Tag Archives: Central Falls

Solving the Public Pension Crisis

Last week I had the pleasure of attending a public policy conference that brought together many scholars who study public pensions to share what they have learned from their research. The crisis – growing unfunded pension liabilities and resulting fiscal distress for states and municipalities – laid as the foundation of the day. Hosted by GMU’s Law & Economics Center, the conference featured several panel discussions framed around different aspects of how to both diagnose the cause of this growing problem and hopefully find solutions to address the problem.

Professor Robert Inman of the University of Pennsylvania presented a helpful categorization of the different avenues to address the public pension crisis. He explained that as a reformer, you can either put stock in (1) courts, (2) markets, or (3) politics to solve the public policy problem. The next question is, which avenue is most effective at making pensions solvent while also keeping promises to beneficiaries?

First, take the courts. In municipal bankruptcy cases like that of Central Falls, Rhode Island; Stockton, California; and Detroit, Michigan, courts have ruled that reductions in benefits of current public workers and retirees are legally allowed. Until these rulings, however, it was thought to be almost impossible do such a thing. These cities employed reforms ranging from cutting payments to reducing current benefit formulas. By contrast, the state supreme court of Illinois has ruled similar cuts unconstitutional. It will be interesting to see how these conflicting legal precedents will affect future cases and what it will mean for the benefits of public workers.

However this legal discussion unfolds, it will certainly affect the courts as an avenue for solving the pension crisis. Strict rulings prevent states from cutting pension benefits of current workers, but they also require states to keep their promises, especially when it is politically hardest – during times of fiscal stress.

Times of fiscal stress are often prompted by a combination of factors. Growing unfunded liabilities, not enough cash in reserves, and poorly structured tax systems can all come together to really put policymakers in a tough spot and often leaves a large bill for taxpayers. A struggling economy on top of all of this can really exacerbate the situation. The main difference between the first three things and a struggling economy is that the latter is largely out of a policymaker’s control.

Despite this, many policymakers rely on the market to get them out of tough times. From the policymaker’s perspective “relying on the market” to solve the pension crisis usually means something different than what it means for an economist. This phrase for the policymaker usually entails reaping the benefits of more taxes generated from an economic boom or relying on high investment returns to improve the performance of pension funds.

Not only are the timing of economic booms fairly unpredictable, but they also don’t guarantee to solve all of your problems when they do occur. The growing city of Austin, Texas, for example, is facing budgetary pressures and only has enough money to pay for about two-thirds of the benefits workers have already earned, demonstrating that even good economic times don’t exempt you from pension problems.

The good news is that what we learn from market interactions can be transferred to the political sphere in order to increase our understanding. One lesson we learn from markets is that individuals respond to incentives and that the institutional structure in which they act influences how this occurs. The importance of incentives and rules doesn’t change when going from markets to politics, but the way they manifest does.

At the Law and Economics conference, Anthony Randazzo of the Reason Foundation explained how there is a tangled web of factors causing inappropriate pension funding behavior. These factors create misaligned incentives between fiduciaries and taxpayers. One way this has manifested is that the pension funding policy process has been captured by elected officials who are more concerned with near-term budget allocation than long-term solvency.

My colleague Eileen Norcross and her co-author Sheila Weinberg expanded more on the type of behavior that Randazzo spoke of. In their paper titled “A Judge in their Own Cause: GASB 67/68 and the continued mis-measurement of public sector liabilities” they review how policymakers are incentivized by state and local accounting guidelines to underreport the true value of their pension liabilities. Two new accounting rules were implemented in fiscal year 2015 in an attempt to improve this, but as Norcross and Weinberg’s findings suggest, they have not had their intended effects.

For example, there is evidence that one of the rules, GASB 67, is creating incentives for pension actuaries to project robust funding levels far into the future in order to avoid calculating and reporting large unfunded liabilities in the present.

They sum up the effects of both rules in their conclusion:

“Though these measures are justified in providing flexibility and practicality for governments, they only contribute to an artificial picture of state’s true fiscal results and thus affect important decisions on how states use resources.”

Their analysis demonstrates just how important it is to study the incentives present in both the measurement of and the governance of public pension funds. Luckily, there is also work being done that attempts to understand exactly what type of rules can improve incentives facing policymakers.

Another paper, presented by Professor Odd Stalebrink of Penn State, touched upon this by examining how governance structures affect the investment performance of public pension funds. He found that pension systems are more likely to meet their performance targets if they are governed by an institutional structure that (1) extends plan autonomy, (2) places emphasis on transparency, and (3) limits inefficient investment practices. In states that exhibit more corruption, however, Stalebrink noted that plans might actually be better off with less autonomy, while still focusing on transparency and improving efficiency.

The discussion of these papers along with many others at the conference underscored that pension problem in the states multifaceted one. The question of what avenue to employ reform efforts through does not have a simple answer. Growing unfunded pension liabilities are a result of many factors across market, political, and legal spheres. It only makes sense that effective solutions will revolve around an understanding of all three areas.

Proceedings of the conference will be published in a special symposium issue of Scalia Law School’s Journal of Law, Economics & Policy.

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.

The lessons of bankruptcies and near-bankruptcies

Last week I had the pleasure of speaking at the plenary session for the Association for Budgeting and Financial Management (ABFM)’s annual meeting in New York. My co-panelists included NYU finance professor Dall Forsythe who as Budget Director for the State of New York during the fiscal crisis that pushed New York City to near bankruptcy in the mid-1970s, gave us an inside look of what went into staving off fiscal collapse.  Professor Forsythe explained New York City may not be a generalizable example of municipal bankruptcy but it is an excellent study of  how a major city avoided collapse and rebuilt itself into a financial powerhouse over the following decades.

Ted Orson also spoke. As lead legal council for Central Falls’ recent bankruptcy proceedings, Mr. Orson gave a riveting talk about how leaders in Central Falls worked with the state government and retired workers to come to terms with the city’s empty coffers. It was not easy. Retired firemen and police officers were asked to take a 55 percent cut in their pension benefits. I think his talk underscored the importance of transparency and truth in pension accounting. No one wants to have it get to this point.

Newsmakers 9/23: Gallogly, Orson

My talk zoned in on pension accounting – the new GASB rules and what they mean. In a followup post I’ll explore how GASB 67 and GASB 68 are likely to affect government’s accounts. And also the role that Moody’s decision to discount pensions using a corporate bond rate is going to change the way we view municipal and state finances.

 

Central Falls bankruptcy exit plan approved

In what is described as, “the quickest bankruptcy adjustment in U.S. history,” Central Falls, Rhode Island has reached an agreement to exit from bankruptcy with a plan that will fully repay bondholders (including any legal fees incurred), while slashing worker pensions by as much as 55 percent. None of Central Falls’ workers will get less than $10,000 and all will have to contribute 20 percent more for their health care until they are 65 and eligible for Medicare, according to Bloomberg News. The agreement was reached when the state promised to help supplement retiree pensions for five years.

Bondholders will be repaid via higher municipal taxes, or a four percent increase in property taxes each year for the next five years. No one escapes unscathed, except the bondholders, which is attributable to the fact that Rhode Island passed a law explicitly protecting them from municipal default last year. The bondholder protection law appears to have the intended effect with Moody’s promising to increase Central Falls’ credit rating.

Retirees are understandably upset but it’s important that the cause for plan underfunding be properly diagnosed. Accounting distortions rooted in risky discount rates are to blame. Central Falls’ Police and Fire Plan was deeply underfunded based on numbers that underestimated the liability. That is the lesson to be learned and the inescapable problem facing many other jurisdictions with defined benefit plans in the US. It is in the best interest of governments to accurately calculate their unfunded liabilities with reference to a risk-free discount rate and come up with a plan today. Waiting and gambling on a future market boom doesn’t do retirees any favors.

Bankruptcy in Birmingham

Jefferson County, AL has filed for bankruptcy protection, joining the ranks of Vallejo, CA; Central Falls, RI; Boise, ID; and Harrisburg, PA. In this case, the debt that the county used to finance a new sewer system is the main driver of insolvency. The county currently owes about $4.15 billion on the sewer system.

The Associated Press reports:

The problems were years in the making.

Its debt ballooned after a federally mandated sewer project was beset with corruption, court rulings that didn’t go its way and rising interest rates when global markets struggled.

Since 2008, Jefferson County tried to save itself the cost and embarrassment of filing for bankruptcy. But after three years, commissioners voted 4-1 to bring the issue to an end.

“Jefferson County has, in effect, been in bankruptcy for three years,” said Commissioner Jimmie Stephens, who made the motion to file for protection in federal bankruptcy court in northern Alabama.

While the last few years have seen a few cases of municipalities filing for Chapter 9, Jefferson County’s case represents by far the largest. Unlike other recent bankruptcies that were a result of both poor financial management and the economic downturn, Jefferson County’s problems were in part a result of corrupt public officials. Twenty-two people have been convicted for illegally refinancing the sewer bonds to benefit local and Wall Street financiers. Residents in Alabama’s largest county will likely face higher sewer rates as a result.

But the biggest problem for residents when municipalities file for bankruptcy protection is the resulting policy uncertainty. Businesses are typically reluctant, with good reason, to move to a bankrupt municipality. The shadow of Chapter 9 means that for years, residents and businesses will be paying higher taxes in exchange for fewer services because of the remaining debt burden. This will put the county and even the state in a poor competitive standing for new jobs.

