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The basic idea of Social Security is simple. Started during the Great Depression, it was devised to help all Americans prepare for their later years, particularly older people who had little chance of helping themselves.
The program takes in money from workers and their employers through payroll taxes and then pays most of it out to beneficiaries. It is called a pay-as-you-go or pass-through program because most of the money that comes in goes right back out again. It is also called an intergenerational transfer program because, in the main, the younger, working generation transfers money to the older, retired generation.
Social Security really includes two programs, Old-Age and Survivors Insurance (OASI) and Disability Insurance (DI). OASI pays monthly benefits to retired workers, their families, and survivors of deceased workers. DI pays monthly benefits to disabled workers and their families. About 85 percent of all Social Security benefits are paid by the OASI program. In this book, we will treat the two programs as one (OASDI).
America's Aging Population and the Social Security Problem
Today, there are about 35 million people over age 65. By 2030, that number is expected to double.
Americans today are living longer. As stated in the American Academy of Actuaries' Public Policy Monograph No. 1, 1998, "Financing the Retirement of Future Generations,"
When Social Security began paying benefits in 1940, only about half of 21-year-old men could expect to reach 65 to collect benefits, and those who did could expect to collect benefits for 12 years. By 1990, nearly 75 percent of them could expect to reach 65 and collect benefits for 15 years. These trends are expected to continue at least until the middle of the 21st century. At that time, an expected 83 percent of 21-year-old men will reach 65, and they can expect to live another 18 years.
Figure 1-1, which is based on Census Bureau projections, shows how the percentage of people age 65 and over is expected to increase in relation to those ages 20 to 64. This trend will have important effects on the economy, society, and the country as a whole for decades.
Table 1-1 shows the same picture in more detail. Bands of shading show five major population groups as they advance in age from the year 2000 to 2035. The group shown in the darkest band includes the baby boomers, who were born during the years 1946 through 1964.
The table is divided into three large sections for those ages 65 and older, which includes retirees; those ages 20 to 64, which includes most workers; and those under age 20, or the young. Obviously, some people's lives don't fall neatly into these groups. Many college students are in the working-age group, some people retire before they turn 65, and others work well beyond that age.
The dark band that contains the baby boomers shows how the number of people in the 65 and over age range will grow as the boomers age. The public discussion of the Social Security problem and how to fix it is a direct result of this demographic trend.
As members of the younger groups age, their numbers are projected to increase. This is due to anticipated immigration.
The summary under the body of the table shows that from the years 2000 to 2035:
* The total resident population of the country (all ages) is projected to grow from 274.6 million to 358.5 million, or by 83.9 million people (30.6 percent).
* The number of people ages 20 to 64 is projected to grow from 161.2 million to 189.3 million, or by 28.1 million people (17.4 percent).
* The older population of people ages 65 and over is projected to increase from 34.7 million to 73.4 million, or by 38.7 million people (111.5 percent).
* The combined effect of these increases in the population groups will be that the percentage of adults over age 20 who are 65 and over will rise from 17.7 percent to 27.9 percent. (See again Figure 1-1.)
Census Bureau projections are affected by changing immigration rates and mortality rates, and they will be revised by the 2000 census.
Nevertheless, the estimates of the number of people who will be 65 and over by 2035 are quite reliable because all of these people are alive today. The estimates for the people who will be born after 2000 (shown at the lower right of the figure) are more tentative.
The Social Security problem is that more people are living longer and expecting to receive retirement benefits during their additional years that will have to be paid by relatively fewer workers.
Now that we have a feel for how the population is expected to age, we can see how the aging population will affect Social Security. Today, retirees are receiving Social Security benefits from taxes that are being paid by the large number of working baby boomers, so the program seems OK. But this situation is not expected to continue.
