The 2011 Social Security Trustees Report — Harbinger of Bad News

The just-released 2011 annual report of the Social Security Trustees shows a significant worsening of the program’s finances.

Last year we were told that we would see payroll tax surpluses over benefit expenditures for a few more years — until 2015. That won’t happen according to the 2011 report; the program will now add to federal deficits in every future year — and increasingly so, which will ramp-up financial pressure to downsize other federal programs, increase taxes, or create yet more debt.

Note that both Republicans and Democrats negotiating over how to reduce federal deficits and the national debt have resolved to leave Social Security untouched for now.  That leaves the program’s finances to fester and worsen — increasing the costs of future adjustments and burdens on future generations.

Many people, especially those who favor early reforms, say that the Social Security trust funds “don’t matter.”  Note, however, that they lock up future federal revenues for Social Security benefit payments — on par with future dedicated payroll taxes.

The lock-up effect of the Social Security trust funds  is demonstrated by the fact that the program’s cash flow deficits today are not forcing any benefit cuts or payroll tax increases.  This can continue until the year 2036 according to the 2011 report.

But if we allow the situation to continue for that long, fixing the program will require a permanent benefit cut of at least 25 percent or a payroll tax increase of at least 40 percent of payrolls in 2036 and beyond.

Most left-leaning politicians and analysts are unwilling to entertain any benefit cuts today.  They favor tax increases today.  But those will fall on today’s and future workers, destroying their incentives to work and ability to save for the future.

Retirees, on the other hand, can continue to enjoy Social Security benefits that are much more generous compared to what they paid in when working.  So to hold all, including well-off, retirees harmless from a “shared sacrifice” approach to fixing Social Security’s finances seems unfair.

The trust fund also “matters” because it provides fodder to the argument of left-leaning politicians that the program’s finances are sound, backed by $2.6 trillion in Trust Fund treasury securities.  That $2.6 trillion sounds like a lot of money to the average Joe on the street. But consider that past and current generations, who together contributed an extra $2.6 trillion to Social Security, are now owed much more under the program’s current laws — a whopping $18.8 trillion according to the 2011 report.

The program’s long-term actuarial deficit (over 75 years) is now 2.2 percentage points of payrolls.  That’s 30 basis points larger than was the case in last year’s report, by far the largest increase in recent memory . That’s surely because of poorer prospects today compared to last year of experiencing a rapid recovery of productivity, output, and payroll tax revenues.

Finally, Mark Warshawsky, my friend and colleague on the Social Security Advisory Board, notes that this year’s Trustees’ report has been released on a Friday during the afternoon — the right day to release bad news because policymakers and the public are usually busy planning or traveling for weekend activities.