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Social Security Avoids the Wall Street Roller Coaster

For baby-boomers who’ve been watching their retirement investment income lose money week by week, the fact that Social Security remains stable and predictable while Wall Street is anything but is critically important. Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich calls the failure to privatize Social Security “the best thing that didn’t happen during the Bush administration”:
“... had we privatized, they’d (retirees) be totally reliant on the stock market. And look what’s happened to the market: Compared to stock values ten years ago, the S&P 500 has risen a little over 1 percent a year, adjusted for inflation. Even Treasury bonds have done better. Go back nine years and there’s been no gain at all. Go back eight years and the market has been off an average of 1.4 percent a year.”


This isn’t a unique analysis. Even a member of President Bush’s own Social Security Commission and a private accounts supporter, co-authored an analysis for the National Bureau of Economic Research which showed promises of higher returns with private accounts just didn’t hold up to scrutiny:

“...the popular argument that Social Security privatization would provide higher returns for all current and future workers is misleading, because it ignores transition costs and differences across programs in the allocation of aggregate and household risk.” The paper states: “A popular argument suggests that if Social Security were privatized, everyone could earn higher returns. We show that this is false.”

Still not convinced? Here’s the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities analysis:

“This paper explains the basis of findings that economists broadly agree upon — that the type of rate-of-return comparison that some Administration officials and other private-accounts proponents are using is not valid, and that when analytically valid comparisons are made, the supposed differences in rates of return essentially disappear.”


Social Security is an insurance program, not an investment vehicle. Social Security is not supposed to make you rich, it is supposed to prevent you from slipping into poverty. Social Security is the one insurance program that provides some measure of economic support for Americans if a family wage earner dies or becomes disabled. Privatizing Social Security turns a safety net for everyone into a golden parachute for a few.

Social Security Hodge Podge

There are a number of Social Security items of note today...first this Wall Street Journal article regarding “payday lenders” and continuing attempts to take advantage of seniors who receive direct deposit payments from Social Security each month. The WSJ reports:

“Social Security recipients with direct deposit can effectively use future benefits as collateral for short-term, high-interest loans. Some lenders require borrowers to have their Social Security checks deposited directly into banks that partner with the lenders. Typically, the banks are in other states and provide no checks or ATM cards to the borrowers. Thus, borrowers can get their monthly Social Security benefits only by visiting the lenders to pick up what remains after loan payments, interest and fees are deducted. Some lenders 'attempt to exercise too much control' over payments sent to beneficiaries and
then automatically transferred to the lenders, Social Security said”.


You can expect lenders to fight any changes. So far, SSA has only asked for public comment in a Federal Register notice and the agency says it has not decided what changes to make.

It’s Not Too Late

A reminder to seniors...it’s not too late to file for a stimulus check. Even though the IRS April 15th tax deadline has come and gone you have until the end of the year to file for a stimulus check. The IRS Stimulus Information Center advises Social Security recipients:



“The sooner you file the sooner you can receive your stimulus payment. But if you are filing to establish your eligibility for the stimulus payment, filing by Oct. 15 means the IRS can process your return and issue a stimulus payment before the end of the year”

You can also download the 1040A form, all of the details you need to file a stimulus request from the IRS and free software to process an online filing here.


Social Security False Alarm

While much has been written about this year’s Social Security and Medicare Trustees Report (we’ve already highlighted some of the coverage here ) there is another piece of recommended reading. This commentary highlights a constantly overlooked aspect of the “entitlement” debate...the fact that regardless of the “sky-is-falling” certainty expressed by those opposed to Social Social Security, the Trustees’ actuaries know solvency and the economic issues underlying the 2017/2041 dates are moving targets, especially in a 75-year or infinite window. Marketwatch economist Dr. Irwin Kellner writes:

“I would like to point out that this year, as has been the case every year in the past, the actuaries have made and released not one but three projections. They call them low cost, intermediate and high cost. The projection that has provoked these alarms is the intermediate projection. This reflects the trustees' consensus views regarding such inputs as economic growth, productivity, inflation, earnings, employment and interest rates.”

