Category Archives: Public Finance

Pension reform from California to Tennessee

Earlier this month Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) workers went on their second strike of the year. With public transport dysfunctional for four days, area residents were not necessarily sympathetic to the workers’ complaints, according to The Economist. The incident only drew attention to the fact that BART’s workers weren’t contributing to their pensions.

Under the new collective bargaining agreement employees will contribute to their pensions, and increase the amount they pay for health care benefits to $129/month.  The growing cost of public pensions, wages and benefits on city budgets is a real matter for mayors who must struggle to contain rapidly rising costs to pay for retiree benefits. San Jose’s mayor, Chuck Reed has led the effort in California to institute pension reforms via a ballot measure that would give city workers a choice between reduced benefits or bigger contributions, known as the Pension Reform Act of 2014. Reed is actively seeking the support of California’s public sector unions for the measure that would give local authorities some flexibility to contain costs. Pension costs are presenting new threats for many California governments. Moody’s is scrutinizing 30 cities for possible downgrades based on their more complete measurement of the economic liability presented by pension plans.  In spite of this dire warning, CalPERS has sent municipalities a strong message to struggling and bankrupt cities: pay your contributions, or else.

Other states and cities that are looking to overhaul how benefits are provided to employees include Memphis, Tennessee which faces a reported unfunded liability of $642 million and a funding ratio of 74.4%. This is using a discount rate of 7.5 percent.  I calculate Memphis’ unfunded liability is approximately $3.4 billion on a risk-free basis, leaving the plan only 35% funded.

The options being discussed by the Memphis government include moving new hires to a hybrid plan, a cash balance plan, or a defined contribution plan. Which of these presents the best option for employees, governments and Memphis residents?

I would suggest the following principles be used to guide pension reform: a) economic accounting, b) shift the funding risk away from government, c) offer workers – both current workers and future hires – the option to determine their own retirement course and to choose from a menu of options that includes a DC plan or an annuity – managed by an outside firm or some combination.

The idea should be to eliminate the ever-present incentive to turn employee retirement savings into a budgetary shell-game for governments. Public sector pensions in US state and local governments have been made uncertain under flawed accounting and high-risk investing. As long as pensions are regarded as malleable for accounting purposes – either through discount rate assumptions, re-amortization games, asset smoothing, dual-purpose asset investments, or short-sighted thinking – employee benefits are at risk for underfunding. A defined contribution plan, or a privately managed annuity avoids this temptation by putting the employer on the hook annually to make the full contribution to an employee’s retirement savings.

Maryland’s “severe financial management issues”

Budgetary balance continues to evade Maryland. In FY 2015 the state anticipates a deficit of $400 million. A fact that is being blaming on entitlements, mandated spending, and fiscal mismanagement in the Developmental Disabilities Administration. The agency has been cited by the HHS Inspector General as over billing the Federal government by $20.6 billion for Medicaid expenses.

For over a decade the state has struggled with structural deficits, or,  spending exceeding revenues. The state’s method of controlling spending – the Spending Affordability Commission – has overseen 30 years of spending increases, and its Debt Affordability Commission has compounded the problem by increasing the state’s debt limits in order to expand spending.

For the details, visit my blog post for the Maryland Public Policy Institute. Of related interest is the Tax Foundation’s recent ranking of government spending the states. Maryland ranks 19, and has increased spending by 30.5% since 2011  2001.

America’s best pension system? The case of Milwaukee

NPR reports that while many municipal and state governments’s pension systems are suffering from deep underfunding, there are some outliers. One such city is Milwaukee, Wisconsin. With a funding ratio of 90 percent, Milwaukee’s public employees’ plan would seem to have beaten the odds with a very simple (and laudable) strategy: fully fund the pension plan every year.

It is common sense. Make the full annual contribution and the plan can ensure that the benefits promised are available when retirement day arrives.

Except, thanks to government accounting guidance, it’s a little more complicated than that.

The problem is that the annual contribution the city is (prudently) making each year is calculated incorrectly. This flawed approach is why Detroit could claim a few short years ago that its plans were 100 percent funded. It is why New Jersey thought its plans were overfunded in the late 1990s.

Public plans calculate their liabilities – and thus the annual amount needed to contribute to the fund – based on how much they expect the assets to return. Milwaukee’s discount rate is 8.25%, recently lowered from 8.5%.

