Saturday, June 30, 2018

The off-balance sheet debt problem in the US

John Mauldin has a series of US debt crisis. The ticking bomb is the unfunded social security and health care unfunded liabilities, which sits atop the $21.2 trillion federal government debt (105% of GDP) and $ 3.1 trillion (15% of GDP) of state and local government debt. Consider this,
These estimates of when the trust funds run out depend on a slew of assumptions. To estimate revenue, they must know how many workers the US has, their wages, and at what rates those wages will be taxed. To estimate expenses, they mustknow how many retirees will be drawing benefits, the amount of those benefits, and how long the retirees will live to receive them. They also have to assume an inflation rate on which thecost-of-living adjustment is based. A small deviation in any of those can have huge long-term consequences. For what it’s worth, then, Social Security says it has a $13.2 trillion unfunded liability over the next 75 years. That’s the benefits they expect to pay minus the revenue they expect to receive. Medicare projections require even more assumptions: what kind of treatments the program will cover, how much treatment senior citizens will need, and what those treatments will cost. Allthese could vary wildly but the “official” assumptions put Medicare’s 75-year unfunded liability at $37 trillion. It could be vastly more or, if we all get healthier and healthcare costs drop, could be less... 
Larry Kotlikoff estimates the unfunded liabilities to be closer to $210 trillion. That’s a far cry from the $50 trillion official estimate. So, at a minimum, we can probably assume Social Security and Medicare are at least another $50 trillion in debt on top of the $21.2 trillion (and growing) on-budget federal debt. And then you come to the scary part. This doesn’t include civil service or military retirement obligations, or federal backing for some private pensions via the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation, or open-ended guarantees like FDIC, Fannie Mae, and on and on... CBO numbers show that by 2041, Social Security, health care, and interest expenditures will consume all federal tax revenue. All of it. Everything else the government does (including defense) will require going into more debt.
The article nicely lays down how these are most likely the best case scenario given the uncertainties associated with making such estimations as well as the headwinds that would have to be overcome.

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