owe yourself money and it's even more ridiculous to put an IOU in a piggy bank and pretend to collect interest on it."
Elliott was not convinced. The discussion with Elliott proves that some people will continue to believe whatever nonsense they want, no matter how carefully facts are presented otherwise.
One thing I did not realize before exchanging emails with Jed Graham was that the payroll tax cut did not actually contribute to the current Social Security deficit (SS was not charged for the reductions in payroll taxes). Rather, the cuts simply added to the general deficit, funded as temporary stimulus.
Thus, the current deficit is real, not imagined, no matter how one looks at it. The payroll tax cut did not temporarily overstate the problem.
Simply put, Social Security is already insolvent if one ignores imaginary interest deposited into an imaginary piggy bank. Only on a pretend basis, by counting interest owed to oneself in a piggy bank that does not even exist, is Social Security solvent.
Elliott's of the world aside, Jed points out the IOU pretense is universally understood by the CBO, by the administration, etc. Unfortunately, Congress ignores the problem for political reasons.
Clearly, something needs to be done to shore up the system. And since something has to give, by definition it will. I outlined six possibilities, none of which has universal appeal.
Six Possible Ways to Make Social Security Actuarially Sound
- Raise retirement age
- Raise or eliminate the cap on payroll taxes
- Cut benefits
- Collect Social Security on personal income
- Implement a Tiered Cap structure
- Means Testing
All of the above are likely as noted in Making Social Security Actuarially Sound in a Business-Friendly Manner
For more on Social Security trends please see ...
Jed Graham Reflections
Jed invited me to post a few of his personal thoughts. Those thoughts are not necessarily reflective of the opinions of Investor's Business Daily, nor are they reflective of mine.
However, for the sake of further discussion ...
Jed wrote the 2010 book A Well-Tailored Safety Net. He proposed a new approach to reform called "Old-Age Risk-Sharing".
Under Jed's approach, the maximum benefit cut would come in the first year of retirement; cuts would be progressively smaller for lower earners and the cuts would phase out over 20 years to preserve a robust safety net in very old age.
You can read about his views in his post What I Told Obamas Fiscal Commission About Social Security.
In the above link, Jed writes ... "If we want a Social Security system that maintains the promise of income security late in life, additional benefit cuts that apply in very old age should be off the table"
I have to ask: Is that want we want? My second question is: If so, how do we expect to pay for it?
It's far easier to come up with a want list, than a means to pay for it. People always want things, unless and until they have to accept tax hikes to pay for them.
The income redistribution philosophy of tax hikes to support Social Security goes against my own Libertarian beliefs of minimalist government.
Cuts Coming, Regardless of Beliefs
However, and regardless of my viewpoint (or yours), cuts of some kind are without a doubt actuarially necessary as fewer workers support more and more retirees.
The only way cuts are remotely possible now would be to combine cuts with tax hikes. Politically speaking however, Democrats won't accept cuts, and Republicans won't accept tax hikes.
Yet, if cuts eventually come (and demographically speaking they must), then perhaps the phased-in approach suggested by Jed is a pragmatic starting point for discussion, whether or not one believes the stated goal of "guaranteed income security" is socialist silliness.
Once again, I am attempting to separate my own personal beliefs from something that may be more politically feasible.
Two Sure Things
- The path we are on is not sustainable
- Burying one's head in the sand because Social Security is the third rail only makes the problem worse
Safety Net Discussion
I have spent an amazing amount of time on this post already, probably 14 hours. I thought I finished yesterday but I didn't.
Yesterday evening I realized I did not fully address the concept of what constitutes a "safety net", and how much it would take for the average worker to accumulate one.
Jed has done quite a bit of research on the subject, so I decided to ask him.
"I think since we are talking the bare bones safety net w/ SS that people cant do without, it makes sense to use the risk-free (some might argue with free) Treasury rate. Rule of thumb is that to overcome a 10% benefit cut, an average earner (now about $45k a year) has to save 1% of wages (assuming Treasury returns and a lifetime annuity). For new workforce entrants facing a ballpark 25% benefit cut, as in the Romney plan, that means roughly 2.5% of annual wages. "
The key words are "average earner". In a phone conversation with Jed, he acknowledged things are not so simple. Someone making minimum wage needs to save far more on a percentage basis. Those making $100,000 a year need to contribute far less on a percentage basis.
The problems do not stop there because we are not starting from scratch. What about the "average earner" who is now age 40?
Jed notes such a person may need to contribute 5% of his wages for a minimal return.
That still does not cover all the bases because it assumes everyone is funding their own plan.
