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Social Security: Solvency, (Unfunded) Liability, Debt & Crisis (Part One)

By law the Annual Social Security Report is due by April 1. But as in every year for the last decade this deadline was missed and of course without explanation or excuse, leaving Social Security hobbyists like me whimpering. Luckily there are not a lot of SocSec fanboys and fangirls. It might be a club of half a dozen. Anyway—–.

So while I wait for my annual fix of Tables and Figures I want to return again to the very odd and counterintuitive relations between Social Security and Public Debt. Because it turns out that little is what it seems to be, at least if you use ordinary language. For example what does it mean to say that Social Security is ‘solvent’? Well one definition would be ‘healthy and able to pay out all scheduled benefits for the conceivable future’ and that is true enough. But what does that look like in relation to the rest of Federal finance and debt?

‘Solvency’ in Social Security terms has a number of metrics: ‘sustainable solvency’, ‘short term actuarial balance’, ‘long term actuarial balance’, ‘actuarial balance over the infinite future horizon’ but all draw on the same basic concept. Social Security is ‘solvent’ in any given year if it has cash convertible assets in its Trust Fund equal to one year of projected next year cost. This is called the Trust Fund Ratio and is expressed simply enough as 100% = TF Ratio of 100. If the TF Ratio dips below 100 Social Security can be called ‘insolvent’ and indeed according the the various metrics referenced above if it is projected to go below 100 in any year of a set of future years it could also be deemed ‘insolvent’. And this true even if the reserve was such that full benefits could be paid out for years after that point of ‘insolvency’. Which explains why Social Security can have $2.8 trillion in the ‘bank’ and be projected to be able to pay full benefits until 2034 and still be considered a ‘crisis’ that needs immediate attention. But putting that last aside for now lets get back to the nuts, bolts and accounting. Under the fold.

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