He continues:

“The intermediate projection assumes that the economy will grow by an annual rate of 2.3% per year between now and 2085. This may be higher than the 1.9% per year that was projected as recently as three years ago, but it is still well below the 3.4% that the economy grew on average between 1960 and 2005. The actuaries' own low cost projection assumes an average annual growth rate of 2.9% between now and 2085. This is higher than the 2.3% pace embodied in the intermediate projection, but it is still well below the 3.4% average of the past. Guess what? Under the actuaries' low cost projection, the Social Security system never runs out of money!”

Does that mean we should ignore the Trustees’ annual projections? Of course not. But that really is the point here...these are estimates and projections that should be used in a responsible way to ensure the long-term solvency of Social Security, which millions of Americans and their families depend on.

CMS Actuary Sees No Savings in Private Medicare Plans

Medicare’s chief actuary testified in the House today following last week’s release of the Social Security and Medicare Trustees Report. Ways and Means Health Subcommittee Chairman Pete Stark highlighted some of the back-and-forth in a News Release issued at the conclusion of today’s event:

“When Secretary Leavitt appeared before the Subcommittee earlier this year, he made alarmist statements about the future of Medicare and told us to ‘call the government actuary’. Well, we did,” stated Chairman Stark, “and the Medicare Chief Actuary made it clear time and time again today that overpayments to private plans are a serious drain on Medicare’s financing that undermine the program’s financial health and raise costs for all beneficiaries. I think Secretary Leavitt is the one who needs to talk to his actuary.”

In today’s Ways and Means Health Subcommittee hearing on the 2008 Medicare Trustees report, Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services Chief Actuary Rick Foster made several important statements.

** Foster said that overpayments to private Medicare Advantage (MA) plans shorten the solvency of the Part A Trust Fund:

“If the law were changed such that benchmarks were set at fee-for-service rates, then it would extend the solvency of the Medicare Trust Fund by about 18 months.”

** He also indicated that overpayments increase premiums for all 44 million seniors and people with disabilities – even though almost 80 percent of Medicare beneficiaries are not enrolled in private plans:

“As of 2009, the additional premium associated with higher [MA] benchmarks is about $3 a month.”

** When directly asked if Medicare advantage ever costs less than fee-for-service, Foster flatly said:

“No, not under current law.”

** Foster also stated that hitting the “45 percent trigger” does not mean there is a crisis with the Medicare Trust Funds:

“Despite the title, the Medicare Funding Warning should not be interpreted as a finding that Medicare funding is inadequate.”

**When asked about the arbitrary nature of the nature of the trigger, he stated:

“I’m not aware of any specific technical rationale for it.”

** Foster confirmed that the 2008 Trustees report would not have triggered the “Medicare Finance Warning” had payment rates between traditional fee-for-service Medicare and Medicare Advantage plans been equalized:

“If [benchmarks were set at fee-for-service rates] as in the CHAMP Act, the trigger would not have been tripped in this report. General revenues would not have crossed the 45% threshold until 2016 rather than 2014.”

** When discussing the financial future of Medicare, it is important to remember that health projections are notoriously unreliable. For example, small changes in assumptions or experience with respect to productivity, utilization and other variables, can produce substantially different estimates. In discussing this volatility, the Chief Actuary warned against putting too much stock in long-term estimates:

“We should never kid ourselves or place too much reliance on what are inherently uncertain projections.”


Our Analysis of the 2008 Trustees Report can be found here and more details on Medicare Advantage Plans and the outrageous industry subsidies they depend on is linked here.

Starving Social Security

Just when you think conservatives might have run out of new ways to destroy Social Security, columnist Robert Novak joins the discussion today urging Presidential candidate John McCain to cut the payroll tax. How ironic that just two days after all the political posturing by the administration and conservatives on the Hill about the need to reform entitlements to “save” Social Security, Novak now reports that one McCain advisor says it’s “not a big deal” to cut the very revenue needed to fund benefits for millions of retirees.

Senator McCain has already supported taking money out of Social Security to fund private accounts, which endanger the program enough, now conservatives want even more...to starve Social Security until it finally succumbs. Novak says: “
Cutting the payroll tax, which funds Social Security, would not be easy but would offer a rich economic prize in this lean Republican year.”

Really? A rich economic prize for whom? Certainly not the 34 million retirees and their families who need Social Security and will see the program starved in this never-ending quest for fiscally irresponsible tax cuts.


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