Tuesday, October 26, 2010

CBO releases new Social Security projections

The Congressional Budget Office has released new projections for the Social Security program's long-term finances. Here's how CBO summarizes the current situation:

In calendar year 2010, Social Security's outlays will exceed tax revenues (that is, the trust funds' receipts excluding interest) for the first time since the enactment of the Social Security Amendments of 1983. Over the next few years, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) projects, the program's tax revenues will be approximately equal to its outlays. However, as more of the baby-boom generation (that is, people born between 1946 and 1964) enters retirement, outlays will increase relative to the size of the economy, whereas tax revenues will remain at an almost constant share of the economy. Starting in 2016, CBO projects, outlays as scheduled under current law will regularly exceed tax revenues.

Looking at the longer term, here's a chart showing possible paths for Social Security's net cash flow – that is, its tax income minus the benefits the program owes. The middle line is CBO's "best guess," while the upper and lower lines represents what CBO thinks could happen in the 10th and 90th percentiles of a distribution of possible outcomes. In other words, there's around a 10 percent chance that Social Security's cash flows could be better than the upper line and a 10 percent chance they'll be worse than the lower line. (For what it's worth, this approach is FAR better than the "low cost" and "high cost" scenarios used by SSA, since it assigns a probability to different outcomes rather than rather arbitrarily calling them "low" and "high.")

So while there's around a 10 percent chance that long-term deficits won't be so bad, there's also a 10 percent chance they'll be really bad – think 2.5 percent of GDP as of 2050. Most people would want to insure against the really bad outcomes by fixing the program today. If we end up with a really good outcome we can give everyone a tax cut or a benefit increase, which is better than having to give everyone a sudden tax increase or benefit cut if things turn out badly.

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