Social Security Trust Fund: It's Real

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Thursday, 12 August 2010 04:42

Allan Sloan is a thoughtful business columnist whose work is generally quite insightful. His piece on the Social Security trust fund is not up to his usual standards.

There is nothing mysterious or shady about the trust fund. It is an asset to the Social Security system, which means that it can be used to pay benefits. Of course, as Sloan points out, its assets are U.S. government bonds, which are liabilities for the federal government, just like the government bonds held by banks, corporations and the general public.

To see the basic logic, imagine that we had a huge private pension fund to which we all contributed a portion of our wages. Call it "Private Social Security" or PSS. Suppose that PSS had an investment policy of investing its excess contributions entirely in Treasury bonds, just as Social Security does.

At some point, PSS plans to stop accumulating money and will instead begin to sell off its Treasury bonds to meet its benefit obligations. When it begins selling these bonds, the government will have to find other buyers for its debt. This could lead to higher interest rates for the federal government, as a major buyer for its debt has now become a seller. However, no one would describe this as a problem for PSS. It is selling its bonds just as any other bondholder might do. As long as it has bonds to sell to pay its benefits, we would consider PSS to be fine in terms of its ability to meet its obligations, unless the solvency of the federal government itself was called into question.

Now, let's take away the "P." What is the problem with the Social Security trust fund selling off its bonds to pay benefits? This is exactly the way the program was designed. It quite deliberately accumulated government bonds during the years that the baby boomers were in the work force with the intention that they would be sold off when baby boomers retire to help fund their benefits.

It's true that the government must find other buyers for these bonds, or alternatively raise taxes or spend less. But, that would be equally true in the case of PSS. This is an issue for the government, but not for either the PSS pension fund or Social Security. 

And, this is not just semantics. By definition workers, and only workers, pay Social Security tax. It is a payroll tax that is capped at just $106,000, so the chairman of Goldman Sachs pays no more in Social Security tax than a senior teacher or firefighter who may also hit the wage cap. By contrast, most of the general budget is financed through personal and corporate income taxes, which disproportionately come from higher income taxpayers. So it matters hugely that the bonds held by the trust fund are repaid from general revenue, as opposed to coming from additional Social Security taxes.

It is often claimed that the Social Security surplus has been used to hide the government deficit. It is not clear what is meant by this, but the government certainly has not been doing the hiding. Every government budget document directly shows the budget deficit, excluding the surplus from Social Security. If anyone has used the surplus to hide the deficit it would be the reporters who convey information about the deficit to the public.