Every year, the Social Security Administration publishes three projections of how the program may operate for the next seventy-five years. Figure 1-2 is based on the year 2000 intermediate, or most likely, projection. The double bars show how the number of Social Security beneficiaries (short bars) will increase at a faster rate than the number of contributing workers (tall bars). (To clarify, it should be noted that by workers' contributions we are referring to the payroll taxes that workers and their employers pay.)
Figure 1-3 depicts graphically how the number of contributing workers will decline in relation to the number of beneficiaries.
Table 1-2 provides the numbers on which Figures 1-2 and 1-3 are based. The right-hand column shows that, on average, the Social Security payments to each beneficiary in the year 2000 come from the contributions of 3.4 workers. But because the number of beneficiaries is expected to increase faster than the number of contributing workers, there are expected to be only 2.1 workers per beneficiary by 2030, when the last of the baby boomers reach age 65.
Some observers have likened the baby boom generation to a pig in a python. That was the image that came to mind when schools had to be opened for the boomers and then closed once they graduated. The python analogy is not valid for Social Security, however, because boomers will affect it differently. According to the projection shown in Table 1-2, as they pass through their mid-sixties, between the years 2010 and 2030, the number of workers per beneficiary will decrease rapidly.
But unlike the schools that had to be closed after they graduated, the workers-to-beneficiaries ratio will not return to what it was before the boomers passed through; that is, it is not expected to go back up. This is because most younger people who are following the boomers are also expected to live long lives. As far as anybody can see, longer life spans are here to stay. Thus, for Social Security, the boomers are more like a step up to a higher plateau of operations than a passing blip on a radar screen.
Baby boomers did not cause the Social Security problem. Rather, it was caused by people living longer than they did when the program was established in the 1930s and expecting to spend their additional years in retirement. Indeed, the problem could even have occurred if birth rates had remained stable and there had not been a baby boom.
After Social Security established the idea of retiring at 65, it was used as a precedent for thousands of labor contracts and retirement plans. As people who were born during the 1930s and early 1940s started living longer because of improved health care and lifestyles, many of them retired or will retire in their mid-sixties. Boomers will defer the problem as long as they continue working, but they will make it arrive quickly if they too retire in their mid-sixties and expect to spend many years receiving benefits.
The Financial Aspect of the Social Security Problem
In financial terms, the problem will occur when baby boomers, who are pouring record amounts of money into the program through payroll taxes, stop contributing and start receiving benefits. Anyone who has an income from a salary or wages, has savings that earn interest, and pays living expenses can understand how the program works. In a year when there is more income than expenses, there is a surplus to add to the savings. If the expenses are greater than the income, there is a deficit and the savings go down. That's how Social Security's finances work. In this case, the accumulated savings are called the trust fund.
Figure 1-4 is based on the year 2000 Social Security report and provides a quick glimpse of what can happen from 2000 through 2035. The bars show the number of contributing workers per beneficiary. The curving line shows how the balance of the Social Security trust fund is expected to peak and then decline.
Table 1-3 provides more detail on the financial ramifications. It shows annual projections for every fifth year. The annual surplus (deficit) column shows the Social Security problem.
The largest annual surplus is projected to occur between 2010 and 2015. By 2015, when boomers are expected to begin shifting from contributors to beneficiaries, the annual surplus will start to decline. Then, by about 2025, the outgo will start to exceed the total income, there will be an annual deficit, and the trust fund balance will start to decline.
The trust fund is projected to be fully depleted by 2037. The dates when events like the depletion are projected to occur change a little every time that Social Security updates its figures. For example, the 1999 projection indicated the trust fund would be depleted in 2034. The 2000 projection pushed depletion back to 2037. This was heralded by some as showing that the problem had become less serious.
But the pattern is consistent. Under current law, the program is expected to take in more than it pays out until sometime in the twenties, then change and pay out more than it takes in. Regardless of when it happens, that change will be the most important event. The annual deficits are expected to continue through 2075, or as long as Social Security makes its projections. The projections show that the problem can't be expected to just go away.
