IDEAS home Printed from https://ideas.repec.org/p/nbr/nberwo/9845.html
   My bibliography  Save this paper

Is the Social Security Trust Fund Worth Anything?

Author

Listed:
  • Kent Smetters

Abstract

With over $1 trillion in assets, the U.S. Social Security trust fund is the largest pension reserve in the world, and potentially a model for other developed countries facing future financing problems. But are those assets actually worth anything?' This question has generated a heated debate in the U.S. as policymakers debate options for Social Security reform, with the understanding that the characterization of the trust fund influences these decisions. Some observers claim that the trust fund is not worth anything while others argue that it is valuable. However, different reasons are given for the same position. This paper provides a unified conceptual framework for thinking rigorously about the assets accumulated in the trust fund. Multiple perspectives of the trust fund are identified and are summarized under two categories: (I) storage technology arguments and (II) ownership arguments. Storage technology arguments focuses on whether the trust fund surpluses actually reduce the level of debt held by the public or, alternatively, are used to hide' smaller on-budget surpluses. Ownership arguments focus on property rights, i.e., how trust fund credits should be allocated regardless of whether they reduce the debt held by the public. Only the storage technology argument can be empirically tested, as we do herein. We find that there is no empirical evidence supporting the claim that trust fund assets have reduced the level of debt held by the public. In fact, the evidence suggests just the opposite: trust fund assets have probably increased the level of debt held by the public. Moreover, the adoption of a unified budget' framework in the late 1960s appears to play a statistically significant role in this result. We show how this counterintuitive result can be explained by a simple split the dollar game' where competition between two political parties exploits the ignorance of voters who don't understand that the government's reported budget surplus actually includes the off-budget' Social Security surplus. To be sure based on a limited annual time series (1949 2002) and so the results should be interpreted with caution. But the empirical tests are, if anything, biased toward finding a reduction in the level of debt held by the public, and not the increase that we find.

Suggested Citation

  • Kent Smetters, 2003. "Is the Social Security Trust Fund Worth Anything?," NBER Working Papers 9845, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  • Handle: RePEc:nbr:nberwo:9845
    Note: AG PE
    as

    Download full text from publisher

    File URL: http://www.nber.org/papers/w9845.pdf
    Download Restriction: no

    References listed on IDEAS

    as
    1. Peter Diamond, 2004. "Social Security," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 94(1), pages 1-24, March.
    2. Bosworth, Barry & Burtless, Gary, 2004. "Pension Reform and Saving," National Tax Journal, National Tax Association;National Tax Journal, vol. 57(3), pages 703-727, September.
    Full references (including those not matched with items on IDEAS)

    Citations

    Citations are extracted by the CitEc Project, subscribe to its RSS feed for this item.
    as


    Cited by:

    1. Sylvester J. Schieber, 2010. "Aging Populations, Pension Operations, Potential Economic Disappointment and Its Allocation," NBER Chapters,in: Demography and the Economy, pages 293-325 National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    2. Shantanu Bagchi, 2016. "Differential Mortality and the Progressivity of Social Security," Working Papers 2016-03, Towson University, Department of Economics, revised Aug 2016.
    3. Oshio, Takashi, 2004. "Social security and trust fund management," Journal of the Japanese and International Economies, Elsevier, vol. 18(4), pages 528-550, December.
    4. Kent Smetters, 2004. "Is the Social Security Trust Fund a Store of Value?," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 94(2), pages 176-181, May.
    5. Takashi Oshio, 2004. "Social Security and Trust Fund Management," NBER Working Papers 10444, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    6. Sita Nataraj & John B. Shoven, 2004. "Has the Unified Budget Undermined the Federal Government Trust Funds?," NBER Working Papers 10953, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    7. Jagadeesh Gokhale & Kent Smetters, 2003. "Fiscal and generational imbalances: new budget measures for new budget priorities," Policy Discussion Papers, Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland, issue Dec.
    8. repec:eee:quaeco:v:64:y:2017:i:c:p:228-237 is not listed on IDEAS

    More about this item

    JEL classification:

    • H5 - Public Economics - - National Government Expenditures and Related Policies
    • H6 - Public Economics - - National Budget, Deficit, and Debt

    Statistics

    Access and download statistics

    Corrections

    All material on this site has been provided by the respective publishers and authors. You can help correct errors and omissions. When requesting a correction, please mention this item's handle: RePEc:nbr:nberwo:9845. See general information about how to correct material in RePEc.

    For technical questions regarding this item, or to correct its authors, title, abstract, bibliographic or download information, contact: () or (Joanne Lustig). General contact details of provider: http://edirc.repec.org/data/nberrus.html .

    If you have authored this item and are not yet registered with RePEc, we encourage you to do it here. This allows to link your profile to this item. It also allows you to accept potential citations to this item that we are uncertain about.

    If CitEc recognized a reference but did not link an item in RePEc to it, you can help with this form .

    If you know of missing items citing this one, you can help us creating those links by adding the relevant references in the same way as above, for each refering item. If you are a registered author of this item, you may also want to check the "citations" tab in your RePEc Author Service profile, as there may be some citations waiting for confirmation.

    Please note that corrections may take a couple of weeks to filter through the various RePEc services.

    IDEAS is a RePEc service hosted by the Research Division of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis . RePEc uses bibliographic data supplied by the respective publishers.