Bryan R. Lawrence is founder of Oakcliff Capital, a New York-based investment partnership.
Releasing information on the Friday before a big holiday is a time-tested way to bury bad news. So when the Government Accountability Office’s fiscal 2011 financial statements for the federal government were released on the Friday before Christmas, it made sense to read them closely.
Since 1997, the United States has been a rare example of a government willing to publish financial statements using accrual accounting, which counts the cost of promises made as well as cash paid out. And the GAO’s professionalism over the years has won it a reputation for impartiality and effectiveness.
That professionalism is evident in the GAO analysis of the net present value of the Social Security and Medicare promises Washington has made to Americans. “Net present value” means the total that would have to be set aside today to pay the costs of these programs in the future. The government puts these numbers in appendices, rather than in headlines. But the costs are real.
In fiscal 2011, the cost of the promises grew from $30.9 trillion to $33.8 trillion. To put that in context, consider that the total value of companies traded on U.S. stock markets is $13.1 trillion, based on the Wilshire 5000 index, and the value of the equity in U.S. taxpayers’ homes, according to Freddie Mac, is $6.2 trillion. Said another way, there is not enough wealth in America to meet those promises.
If the government followed corporate accounting rules, that $2.9 trillion increase would be added to the $1.3 trillion cash deficit for fiscal 2011 that has been widely reported. And a $4.2 trillion deficit is something that Americans need to know about.
The Treasury acknowledges the need to show an accrual-based deficit, but the only retirement accruals it includes in its “Citizen’s Guide” to the GAO numbers are for promises to direct government employees and veterans. Promises to the rest of Americans are excluded, even though they are multiples larger than the $10.2 trillion of government debt held by the public.
The latest GAO numbers are particularly interesting because of a change in accounting standards that requires the government to explain why the cost grew by $2.9 trillion. Fully $1.5 trillion of that reflects the aging of all 312 million Americans by one year. In the GAO report from fiscal 2001, the cost of promises was $17 trillion. The growth in the cost from $17 trillion to $33.8 trillion averages about $1.7 trillion per year. The GAO doesn’t specify numbers for the other nine years, but one suspects that aging has driven most of the growth in the cost of the promises.
The cost would have been a lot worse but for two assumptions that the GAO found questionable.
First, Medicare’s cost projections assume legally required decreases in reimbursement rates to doctors that Congress has ignored for years — the so-called doc fix. For these projections to be realized, Congress would have to abide by its own cost controls and allow an immediate 27 percent cut to doctors’ rates, which is very unlikely.