In 1994, Orange County, CA, filed for Chapter 9 protection on $1.7 billion in debt, and residents there are still paying taxes toward that debt today. In the short term, Jefferson County will face painful and immediate cuts. The Birmingham Business Journal spoke with Commissioner Jimmie Stephens on what the future holds for the county:

“We’re looking at all of these services that are not mandated by the constitution and, from there, we will begin the reductions and take it as far as we need to, keeping in mind the services that the citizens need,” he said.

 

Harrisburg, PA Bankruptcy Proceedings Continue

On October 11, Harrisburg, PA filed for Chapter 9 bankruptcy, the first state capital to do so in several decades. Now, the city council must develop a plan for the city’s finances going forward. If the state does not approve the council’s plan by November 25th, Harrisburg’s finances could be turned over to a receiver and the city would not have a say in the budget process.

The state is engouraging Harrisburg to pay off its remaining debts primarily by raising property taxes, but the council has been reluctant to raise taxes on its residents, 29% of whom live in poverty. To limit the pain for city residents, Councilman Brad Koplinski supports bankruptcy:

“If the bankruptcy is allowed to proceed, I feel that unfortunately it’s the most beneficial option, because it will allow us to get the city out from under its debt,” Koplinski said at the meeting [held yesterday].

Today, the city’s debt totals about five times its yearly general-fund revenue, and lawmakers have few options to turn to for increased revenues. Vallejo, CA and Central Falls, RI also recently filed for Chapter 9 protection. In both cities, budget problems were driven in large part by increasing unfunded pension liabilities. In Harrisburg, however, the problem developed because the city borrowed $242 million to finance an incinerator that turned out not to be as profitable as expected.

Unfortunately for Harrisburg, even municipal bankruptcy is not a silver bullet for ailing city finances. The Vallejo case illustrates that while bankruptcy gives municipalities some bargaining power for negotiating pensions and can reduce the debt burden, filing for Chapter 9 will not eliminate past obligations. Harrisburg will likely emerge from bankruptcy with a heavy debt burden and nowhere to turn for increased revenue. In this case, bankruptcy may be the city’s best option, but other municipal lawmakers should look to the Vallejo example when promising lavish projects on borrowed money. There is no easy way out of municipal debt.

Is Fiscal Illusion a factor Central Falls’ bankruptcy?

Central Falls, Rhode Island has been at the brink before. In 1991, the state took over its schools. John Hill writing at Providence Journal reports this move may have set up a fiscal dynamic responsible for the current municipal pension crisis. Central Falls was given a chance to avoid property tax increases for 10 years by relying on state funding for schools. The result is that Central Falls got used to not raising property taxes and not putting money into its pension plan.

In 1991, state aid accounted for 19 percent of Central Falls’ revenues. By 2008, state aid was 31 percent of revenues. When aid was reduced after the recession started, Central Falls finances experienced a shock. Over the same period, other Rhode Island towns increased their property tax levy by 133 percent, Central Falls only increased its levy by 23 percent. As Projo.com reports, if Central Falls instead raised property taxes by 2 percent a year over the period and contributed $200,000 a year to the pension system,  it could have avoided the 50 percent cut in benefits proposed by State Appointed Receiver, Robert Flanders.

What this 20 year policy of growing dependency on state aid and decreased reliance on property taxes points to is the fiscal illusion that operated in Central Falls’ finances. That is, when the source of taxation and of spending are not fully observed (or obviously linked) spending may be perceived as less costly than it actually is.

Another public choice lesson in the article is the incentive of politicians to obscure the real cost of spending:

“Though they say Schaefer’s numbers and reasoning on tax increases are right, two members of the 1991 commission said it was unrealistic to expect politicians up for reelection every two years to raise taxes when state aid increases were covering increases in annual operating costs. “Unfortunately, the reality is that in the political structure of any town, there just isn’t anyone who has the discipline to do that,” said Francis Dietz, president of Memorial Hospital and a 1991 commission member. “I think Frank is right in that assumption,” Varin said. “That’s not just a hard sell; it’s a practical impossibility.”

Vallejo emerges from bankruptcy

Three years after Vallejo, California declared bankruptcy the city has presented the court with an 81-page plan, agreed to by creditors, to fix the city’s finances. A federal judge has approved the plan which is not yet available.

An earlier draft of the plan contains some union concessions including reduced health care benefits. Pensions will remain in place. The cost of unionized employees, whose salaries and benefits consumed 70 percent of the city’s general fund budget came in the form of layoffs and fewer fire stations, as well as reductions to libraries, recreation and convention centers.

According to The Wall Street Journal, bankruptcy proceedings have cost Vallejo $9 million, and residents have fewer city services.

The city did pay bondholders holding revenue bonds throughout the proceedings. The Bond Buyer reports that General Fund bonds were serviced at less than contractual rates, and payments were suspended between July 2008 and April 2009.

As with Central Falls, debt isn’t the driver of huge deficits. In Vallejo debt-service costs were only six percent of the city’s budget. In both cases the culprit behind municipal insolvency is not bond debt but increasing pension benefits and employee costs.