Unfortunately, if these liabilities are considered safe and guaranteed by the government, then they should valued as such. A better rate to use is the yield US Treasury bonds. In economist-speak: the value of liabilities and assets are independent. By way of analogy: Your monthly mortgage payment doesn’t change based on how much you think you may earn in your 401(K).

On a default-free, market valuation basis, Milwaukee’s pension plans is 40% funded and has a funding gap of $6.5 billion.

The good news – Milwaukee’s elected officials have funding discipline. They aren’t skipping, skimming, or torturing their contributions based on  the desire to avoid paying their bills. And this can be said of many other cities and states. Funding a pension shouldn’t be magic or entail lots of uncertainty for the sponsor or employee.

But that leads to the bad news. Even when governments are responsible managers, they’re being sunk by bad accounting. Public sector accounting assumptions (GASB 25) lead governments to miscalculate the bill for public sector pension contributions. Even when governments pay 100 percent of the recommended amount – as it is presently calculated – this amount is too little to fully fund pension promises.

Last week I posted the Tax Foundation’s map of what pension funding levels look like under market valuation. Almost all state plans are under the 50 percent funded level. That is, they are in far worse funding shape than their current accounts recognize.

Until plans de-link the value of the liability from the expected performance of plan assets, even the best -managed plans are going to be in danger of not having put aside enough to pay these promises. Even the best intentions cannot undo the effects of bad accounting assumptions.

 

 

Obama Administration will bailout Detroit

The Obama administration announced today it plans to send Detroit $320 million to “aid in its recovery,” according to The Hill.

The dollars come from existing federal money that is being re-purposed. It includes $24 million to rehabilitate buses and install safety cameras, $1.35 million for a community policing program, and the underwriting of 150 new firefighters. There are also funds for streets lights, police bike patrol, $3 million to hire new police, dollars for urban revitalization, and $25.4 million for demolition. A few months ago the administration said Detroit would have to work with creditors to resolve its bankruptcy issues. The city owes its creditors $18.5 billion.

Another example of how Detroit ended up in this awful position is highlighted in yesterday’s New York Times report of how Detroit City Council members skimmed $2 billion off of the pension system’ “excess earnings” to give employees ‘extra payments’ that had nothing to do with their pension benefits. This practice which spanned a 23 year period was justified as follows, quoting the NYT:

“People were having a hard time, living hand-to-mouth, and we thought we would give them some extra,” Ms. Bassett said.

Of all the nonpension payments, she said, 54 percent went to active workers, 14 percent went to retirees and 32 percent went to the city, which used its share to lower its annual contributions to the fund. The excess payments were often made near the end of the year, when recipients needed money for the holidays, or to heat their homes.

Of course the practice sounds wrong. Except it’s really another example of what happens when pensions value their liabilities based on asset returns. Detroit gave workers these “excess earnings.” New Jersey and scores of other states believed they were overfunded also and they “skipped payments” when the market was hot in the 1990s and early 2000s. The accounting gave them the illusion that this would all work out in the end. It is a dangerous fiction that these pension systems operate under.

That illusion of “overfunding in boom years” flows from the practice – discussed often in this blog – of discounting liabilities based on expected asset returns.The math really matters. For a long discussion, see here. 

How much damage has this accounting assumption and all the behaviors that flow from it caused? For Detroit – a significant amount. The city reports its pensions are underfunded by $634 million. It’s actually $9 billion underfunded on a market basis. 

I am not entirely surprised by the bailout, which sounds like a mini-stimulus via federal municipal grant programs. And I openly wonder what it portends for other cities that find themselves looking at similarly dire economic and financial situations.

New resource: Mercatus Center’s 2013 State and Local Policy Guide

Are you interested in the practical policy applications of the kinds of research the State and Local Policy Project is producing?

For an accessible and very useful review have a look at the inaugural edition of the Mercatus Center’s 2013 State and Local Policy Guide produced by our Outreach Team.

The guide is divided into six sections outlining how to control spending, fix broken pensions systems, control healthcare cost, streamline government, evaluate regulations, and develop competitive tax policies. Each section gives an overview of our research and makes brief, specific, and practical policy proposals.