Is self-funding the new idea? Or is the original intent of Social Security (minimum retirement income assistance regardless of how much one contributed) still intact?
Regardless of your answer, those making minimum wage will never be able to meet a reasonable "safety net" goal, on their own accord.
I do not champion the idea that Social Security is a "right". It isn't. Rather, I simply state the pure mathematics of the setup.
Funding Your Own Way
I have a close friend who objected to "Means Testing" which was point six of Six Possible Ways to Make Social Security Actuarially Sound, as listed above.
She proposed that what she puts into SS should be hers or her heirs, and no one else's.
Ideally, I agree.
However, if her money is hers (and your money is yours) let me ask a simple question: Does government belong in the "income guarantee" business at all (taking your money only to return some portion of it later)?
If so, why? If not, then let's stop Social Security altogether.
It's certainly a debate worth having, and the answer determines whether or not there should be any "safety nets".
Privatizing Social Security
In a follow-up phone call I discussed privatization of Social Security with Jed. He was once in favor of partial privatization, but that was when Social Security was running a surplus. He is not in favor of it now.
Let's discuss this from the point of view of my friend who states "What I put into SS should be mine, no one else's".
To create a real "lock box", not an imaginary lock box, with imaginary interest, we need to privatize Social Security, not send money to Washington to be confiscated for whims of the moment.
Assuming that is politically feasible, and ignoring all the people already fully committed to the current system (those retired), as well as those half-way in (those in their 40's), what are the ramifications of privatization?
Before answering, please note that Social Security revenues are in practice used for general expenditures. Simply put, if payroll taxes were diverted to funding private plans, the deficit would soar.
Such a step would require massive tax hikes or massive cuts across the board somewhere (I would vote for massive cuts across the board, especially cuts in military spending).
Then we would still need to do something about partial funding and those already retired. Finally we would need to discuss limitations on those who want to tap their SS funds before retirement.
For a discussion on tapping retirement money, please consider Over 25% of 401Ks Tapped to Pay Current Bills; Dead-Fish Housing Assets; Walking Away Yet Again.
Quickly you can see we are back to the basic question "Whose money is it anyway, and why should government dictate what I do with it?"
Frank Discussion of the Issues is Needed
Regardless of your point of view on what should or should not be done (Jed has his ideas, I have mine, my friend has hers, and you have yours), it's long overdue for a frank discussion of the issues.
Solutions can only happen following admission of the problems. The starting point for discussion is simple admission that Social Security and Medicare are both insolvent, that promises have been made that cannot possibly be kept.
Without a doubt the country needs a frank discussion of "safety nets" and how they should be funded, as well as frank discussions on Medicare and healthcare rationing.
Unfortunately, few if any politicians are willing to admit the truth or to have those discussions, for fear of losing votes.
TOPICS: Business/Economy; Culture/Society; Editorial
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posted on 01/18/2013 12:57:14 PM PST
Why don’t we ever hear about similar need to cut welfare, food stamps, and other freebies, government handouts and subsidies?
Especially those for moochers, able bodied malingerers and illegals.
At least social security recipients paid something into the system.
Most of the recipients of government habdouts and feebies paid nothing - they just take and take and take.
posted on 01/18/2013 1:06:35 PM PST
by Iron Munro
(I Miss America, don't you?)
1.) There is no “Trust Fund” -— it is not possible for any organization, individual or government to write itself an IOU that changes anything in the real or financial world.
2.) Social Security will soon be little more than “phantom income” due to the means testing and higher premiums for upper income people, on Part B and Part D of Medicare.
You will get taxed on your Social Security benefits even if you don't see any benefit in your checking account, due to the very high Medicare premiums we will face in the future.
posted on 01/18/2013 1:08:48 PM PST
This will get “solved” with tax hikes.
-Wall Street transaction tax
-Remove the cap on payroll tax (perhaps up to every last dime)
-VAT or some type of sales tax
There is simply no political will to address the situation any other way.
****For the first time since Social Security’s cash crisis in 1983, the program can’t afford to pay full benefits for its youngest crop of new retirees through life expectancy, government data show.****
But, but the SS system was supposed to NEVER go dry! Here is the promise from 1964!
“The program is designed so that contributions plus interest on the investments of the social security trust funds will be sufficient to meet all of the costs of benefits and administration, now and into the indefinite future—without any subsidy from the general funds of the Government.
Both the Congress and the Executive Branch, regardless of political party in power, have scrupulously provided in advance for full financing of all liberalizations in the program.”
posted on 01/18/2013 1:11:36 PM PST
by Ruy Dias de Bivar
(Click my name! See new paintings!)
Never fear our King is here. He will save us. Just instruct the Treasury to strike a BS coin and all is well. Our dictator and King, Obama, is our savior. /s/
Raising the retirement age to 70 is not a practical solution.
The consequences should be obvious...
(1) An explosive increase in SS Disability claims.
(2) An explosive increase in Work Injury claims.
(3) An explosive increase in Age Discrimination lawsuits.
(4) An explosive increase in government agencies and laws that will allegedly “protect” and “retrain” older workers.
The trust fund has been transferred to congressional pork. Over $13T are missing form the fund along with all the trust the fund had. Why not cut welfare for illegals and take care of legitimate recipients first. Colorado give $2B to illegals on welfare and blackmails schools to raise funds for them.
posted on 01/18/2013 1:31:24 PM PST
(Live well for those that did not make it back.)
To: Buckeye McFrog
People forget, the Fed owns a major hunk of America's land, mineral rights, buildings and many other hard assets.
In addition, pensions for all the federal employees could be converted to Social Security upon retirement.
The peckerheads in government won't even address the issue because a) they are afraid or b) they are benefiting from the threat of default.
My joke is "Give me a 40 in Yellowstone Park and I will release you from the obligation you forced me to accept."
posted on 01/18/2013 1:34:50 PM PST
(Proud Thought Criminal since 1984)
To: Buckeye McFrog
Thanks Buckeye for making this point.....SS is not going to default. They will do a VAT, national sales tax, get into our 401ks, or whatever, but there’s ZERO chance of SS going away.
(I would vote for massive cuts across the board, especially cuts in military spending).
IIRC, the annual budget for the entire DOD is measured in $Billions ($100Billions, but still $Billions).
The deficit is measured in $Trillions, and the "pretend they don't exist" liabilities in the ballpark of $100 Trillion.
I'm all for cutting expenditures, but the military is chump change in the grand scheme of things.
posted on 01/18/2013 1:46:27 PM PST
(Senseless legislation does nothing to solve senseless violence.)
How about limiting payout to what was paied in plus interest?
Could also subtract any welfare or unemploymnet paid out from waht was paid in.
posted on 01/18/2013 1:51:30 PM PST
Fleming v Nestor settled the question of whether or not there ever was any “social contract”.
posted on 01/18/2013 1:52:02 PM PST
(Violence is rarely the answer. But when it is it is the only answer.)
A waste of breath. Obama voters — “I got my new Obamaphone! He gonna pay my rent, my taxes, he gonna pay my gas from his stash!” — have a six-week thought horizon. Not until they actually suffer a money loss will they care.
posted on 01/18/2013 1:54:26 PM PST
(washington, dc ..)
Canada’s Conservative government recently raised the retirement age by two years (to 67). This change will be phased in, over about the next decade. It didn’t cause much of an uproar (the third rail wasn’t electrified) — mainly because most people can see the necessity for the change. When the retirement age was set at 65, only 1% of the population lived longer than that. Now, pension plans are nearly upside down (many more retirees, many fewer payers).
From a Social Security pamphlet in 1936....
“You and your employer will each pay 3 cents on each dollar you earn, up to $3,000 a year ($48,000 inflation adjusted).”
“That amount is the most you will ever have to pay.”
“From the time you are old and stop working, you will get a government check every month of your life.”
“This check will come to you as your right.”
To: Iron Munro
“At least social security recipients paid something into the system.”
They did not. There is no “system” into which one can pay. Also, in our country there is no connection between who pays taxes and who receives benefits. That’s what the rich paying their “fair share” is all about. From each according to his ability to each according to his need.
If we wanted what you’ve earned to count toward what is let for your retirement, we’d let you keep it.
I don’t even understand what this article is about. No, there was no trust fund. SS is not self-supporting. It’s already in the red. What are we talking about, it being more in the red? Look, they can use allow the funny accounting they want. Why should we pretend it’s meaningful?
To: Iron Munro
We do hear about that, by the way. SS gets more press first because it’s bigger: it alone eats up about as much of the budget as defense. Second because unfortunate souls like you pretend they’ve “paid into the system” and won’t allow the problem ever to be fixed.
2.) Social Security will soon be little more than phantom income due to the means testing and higher premiums for upper income people, on Part B and Part D of Medicare.
The premims paid for Medicare Parts B and D only pay for 25% of the annual costs of the programs. By law, the other 75% comes from the General Fund. In FY-2011 this amounted to $222 billion. These costs will continue to increase as 10,000 people a day retire for the next 20 years. Medicare Part A has been running in the red since 2008.
posted on 01/18/2013 2:13:42 PM PST
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