Social Security Actuaries score the Warshawsky Plan

By Bruce

Andrew Biggs directs our attention to a new detailed PRA plan by Mark Warshawsky, a member of the Social Security Advisory Board: Notes on SS Reform: Actuaries Score New Reform Proposal The post does not link to the plan itself but instead to a detailed scoring of it by the Office of the Chief Actuary in a memo to be found here (PDF) Estimated Financial Effects of “A Reform Proposal to Make Social Security Financially Sound, Fairer, and More Progressive” by Mark Warshawsky

I just came across this and haven’t studied it in detail (and boy is there a bunch of detail) but like any plan it raises some standard questions.

1) Is the rate of return assumed on the PRAs actually reasonable under Intermediate Cost assumptions? (The No Economist Left Behind Challenge).

2) The plan assumes a direct transfer from the General Fund to supplement the PRAs starting in 2012 equivalent to .5% of payroll. Given that one current definition of ‘crisis’ is ‘General Fund transfers starting in 2017 to pay partial interest’, adding an additional transfer amount starting even sooner seems to undercut the overall message. How do advocates of the plan address this?

3) The Warshawsky Plan assumes a whole range of cuts and adjustments to retirement age, tax on benefits, and to the benefit formula generally. Each is scored individually as seen in Table A (which follows the actual memo page 14). Any combination of those scored cuts and adjustments that add up to 1.7% of payroll would put current Social Security in Long Range Actuarial Balance. What happens if we just take this cafeteria style?

Provision 3 would modestly raise the cap for a net addition of .15% of payroll. Provision 4 would gradually expose all SS benefits to taxation for an additional .24% of payroll. Provision 6 would bring in all new State and Local government employess for a net addition of .22% of payroll. Provision 7 would increase early and full retirement ages for an addition of .56% of payroll. Provision 8 is a little obscure but it would seem to just reduce lifetime benefits for disabled workers for a net addition of .35% of payroll. For a total combination of 1.52%. I don’t really get provision 5 but it would give you an additional .65% of payroll for a new total of guaranteeed tax increases and benefit cuts of 2.17 of payroll. Which is to say .47% more than would be needed to simply fix the program as is.

Now Warshawsky sweetens the plan by reducing payroll tax by 1.0% (presumedly translating to a increase in worker pay of .5%) but offsets that with a new transfer from the General Fund of .5%. Now given the different incidence of Income tax and FICA this means a lower income worker would benefit more by the reduction of FICA by .5% from his first dollar than he would from some theoretical increase in income tax to fund that transfer from the GF. But enough to offset the guaranteed increases proposed?

No one really doubts that you could close the proposed 1.7% gap by some combination of tax increases and benefit cuts and Warshawsky’s plan does that up front. But in this scheme where do PRAs come in?

Answer under the fold.

This is where the water gets deep. The proposed FICA tax cuts in provisions 1 & 2 total 1.26% of payroll. Hurrah for workers! But the guaranteed cuts in benefits in provisions 3 to 8 equate to 2.17% of payroll. Which means workers are .91% behind right from the get go. Plus you add in whatever their share of that additional .5% of GF transfer. Then you get the whopper, Warshawsky proposes to change the benefits for everyone by an ADDITIONAL 1.46% of payroll under provision 9, meaning the worker is guaranteed a combination of 2.37% plus of average cuts in the face of a gap now scored at 1.7%. But wait, some of that money was steered into private accounts, surely most people will make up the gap from the equity premium. Won’t they?

Well maybe. If the economy grows at a rate that allows for assumed returns and if you are willing to take higher levels of risk some people after 2029 or so get a better deal overall. But not everybody and not anything is guaranteed. The actuaries put it this way

The personal account annuity replaces the smallest portion of the reduction in the scheduled benefit for the married couple with only one earner. The annuity would fall somewhat short of covering the PIA reduction for one-earner couples retiring at 65 in about 2030 or earlier. For single workers and two-earner couples retiring after 2039 with low career earnings, however, this approach would generally be expected to provide an overall increase in retirement income.

Translation: Boomers and most Gen-Xers get less net than they would be leaving the system alone.

This is by no means a complete analysis of the plan, more like a skim, and for those with the chops I encourage you to dig in. But I just don’t see how the average worker really benefits under this plan given the risk involved. The benefit cuts are guaranteed, the gains from the PRAs are contingent. Plus we haven’t even examined the NELB component, can they really get these projected PRA yields at Intermediate Cost assumptions?