Possible Social Security Solvency Solution Was Likely Killed by SVB Banking Crisis

United States capitol in Washington DC with a Social Security card and money.
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Most of the attention surrounding Social Security reform has focused on proposals to raise the retirement age or increase payroll taxes. Less attention has been paid to another recent proposal that would create a sovereign-wealth fund to help finance Social Security.

But that proposal could already be dead in the water because of the banking crisis that began with this month’s collapse of Silicon Valley Bank and has spread to a number of other financial institutions.

The sovereign wealth fund idea was part of a larger group of Social Security proposals recently introduced by a bipartisan coalition of legislators. The coalition was led by U.S. Sens. Bill Cassidy, a Louisiana Republican, and Angus King, a Maine Independent who caucuses with Democrats.

These and other lawmakers have been busy trying to come up with solutions to the upcoming insolvency of a major Social Security funding source: the Old-Age and Survivors Insurance (OASI) Trust Fund, which is expected to run out of money by the middle of next decade. When it does, Social Security will have to rely solely on payroll taxes, which currently fund about 75% to 80% of benefits.

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The sovereign wealth fund being proposed would allow the federal government to invest money in stocks to fund Social Security retirement benefits.

As previously reported by GOBankingRates, the idea is to build the fund with $1.5 trillion or more in borrowed money. If the fund fails to generate an 8% annual return, Social Security’s maximum taxable income and payroll tax rate would be increased to ensure the program stays on track to be solvent for another 75 years.

Sovereign wealth funds are government-owned investment funds typically funded by foreign currency reserves, which are managed separately from official currency reserves, according to a paper published last decade by the Journal of Applied Business and Economics. Such funds are sometimes used by governments to finance national pension programs.

This is where the banking crisis comes in. As Motley Fool reported, one of those governments is Norway, which has the world’s biggest sovereign wealth fund — and part of that fund is invested in bonds issued by Silicon Valley Bank.

In a March 13 email to Reuters, a spokesperson for the Norway fund said fund managers are “monitoring the [SVB] situation in the market. We expect to get some money back on our credit exposure, but it is premature to say how much.”

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Norway’s sovereign wealth fund could have taken an even bigger hit from the banking crisis had it not lowered its position in Credit Suisse earlier this year. Credit Suisse has also been caught up in the crisis, as “material weaknesses” in its fiscal 2021 and 2022 financial reporting controls have led to a steep drop in its stock price.

Given uncertainty surrounding Norway’s sovereign wealth fund, U.S. lawmakers are now unlikely to embrace proposals that would invest Social Security funds into similar vehicles. The current banking crisis is only one of the ways a sovereign wealth fund poses a risk.

Unexpected crises have the “potential to exacerbate existing institutional and financial risks” surrounding sovereign wealth funds, according to an analysis from Dartmouth College’s Tuck Center for Business, Government & Society.

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As an example, it pointed to how economic conditions created by the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in low interest rates and declining stock prices that “put immense pressure on funds’ portfolios.”

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About the Author

Vance Cariaga is a London-based writer, editor and journalist who previously held staff positions at Investor’s Business Daily, The Charlotte Business Journal and The Charlotte Observer. His work also appeared in Charlotte Magazine, Street & Smith’s Sports Business Journal and Business North Carolina magazine. He holds a B.A. in English from Appalachian State University and studied journalism at the University of South Carolina. His reporting earned awards from the North Carolina Press Association, the Green Eyeshade Awards and AlterNet. In addition to journalism, he has worked in banking, accounting and restaurant management. A native of North Carolina who also writes fiction, Vance’s short story, “Saint Christopher,” placed second in the 2019 Writer’s Digest Short Short Story Competition. Two of his short stories appear in With One Eye on the Cows, an anthology published by Ad Hoc Fiction in 2019. His debut novel, Voodoo Hideaway, was published in 2021 by Atmosphere Press.
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