No Runny Eggs

The repository of one hard-boiled egg from the south suburbs of Milwaukee, Wisconsin (and the occassional guest-blogger). The ramblings within may or may not offend, shock and awe you, but they are what I (or my guest-bloggers) think.

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Would the “lockbox” have worked?

by @ 18:57 on March 15, 2010. Filed under Social Security crater.

The Associated Press praised the AlGore “lockbox” in its story discussed earlier, and Glenn Reynolds and Andy McCarthy asked where the “lockbox” was, so I figure it’s time to explore what creating said “lockbox” would do for the current cash-negative situation. The very-short version is that while there would be actual money in the “Trust Funds” to pay for the cash shortfall, which still would exist at the same level with or without the “lockbox”, that same money would have already needed to be borrowed on the open Treasury securities market. The longer version is a bit lengthier.

First, let’s take a look at Social Security as it was at the end of January 2001. The Old-Age and Survivors Insurance (OASI) Fund was “worth” $945 billion, with the weighted average interest of the securities held at 6.640% and the average time to maturity at 6.914 years (note; while most of those securities have since matured and been rolled over into new securities, some of those securities don’t mature until 2015). The Disability Insurance (DI) Fund was “worth” $121 billion, with the weighted average interest of the securities held (which included some since-retired public-issue debt) of 6.426% and average time to maturity at 6.828 years.

Since then, the OASI Fund has taken in $630 billion more in cash than it has paid out (i.e. primary surplus) with $776 billion in interest credited to it, giving it a “value” of $2,350 billion. Meanwhile, the DI Fund has had a primary deficit of $10 billion with $93 billion in interest credited to it, giving it a “value” of $203 billion. Between February 2009 and January 2010, the OASI Fund has had a primary surplus of $23,504 billion (down from a $71,637 billion primary deficit between 2/2008 and 1/2009) with $107.901 billion in interest credited to it, while the DI Fund has had a primary deficit of $23.611 billion (up from $10,687 billion primary deficit between 2/2008 and 1/2009) with $10.467 billion in interest credited to it. Signifcantly, that’s an overall 12-month deficit of $13.144 billion for the DI fund.

Now, let’s try to define the “lockbox”. There’s actually several different flavors possible, involving what gets put into the “lockbox” (just the taxes received after creation, the “new” taxes and interest, the entirety of the “Trust Funds” immediately upon creation, the values of the various securities as they mature), and on what interest gets paid (just those items in the “legacy Trust Fund”, everything). Some of those scenarios are beyond my ability to model, so I’ll just take four of the relatively-easy-to-model scenarios, while noting that while economically it makes no sense to credit interest to funds in the “lockbox”, it would also be political suicide even as it would require cash that the Treasury doesn’t have.

First, I’ll take just “future revenues” locked away, with no interest credited to them, and the current “legacy Trust Funds” along with interest credited to them rolled over into fresh Treasury securities as they are now. I’m likely overestimating the interest that would have been credited to the “legacy Trust Funds”, which would get put right back into the Treasury as it is now, but it’s close enough for government work. The “lockbox” amounts would have been the 9-year amounts listed above (+$630 billion for OASI, -$10 billion for DI). That’s right – that DI “lockbox” would have been emptied by this point. Meanwhile, the “legacy funds” would have been about $1,520 billion for OASI and $179 billion for DI, bringing the total nominal OASI fund amount to about $2,150 billion. That would have moved up the fund-exhaustion dates by a couple years. Assuming nothing in the budget would have been cut, the 9-year deficit spending would have increased by $640 billion, or an average of about $71 billion per year.

Next, I’ll add the interest earned by the “legacy funds” to the lockbox as cash. Since it no longer would have compounded, that interest would have been a bit less than in the first option, or about $470 billion for OASI and about $57 billion for DI. However, since it would have been added to the “lockbox”, both OASI and DI “lockboxes” would have been in positive territory (+$1,100 billion for OASI, +$47 billion for DI). However, since the “legacy funds” would have remained at the January 2001 levels, that would have left the total nominal funds at $2,050 billion for OASI and $177 billion for DI. Again, that would have meant the funds would be a bit closer to exhaustion, and it would have increased the 9-year deficit spending by $1,157 billion (or roughly $129 billion per year).

Third, I’ll look at the full-on “lockbox”, immediately liquidating the entirety of the “Trust Funds”, putting everything in the “lockbox”, and foregoing all future interest payments. Because interest earned in January 2001 would have been paid out, the total amount going into the “lockbox”, would have been about $956 billion for OASI and $122 billion for DI. That would have created a rather massive deficit for 2001, as to create that “lockbox”, the federal government would have needed to come up with $1,078 billion. With only primary surpluses and deficits affecting the “lockbox”, that would have left the balances at $1,586 billion for OASI and $112 billion for DI. That would have really cut into the lifetime of the funds, but they would at least have been fully-funded until exhaustion. Further, the 9-year deficit spending would have further increased by the same $640 billion as the first scenario.

Finally, I’ll take that full-out “lockbox” in scenario three, but still credit the interest. As I noted above, while it would fly politically, it would make no sense economically, as the Treasury, and by extension, we the taxpayers, would be paying for the use of money that we wouldn’t be able to use. The only difference between that scenario and the current scenario is that instead of $2,554 billion in unfunded IOUs, there would be $2,554 billion in cash. Of course, that would also mean the 9-year deficit spending increase would have been that same $2,554 billion.

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