When the program was created it was known that annual income and benefit payments could not be projected accurately, so a reserve for contingencies was set up to handle the difference. That reserve was called the trust fund. But the term has turned out to be misleading. It implies more durability than is really there. At its projected peak near 2025, the trust fund will have only enough money to pay benefits for about three years.
But despite the claims or fears of some, Social Security will not just go broke and quit. It could still limp along even if it is not changed and the trust fund balance runs out completely. Based on the year 2000 projection, in 2037 the total income would still be sufficient to cover about 72 percent of its annual payments.
As noted, nobody can predict the exact date when Social Security will shift from surplus to deficit. Each year, the program uses different assumptions for the Gross Domestic Product (GDP), inflation and interest rates, the unemployment rate, growth of the labor force, and other factors to make its projections. The data in Table 1-3 are from the intermediate, or most likely, projection made in 2000. The low cost projection made that year indicated that there wouldn't be a problem because the outgo would not exceed the income for the next seventy-five years. In contrast, the high cost projection showed that the trust funds would be fully depleted by 2025.
Social Security and the Federal Budget
The federal budget has two main parts or subbudgets—the operating budget and Social Security. Either can have an annual surplus or deficit.
Imagine for a minute that the Social Security trust fund was your own money. If you earned more than you spent, you could protect some of your savings by buying government bonds. This is what many pension plans do with some of their funds, and it is what Social Security is required by law to do with its annual surpluses.
If the operating budget has a deficit when Social Security buys bonds, the program's purchases help offset the operating deficit and so the combined budget deficit is reduced. This happened during the latter part of the twentieth century, when the operating budget had deep deficits and the trust fund was being built up, supposedly to have boomers pay for their own retirements. If the net of the two subbudgets is a surplus, then the federal budget has a surplus; this is what appeared to be the case in early 2000.
The important question is what will happen when boomers retire, the ratio of workers to beneficiaries declines, and the bonds in the trust fund must be cashed in. Table 1-3 shows that in the single year 2030—when the youngest of the boomers will start to retire—Social Security will have to cash in bonds worth $368.4 billion to get money to pay its beneficiaries (in current dollars). Where will the Treasury get the money to pay for the bonds?
There are four possible sources for this money.
* Social Security payroll taxes on workers and their employers can be increased.
* Operating programs like defense and disaster relief can be reduced to transfer money from the operating budget to Social Security.
* General taxes (other than Social Security) and user fees can be increased.
* The Treasury can sell bonds to the public.
Now, consider how each of those sources will work.
* If Social Security payroll taxes are increased, the cost of retirement benefits will become a direct levy on workers.
* If operating programs are cut while general taxes and user fees are maintained, those who pay the taxes and fees will pay for the retirement benefits. Because most taxes and fees come directly or indirectly from those who are working, workers will pay for the benefits that are provided to retired older people.
* Similarly, if general taxes and fees are increased to pay the retirement benefits, they will largely be paid by workers.
* Finally, if the Treasury sells bonds, the primary domestic buyers will have to be people with disposable incomes, who are, of course, once again workers. (The reason why foreign buyers may not fill the gap will be explained in the next chapter.)
All four alternatives will have the same result. In each case, workers will have to pay more to provide benefits to retirees, and Social Security will remain a pay-as-you-go, pass-through, intergenerational transfer program.
Stocks and Social Security
There have been proposals to privatize Social Security by using some or all of the money that is flowing into it to buy corporate stocks. The reasons that are offered for doing this include the following:
* Stocks have historically produced higher returns than bonds.
* The country should encourage long-term investments in its wealth-creating private sector.
* Using retirement savings to buy stocks would be a step toward severing connections between Social Security and the government's operating budget. Some see this as a desirable step toward reducing the role of government.
* Some believe that government assistance to retirees should be replaced with retirement plans that would operate entirely in the private sector.