If you have any questions, please contact Michael Leland, Associate Director of State Outreach, mleland@mercatus.gmu.edu

Lessons from North Carolina’s proposed budget

In today’s Room for Debate at The New York Times, I discuss what’s good and what is worrying about North Carolina’s proposed biennial budget.

The good: a doubling of the state’s Rainy Day Fund and end to the estate tax. But a big controversy surrounds the legislature this week. Lawmakers decided to cut unemployment benefits by one-third. This move disqualifies the state from receiving additional emergency unemployment insurance funds from the federal government, affecting 170,000 jobless in the state.

The issue points to the perennial calls for reform to the federal-state Unemployment Insurance (UI) program. North Carolina is one of many states that must pay the federal government back what it has borrowed to offer extended benefits to its residents, or face higher payroll taxes. Their choices are tough ones to make: raise the state payroll tax (or taxable wage base) and replenish the trust fund – which has its own effects on the economy and the workforce – or cut benefits. A better solution is to re-think our approach to social insurance, something economists, such as Harvard’s Martin Feldstein, have been highlighting the structural flaws of UI since the 1970s.

n.b. update: a reader rightly notes at the NYT – the states must pay back the money they’ve borrowed from the federal government to continue paying benefits. But they don’t have to pay back the temporary EUC program. 

Nevada’s new film tax credits to benefit casinos

Until recently, Nevada was one of a handful of states that did not offer film companies tax incentives. With the passage of Senate Bill 165 last month qualified film producers are eligible for transferable film credits valued at 20 percent of production costs. Lawmakers were in part persuaded by testimony (offered by film maker Nicholas Cage) that such credits would result in a film boom for Nevada. Some features of the credits: they are limited to $20 million a year. Productions that shoot 60 percent of their work in Nevada and spend between $500,000 and $40 million may earn a credit for 15 percent to 19 percent of total in-state, qualified expenses. Each production is capped at $6 million in credits.

Nevada does not tax individual or corporate income. The credits may be applied to payroll taxes, casino taxes and insurance premium taxes. Gasoline, cigarette, liquor, sales, live entertainment and property taxes aren’t eligible.

Part of the value of Nevada’s credits to film companies is that they are transferable. The credits can be sold by film companies to other Nevada businesses, such as casinos, becoming, “the coin of the realm.”

The Las Vegas Sun News explains how the new program will help generate a niche financial industry of brokers to help parties buy and sell credits. For example, a film company with a $1 million production and 15 percent credit is awarded $150,000 by the state of Nevada. If the film company only pays $50,000 in payroll taxes, that leaves $100,000 in credits on the table. This credit can then be sold at discount (let’s say 80 percent of the value of the remaining credit) to an interested buyer. Thus, a casino with a $100,000 tax liability can buy a tax credit from the film company at a price of $80,000.

The legislature promises to study the effectiveness of the program after a five-year trial period.

 

Should Illinois be Downgraded? Credit Ratings and Mal-Investment

No one disputes that Illinois’s pension systems are in seriously bad condition with large unfunded obligations. But should this worry Illinois bondholders? New Mercatus research by Marc Joffe of Public Sector Credit Solutions finds that recent downgrades of Illinois’s bonds by credit ratings agencies aren’t merited. He models the default risk of Illinois and Indiana based on a projection of these states’ financial position. These findings are put in the context of the history of state default and the role the credit ratings agencies play in debt markets. The influence of credit ratings agencies in this market is the subject a guest blog post by Marc today at Neighborhood Effects.

Credit Ratings and Mal-Investment

by Marc Joffe

Prices play a crucial role in a market economy because they provide signals to buyers and sellers about the availability and desirability of goods. Because prices coordinate supply and demand, they enabled the market system to triumph over Communism – which lacked a price mechanism.

Interest rates are also prices. They reflect investor willingness to delay consumption and take on risk. If interest rates are manipulated, serious dislocations can occur. As both Horwitz and O’Driscoll have discussed, the Fed’s suppression of interest rates in the early 2000s contributed to the housing bubble, which eventually gave way to a crash and a serious financial crisis.

Even in the absence of Fed policy errors, interest rate mispricing is possible. For example, ahead of the financial crisis, investors assumed that subprime residential mortgage backed securities (RMBS) were less risky than they really were. As a result, subprime mortgage rates did not reflect their underlying risk and thus too many dicey borrowers received home loans. The ill effects included a wave of foreclosures and huge, unexpected losses by pension funds and other institutional investors.

