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Sunday, February 10, 2013

The Coming Raid on Social Security: CBO



Every politician in America knows that Social Security (SS) is a third rail. Any Pol who tries to mess with the country's largest and most popular entitlement program is going to have the likes of the AARP coming after them. It's not possible to win an election on a platform that advocates cutting back SS.


With that in mind, I find it interesting to report that a very credible source is now predicting that Obama AND Congress will take action over the next 24 months that will substantially undermine both the long and short-term health of SS. The legislative raid on SS will certainly total in the hundreds of billions, it could top $1T over the next fifteen years.

So who is this "credible source"? And just how is this raid going to happen? The source of this information is the Congressional Budget Office (CBO); the following is how it will play out:

SS consists of two different pieces. The Old Age and Survivors Insurance (OASI) and Disability Insurance (DI). Both entities have their own Trust Funds (TF). OASI has a big TF that will, in theory, allow for SS retirement benefits to be paid for another 15+ years. On the other hand, the DI fund will run completely dry during the 1stQ of 2016. By current law, the DI benefits must be cut across-the-board by 30% on the day that the DI TF is exhausted.

This would mean that 11 million people (most of whom are very sick) would get slammed from one day to the next. There is no one in D.C. who wants this to happen. I don't think the American public wants this outcome either. So what are the fixes?



1) Increase income taxes on +$250k of income to pay for the DI shortfall. Maybe, but this will not happen with the current Republican controlled House.
2) Increase Payroll taxes to cover the DI shortfall. I see zero political support for a permanent Payroll tax increase.
3) Cut benefits by 30%. This would be insane - it will not happen with Obama running the show.
4) Kick the can down the road and raid the OASI TF for the annual shortfalls at DI.

Of course #4 is the path that will be taken. #s 1, 2 and 3 are not politically feasible. I have been wondering what will happen with the DI conundrum. I was surprised to see that the CBO spelled out what will happen in its report on the Budget and Economy - SS Trust Funds. The report has this footnote:

CBO projects that the DI trust fund will be exhausted during fiscal year 2016. Under current law, the Commissioner of Social Security may not pay benefits in excess of the available balances in a trust fund, borrow money for a trust fund, or transfer money from one trust fund to another. However, following rules in the Deficit Control Act of 1985 (section 257(b)), CBO's baseline assumes that the Commissioner will pay DI benefits in full even after the trust fund is exhausted.
The "loophole" to drain the OASI insurance is already law - so Congress doesn't have to do anything to raid the retirement fund. The "do nothing" plan is always the best option in D.C.

The footnote goes on to provide an estimate for the size of the raid:

For illustrative purposes, below are the cumulative shortfalls in the DI trust fund beginning in 2016. Those shortfalls do not include interest expenses.
DI Trust Fund Cumulative Shortfall
($s in Billions)
2016 -15
2017 -55
2018 -94
2019 -133
2020 -173
2021 -215
2022 -260
2023 -307

Wow! At this rate the raid tops $1T in 2029. This is is a big dent in a Trust Fund of $2.8T.

There is an import "tell" from the CBO. In the footnotes it highlights the fact that there is a discrepancy, and uses this an excuse to avoid establishing an adjusted end date for the OASI Trust Fund. (It's not a complicated calculation)  Read more> Zero Hedge