Excerpted from WHAT IF BOOMERS CAN'T RETIRE? by Thornton Parker Copyright © 2002 by Thornton Parker. Excerpted by permission of Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Posted May 17, 2006
Unusual and upsetting This book¿s message is both unusual and upsetting. Author Thornton Parker questions conventional wisdom about financial planning for retirement. He draws on his varied background - including jobs in government and private sector financial planning - and discusses the influence that baby boomer retirement investments have on the stock market. He examines how the stock market creates wealth, why stock prices get inflated and who benefits. Contrary to what most experts in the investment, retirement and mutual fund industries tell their clients, Parker believes the 'phantom wealth' that boomers have accumulated with their stock market investments is a time bomb. He suggests some changes, but given the greed and power he detects behind the creation of phantom wealth, his voice is probably not loud enough to make a difference. If his scenario unfolds, retirement certainly will not mean golden years for aging boomers. We recommend a look at Parker¿s proposals to investment advisers, HR professionals and people planning their retirement. If he¿s right, ignoring his warnings could lead to a distorted economy and increased income gaps between rich and poor.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted May 20, 2001
I have read no better book concerning issues about retirement costs for Americans born between 1946 and 1964. Although too limited analytically in some areas, many valuable observations are made that will stimulate your thinking. This book should become the basis for a thoughtful national discussion, and much personal introspection. This book points out a key limitation of many investing books. Those often assume that future stock-price growth will be like the past. A thoughtful exeption to that conventional wisdom is provided by Harry S. Dent, Jr. who projects two extended downturns as the average age in the United States increases, resulting in abrupt shifts in consumption and savings. Mr. Parker intelligently uses that forcast to considre its consequences, while Mr. Dent continues to focus on the likely bull market through 2008. The key argument in this book (as documented by Mr. Dent's work and Mr. Parker's analysis) is that stocks are a dangerous way to fund your retirement unless you sell them all out long before 2008. Earnings growth of larger companies is probably going to slow in the subsequent decades and stock-price multiples will plunge. The book also contains many thoughtful analyses about the focus on creating ever higher stock-price multiples that are encouraged by such ideas as EVA (tm). This creates 'phantom' stock-price-based profits that cannot be used or spent by most people, and which will eventually evaporate in the scenario described here. Seeking higher cash flow returns is certainly not the only way to add value to a company, a community, and to a society. The book argues for refocusing economic activity on providing more employment, more sustainable profits, greater social and community benefits, and services that seniors will need. The book argues that savings be funneled into smaller, newer companies that will not receive standard venture capital funding. The author opposes having any of Social Security funds be invested in publicly- traded stocks. The primary scenario considered is one whereby the next generation cannot and will not pay more than a certain amount to fund retirement for seniors. The ratio of employed-to-retired is now about 3.4 and will drop to about 2.1 around 2030 (when Social Security payments to the government will no longer cover expected pension payouts). Some seniors will have to get by on smaller pensions, and many will see their savings either be too small or shrink in value as stock price multiples decline. There will be a lot of unemployed and needy seniors, as a result. How will they survive? Mr. Parker thinks about society in systems terms (see The Fifth Discipline by Peter Senge). The greying of America has many more consequences than just for Social Security. But most of the discussion to date has focused on that area. Where, for example, will we get enough nurses and other health care workers? I suspect that we are about to enter a period when it will make a great deal of sense to open the doors much wider for immigration by well-educated people in areas where we have and will have major shortages of talent. I think that Mr. Parker misses some important points that could improve the situation. For example, we currently have a booming economy that is short of skilled workers. Seniors are being recruited back into employment by many companies, and more could be done. When Social Security was established in the 1930s, few workers lived beyond 65. The program was designed to just take care of the few who did. If the current program were like the original program, the initial age to draw a pension would be well into the 70s. By 2030, it might be into the 80s. Obviously, for those who are ill or unable to work, benefits should be available sooner. Second, population growth is still very rapid outside of the developed world. So there will be plenty of people to buy goods and services, and sustain stock-price growth in those economies. You mWas this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.