The Trust Fund Con

Social Security is in trouble. According to the Social Security Trustees Report, the Social Security program was in a $7.7 trillion hole as of January 1, 2009. That means Washington would have needed $7.7 trillion on that date, invested at prevailing rates, to deliver for the next seventy-five-years on the promises that the federal government has made. But we actually need much more than that to keep Social Security healthy, because it will experience larger and larger deficits both in the near future and beyond the seventy-five-year accounting horizon. As of January 1, 2009, that number – the amount we would need to invest to ensure the sustainability of the program for seventy-five years and beyond – was $15.1 trillion. How much of this huge sum do we have invested in real liquid and transferable assets today – that is, how much in actual money? Zero, zip, cero, nada, nothing!

The truth is that the government’s Social Security guarantee is one huge unfunded promise. How can this be? I have mentioned the Social Security “trust funds,” where our payroll taxes go. All this money is transmitted to the federal government and credited to the Social Security trust funds. You would logically assume that these funds would have hard assets that have been saved and invested to cover the program’s future costs. However, rather than saving the money and investing it in a diversified pool of real and readily marketable assets, the government spends it and provides “special-issue” government securities in return.

Just consider what actually goes into those funds. First there are the numbers reported in government financial statements. According to those numbers, Washington had issued approximately $2.4 trillion in special-issue US government securities that had been credited to the Social Security trust fund as of January 1, 2009. The computer records documenting these securities are held in a locked file cabinet in West Virginia. But there is a reason they are called special-issue securities, and it’s not good. Unlike regular government bonds, which people like us and the Chinese government can buy, these special-issue bonds cannot be sold; in other words, they are government IOUs that the government has issued to itself, to be paid back later – with interest. Imagine if you or I could sit around writing IOUs to ourselves that were worth something. Great way to make a living.

Washington says that we can count on these bonds because they are backed by the full faith and credit of the United States government, which guarantees both principal and interest. But – believe it or not – under current federal accounting principles, the government does not consider these bonds to be liabilities – which is another way of saying the government doesn’t really think that it’s our money.

Think about that for a minute. If you or I lend the government money by buying a bond, the government has to pay us back with interest. In other words, that bond is a government liability. But when it comes to the Social Security trust funds, the government is saying the special-issue securities it deposits are not a liability – in other words, they’re basically worth nothing at all. Now get this: The trust funds report these securities as assets on the annual reports that they provide to the public. Does that sound like wanting to have your cake and eat it too? Con artists of the world, I hope you’re taking notes.

In my view, these bonds should be treated as liabilities, and their value should be counted as part of our debt-to-GDP ratio. After all, they are backed by the full faith and credit of the federal government, and I do not believe the federal government will default on them.

Under the current scheme, the Social Security program has been running large surpluses since the reforms of 1983. But in actuality, Washington has spent those surpluses every year on other government activities. That is one way the government can reduce its public borrowing and keep interest rates down.

To say the least, the federal government’s accounting for these funds understates both its total liabilities and its annual operating deficits. That brings us to another clever bit of Washington wordsmithing: the “unified deficit.” In public reporting, the government takes the real operating deficit, $638 billion in fiscal 2008, and subtracts the nonexistent amount credited to the Social Security trust funds, $183 billion in fiscal 2008. This “unified” figure – $455 billion – makes the federal budget deficit seem smaller than it actually is. And they have been doing this for many years.

These accounting tricks would never be allowed in the real world, where trust funds are subject to stringent accounting rules and fiduciary standards. In essence, Washington is playing a massive con game – collecting your Social Security taxes, spending that money for its own purposes, and accounting for it in trust funds that are largely a fiction. A more proper description would be “trust-the-government funds.” Or as my boss, Pete Peterson, would say, “You can’t trust them, and they aren’t funded.” Just another example of how words used in Washington don’t have the same meaning they have in Webster’s dictionary.

Don’t worry, the reforms of the 1980s are still keeping the system above water. Monthly benefits should be paid in full for at least another three decades. However, the Social Security program will begin to pay out more than it takes in much sooner than that. The retirement and survivors income program expects its payments to exceed its revenues in 2010 and 2011. That will happen because revenue has declined during the recession –while at the same time, more people are retiring. When the federal government has to start cashing in the special-issue securities in the trust funds in order to pay benefits, it will have to raise taxes, cut benefits, and/or sell real bonds to the public in order to raise real money for retirees receiving benefits. If the government issues more public debt – in part to attract more foreign investors – that will likely increase our foreign dependency.


David Walker
for The Daily Reckoning

The Daily Reckoning