Social Security: Not a Great/Terrible Investment

Upfront: I’m totally replying to a meme.

I sympathize with the sentiment of the meme. But friends of friends were quickly critical of it. Then I wasn’t sure what to believe. So, I crunched the numbers.

First of all, there is an inherent ambiguity in the meme’s claim, seeing as future tax rates, maximum taxable income, benefits, and plausible returns are unknown. But we can address the data so far. The meme is dated in 2019, but current data is even more charitable toward it.

What we know as of 2021:

The maximum annual benefit is currently $46,740. It was previously lower, but this is a charitable post.

We also know the historical tax rates and maximum taxable incomes. Currently, 12.4% and $142,800. YES, we’re about to assume that somebody met the maximum income criteria over their entire working life.

If someone worked for 40 years while making the maximum contribution each year, then they would have contributed $406,255.20. If we plainly calculate the rate of return on this amount, then we’d yield 11.5%, which is not too shabby ($46,740/$406,255.20). Of course, this is entirely unreasonable because the funds could have been earning interest in private hands during the contribution period. If the funds had been earning 5% throughout the entire period, then the 2021 value of the contributed funds would be $968,838.39. The annual benefit implies a return of 4.8% ($46,740/$968,838.39). Investing those funds in a private account that yielded 5% would have provided $48,441.92 per year, which is not a huge difference. In this light, social security appears not to be a terrible deal. Not as good as the private sector – but not far off.

Let’s be more charitable to the spirit of the meme. What about for 50 years of work? Then the total contribution would have been $423,905.38, yielding an implied return of 11%. Considering the time value of money changes the rate of return to 4.2%. Again, not terrible, but now noticeably less than 5%. If the funds had been invested at and paid out 5%, then the private annual benefit would be $55,846.56. In other words, the privately invested funds would have yielded an annual benefit that is 19.5% higher than what is currently paid. That is substantial. The social security investment is definitely not excellent.

How reasonable is the meme? Well, in order to get the $1.9M figure, interest rates would have to be 7.2% (assuming 50 years of work and that we don’t spend the principal). The concomitant annual retirement benefit would be $136,825.51 (Now that’s an exciting number). In order to get the $95k, we only need to assume 6.3% per year. The S&P 500 has yielded an annual return of 7.6% over the same period (not including dividends). The meme is reasonable. Not perfect. But not ridiculous.

One BIG caveat is that this entire analysis assumes that the employee could simply invest equivalent amounts if Social Security were abolished. This is very unreasonable. Currently, part of the contribution comes from employers. While employees would experience an increase in total pay if the taxes were abolished, the employer would also enjoy a lower cost of labor. Not all of the gains would go to the employee.  One could also argue that abolishing Social Security would improve growth and real incomes generally, but that’s a counter-factual beyond the scope of this post.

Here is the sheet where I show my work.

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