The mis-pricing of subprime credit risk was not the direct result of Federal Reserve or government intervention; instead, it stemmed from investor ignorance. Since humans lack perfect foresight, some degree of investor ignorance is inevitable, but it can be minimized through reliance on expert opinion.

In many markets, buyers rely on expert opinions when making purchase decisions. For example, when choosing a car we might look at Consumer Reports. When choosing stocks, we might read investment newsletters or review reports published by securities firms – hopefully taking into account potential biases in the latter case. When choosing fixed income most large investors rely on credit rating agencies.

The rating agencies assigned what ultimately turned out to be unjustifiably high ratings to subprime RMBS. This error and the fact that investors relied so heavily on credit rating agencies resulted in the overproduction and overconsumption of these toxic securities. Subsequent investigations revealed that the incorrect rating of these instruments resulted from some combination of suboptimal analytical techniques and conflicts of interest.

While this error occurred in market context, the institutional structure of the relevant market was the unintentional consequence of government interventions over a long period of time. Rating agencies first found their way into federal rulemaking in the wake of the Depression. With the inception of the FDIC, regulators decided that expert third party evaluations were needed to ensure that banks were investing depositor funds wisely.

The third party regulators chose were the credit rating agencies. Prior to receiving this federal mandate, and for a few decades thereafter, rating agencies made their money by selling manuals to libraries and institutional investors. The manuals included not only ratings but also large volumes of facts and figures about bond issuers.

After mid-century, the business became tougher with the advent of photocopiers. Eventually, rating agencies realized (perhaps implicitly) that they could monetize their federally granted power by selling ratings to bond issuers.

Rather than revoking their regulatory mandate in the wake of this new business model, federal regulators extended the power of incumbent rating agencies – codifying their opinions into the assessments of the portfolios of non-bank financial institutions.

With the growth in fixed income markets and the inception of structured finance over the last 25 years, rating agencies became much larger and more profitable. Due to their size and due to the fact that their ratings are disseminated for free, rating agencies have been able to limit the role of alternative credit opinion providers. For example, although a few analytical firms market their insights directly to institutional investors, it is hard for these players to get much traction given the widespread availability of credit ratings at no cost.

Even with rating agencies being written out of regulations under Dodd-Frank, market structure is not likely to change quickly. Many parts of the fixed income business display substantial inertia and the sheer size of the incumbent firms will continue to make the environment challenging for new entrants.

Regulatory involvement in the market for fixed income credit analysis has undoubtedly had many unintended consequences, some of which may be hard to ascertain in the absence of unregulated markets abroad. One fairly obvious negative consequence has been the stunting of innovation in the institutional credit analysis field.

Despite the proliferation of computer technology and statistical research methods, credit rating analysis remains firmly rooted in its early 20th century origins. Rather than estimate the probability of a default or the expected loss on a credit instruments, rating agencies still provide their assessments in the form of letter grades that have imprecise definitions and can easily be misinterpreted by market participants.

Starting with the pioneering work of Beaver and Altman in the 1960s, academic models of corporate bankruptcy risk have become common, but these modeling techniques have had limited impact on rating methodology.

Worse yet, in the area of government bonds, very little academic or applied work has taken place. This is especially unfortunate because government bond ratings frame the fiscal policy debate. In the absence of credible government bond ratings, we have no reliable way of estimating the probability that any government’s revenue and expenditure policies will lead to a socially disruptive default in the future. Further, in the absence of credible research, there is great likelihood that markets inefficiently price government bond risk – sending confusing signals to policymakers and the general public.

Given these concerns, I am pleased that the Mercatus Center has provided me the opportunity to build a model for Illinois state bond credit risk (as well as a reference model for Indiana). This is an effort to apply empirical research and Monte Carlo simulation techniques to the question of how much risk Illinois bondholders actually face.

While readers may not like my conclusion – that Illinois bonds carry very little credit risk – I hope they recognize the benefits of constructing, evaluating and improving credit models for systemically important public sector entities like our largest states. Hopefully, this research will contribute to a discussion about how we can improve credit rating assessments.

