Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Obama budget on the Social Security trust fund: “Only in a bookkeeping sense.”

Interestingly, the Obama administration's budget made only minor changes to language used in previous budgets to describe the Social Security and other trust funds.

These balances are available for future benefit payments and other trust fund expenditures, but only in a bookkeeping sense. The holdings of the trust funds are not assets of the Government as a whole that can be drawn down in the future to fund benefits. Instead, they are claims on the Treasury. From a cash perspective, when trust fund holdings are redeemed to authorize the payment of benefits, the Department of the Treasury finances the expenditure in the same way as any other Federal expenditure—by using current receipts or by borrowing from the public. The existence of large trust fund balances, therefore, does not, by itself, increase the Government's ability to pay benefits. Put differently, these trust fund balances are assets of the program agencies and corresponding liabilities of the Treasury, netting to zero for the Government as a whole.

From an economic standpoint, the Government is able to prefund benefits only by increasing saving and investment in the economy as a whole. This can be fully accomplished only by simultaneously running trust fund surpluses equal to the actuarial present value of the accumulating benefits while maintaining an unchanged Federal fund deficit, so that the trust fund surplus reduces the unified budget deficit or increases the unified budget surplus. This would reduce Federal borrowing by the amount of the trust funds surplus and increase the amount of national saving available to finance investment. As long as the increase in Government saving is not offset by a reduction in private saving, greater investment would increase future national income, which would yield greater tax revenue to support the benefits.

See page 345 of the analytical perspectives volume of the budget.

No comments: