The 2012 Social Security trustees report in a nutshell

According to the trustees report released today, the 2012 Social Security surplus is projected at $57.3 billion in 2012. Social Security will continue to run a surplus through the end of the decade. As a result, the trust fund will grow from $2.74 trillion in 2012 to a peak of $3.06 trillion in 2020 (Table VI.F8 on p. 206).

Social Security is now running a “cash-flow deficit,” which means it is running a deficit if you exclude the $110.4 billion Social Security is earning in interest on trust fund assets (Table VI.F8 on p. 206). Social Security will begin running a deficit as it is commonly understood in 2021, when it begins drawing down the trust fund to help pay for the Baby Boomer retirement. This is perfectly natural: the trust fund was never supposed to grow indefinitely, but was meant to provide a cushion to help pay for the retirement of the large Baby Boom generation. That said, the Great Recession and weak recovery pushed up the date that Social Security will first begin to tap the trust fund to help pay for benefits.

If nothing is done to shore up the system’s finances, the trust fund will be exhausted in 2033, three years earlier than projected in last year’s report (p.3). When the trust fund is exhausted, current revenues will still be sufficient to pay 75 percent of promised benefits (p. 11). Even in this worst-case scenario, future benefits will be higher than current benefits in inflation-adjusted terms, but because wages are projected to rise over time, these benefit levels will replace a shrinking share of pre-retirement income.

The projected shortfall over the next 75 years is 2.67 percent of taxable payroll (0.96 percent of GDP). This is 0.44 percentage points larger than in last year’s report (p. 4 and Table VI.F4 on p. 197). Slightly more than one-tenth of the deterioration (0.5 percentage points) is due to the changing valuation period, and the rest is due to updated data and near-term projections and changes in longer-term assumptions.

The single biggest factor is the weak economic recovery, which has a significant impact on the short-term outlook (slower growth in average earnings, low interest rates, and high unemployment). The short-term outlook is notably more pessimistic than either the Congressional Budget Office or many business economists forecast, assuming that unemployment will remain above 8.9 percent in 2012 and above 8.0 percent through 2014 (see Table V.B2 on p. 105). The weak economy is also to blame for short-term drops in birth and immigration rates, which have longer-term demographic repercussions.

Other changes appear unrelated to the weak economy, notably an assumption that average hours worked will decline by 0.05 percent per year (no decline was projected in last year’s report). This is explained as due to an aging workforce as well as “historical data and trends.”

Changes since last year’s report Change in 75-year balance
(% of taxable payroll)
(1) Change in valuation period: -0.05 ppts.
(2) Change in short-term economic projections due to weak recovery and higher-than-anticipated cost-of-living adjustment: -0.14 ppts.
(3) Changes in demographic assumptions: -0.05 ppts.
(4) Assumption that average hours worked will decline: -0.07 ppts.
(5) Increase in projected disability rates: -0.04 ppts.
(6) Changes in various methodological assumptions: -0.08 ppts
Total after rounding: -0.44 ppts