Can Public Pensions Be Fair to Later Generations?

From Via Media we get this nugget, “Can Public Pensions Be Fair to Later Generations?”. Since Joe The Economist has made a pretty good argument that the idea of privatizing Social Security is an idea we can no longer afford maybe a good first step in reforming pension accounting is to embrace a more Dutch-like approach.

So many U.S. states are struggling with unsustainable public pension costs that many are probably wondering: Is an honest, fiscally sound, publicly administered pension plan possible, or are all such efforts doomed to regulatory capture, union abuse, and co-optation by politicians? At least one example suggests that, given sufficient discipline and scrutiny, pension plans can be made to work in the 21st century. An article in the New York Times today praises the Dutch version:

Dutch pensions are scrupulously funded, unlike many United States plans, and are required to tally their liabilities with brutal honesty, using a method that is common in the financial-services industry but rejected by American public pension funds.

The Dutch system rests on the idea that each generation should pay its own costs — and that the costs must be measured accurately if that is to happen. After the financial collapse of 2008, workers and retirees in the Netherlands took the bitter medicine needed to rebuild their collective nest eggs quickly, with higher contributions from workers and benefit cuts for pensioners.[…]

Notably, the Dutch central bank prohibited the measurement method that virtually all American states and cities use, which is based on the hope that strong market gains on pension investments will make the benefits cheaper. A significant downside to this method is that it lets pension systems take advantage of market gains today, but pushes the risk of losses into the future, for others to cope with.

Social Security Trust Fund and the Money Supply

Bruce Krasting wrote a nice article for Business Insider about a discussion on Social Security between Senator Ron Johnson and Paul Krugman. That triggered a few questions in me about the Social Security Trust Fund and the money supply. Is the Social Security Trust Fund already part of our money supply and how will the government monetize the financial obligation? Here is the explanation from the Wikipedia Social Security Trust Fund page. Obviously this is a completely different funding mechanism than most pension funds and is an almost polar opposite of the funding style used for the Post Office employees in which they are required to prefund the pension plan for the next 75 years!

It is instructive to note that the $2.5 trillion Social Security Trust Fund has value, not as a tangible economic asset, but because it is a claim on behalf of beneficiaries on the goods and services produced by the working population. This claim will be enforced by the United States Government although the precise monetary mechanism of enforcement is yet to be determined. In order to repay the Trust Fund, the United States government has three options, which may all be pursued to varying degrees.

(1) The government may issue debt by selling treasuries. Thus, $1 in debt to the Social Security Trust fund is replaced with $1 in debt to a different lender. This scenario would increase the tax burden on future generations if the interest rate is higher on the new debt. If the new debt is more expensive and government revenues do not increase sufficiently either through taxes of economic growth, the government would be forced to cut spending on other programs (such as Defense, Education, Research) or else default on all or part of the debt.

(2) The government may raise taxes. If taxes are raised across the board, ironically, by reducing take home pay for workers, the government could make it harder for the younger, working generations to invest and save for retirement. However, if taxes are raised only on those whose earlier tax cuts were partially offset by these excess FICA contributions, namely those taxpayers whose marginal rates were reduced from 74% to as little as 28% during the Reagan Administration, the younger, working generations will not lose any ability to save or invest.

(3) The government may monetize trust fund obligations by transferring the treasuries held by the Trust Fund onto the Federal Reserve balance sheet. In such a transaction, the bonds would become "assets" on the Fed’s balance sheet, and the Fed would create money "out of thin air" to purchase the bonds from the government. Under such a scenario, the bonds are converted into cash, which would then be used by the government to cover social security payments. This scenario would likely lead to increased inflation, as it would inflate the money supply without directly increasing the amount of goods and services produced by the economy as a whole.