 

 

The math really matters in pension plans

Writing in The Wall Street Journal, Andy Kessler, a former hedge fund manager, gets to the heart of the matter on why state and local pension plans are running out of assets (and time): the math is a mess. Economists, financial professionals and some actuaries have been making the case for awhile that the way public sector pension plans value their liabilities is a dangerous fiction.

Today, U.S. governments calculate the present value of plan liabilities based on the returns they expect to earn on plan assets (typically between 7 and 8 percent annually). That’s all wrong. How the assets perform is immaterial to the present value of plan benefits. Instead a public sector worker’s pension should be valued as a risk-free guaranteed payout much like a bond. Unfortunately, when pensions are valued on a “guaranteed payout” basis, unfunded liabilities skyrocket. Some major plans are not just a bit underfunded, they are deeply in the hole.

Many plan managers disregard the discount rate critique of the actuarial assumptions and persist in underestimating the funding shortfalls by an order of magnitude. In conflating expected asset returns with the value of plan benefits, another troubling behavior has ensued: shifting assets into higher-return/higher-risk vehicles to catch up after market downturns, a problem I note in a recent analysis of Delaware (and they are by no means alone in this approach.)

He gives an analogy to what is happening in Stockton and is certain to visit other California cities to his experience watching GM’s pension plan bottom out. The company’s pension shortfall spiked from $14 billion to $22.4 billion between 1992 and 1993. GM got some advice from Morgan Stanley: invest the money in alternatives and watch expected returns double from 8 percent to 16 percent. Make this assumption and the hole will be filled.

But as Kessler notes, “you can’t wish this stuff away.” Instead:

Things didn’t go as planned. The fund put up $170 million in equity and borrowed another $505 million and invested in—I’m not kidding—a northern Missouri farm raising genetically engineered pigs. Meatier pork chops for all! Everything went wrong. In May 1996, the pigs defaulted on $412 million in junk debt. In a perhaps related event, General Motors entered 2012 with its global pension plans underfunded by $25.4 billion.”

 The debate between economists and government accountants continues.

 

Varying Priorities in Municipal Bankruptcy

On Monday Reuters reported that a federal judge has found Stockton, CA to be eligible for bankruptcy protection. This decision came despite protests from Wall Street arguing that the city had options available that would have allowed it to pay its creditors in full, such as raising taxes or cutting benefits for city employees:

Creditors have claimed a lack of good faith by Stockton in its decision to fully pay its obligation to the $254 billion Calpers system but impose losses on bondholders and bond insurers.

The expected move by the California city of 300,000 – along with Jefferson County in Alabama and San Bernardino in California – breaks with a long-standing tradition to fully repay bondholders the principal in most major municipal bankruptcies.

While both the judge and city manager Bob Deis have harshly criticized bondholders who refused to negotiate with the city before bankruptcy proceedings began, other cities have taken a very different approach to their creditors in the bankruptcy process. In 2011, the Rhode Island policymakers adopted a law that puts municipal creditors at the head of the line in municipal bankruptcy proceedings. In the state’s  Central Falls bankruptcy, the requirement to pay bondholders 100 cents on the dollar has meant that the city’s pensioners have taken steep benefit cuts, in some cases losing nearly half of their defined benefit pensions.

After Rhode Island enacted this law, the Wall Street Journal explained:

Despite the financial failure, Central Falls suddenly is attractive to some investors because the law makes them more confident about getting paid.

“If we can find someone selling, we will be a buyer” of Central Falls bonds, says Matt Dalton, chief executive of Belle Haven Investments, a White Plains, N.Y., firm with $800 million in municipal-bond investments under management.

The difference in legal climates for bondholders in Rhode Island and California unsurprisingly fosters different attitudes from creditors.  Former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan explains the dangers of cutting off a city’s access to credit by failing to pay bondholders in full:

“I think the unions ought to be scared stiff. This could be a lot worse than just the pensions. What about government bonds? If government bonds can also be restructured, who will buy them?

“The city and the state all issue tax anticipation bonds to meet their payrolls, but if those can be restructured, no one will buy them. Think about what that means for libraries, parks, street paving, police. It will all be on the line.

While cities on both coasts are facing insolvency in their efforts to meet their obligations to their employees and their creditors, they vary in their approaches as to who is first in line for scarce tax dollars.