Tag Archives: fiscal distress

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.

Eight years after the financial crisis: lessons from the most fiscally distressed cities

You’d think that eight years after the financial crisis, cities would have recovered. Instead, declining tax revenues following the economic downturn paired with growing liabilities have slowed recovery. Some cities exacerbated their situations with poor policy choices. Much could be learned by studying how city officials manage their finances in response to fiscal crises.

Detroit made history in 2013 when it became the largest city to declare bankruptcy after decades of financial struggle. Other cities like Stockton and San Bernardino in California had their own financial battles that also resulted in bankruptcy. Their policy decisions reflect the most extreme responses to fiscal crises.

You could probably count on both hands how many cities file for bankruptcy each year, but this is not an extremely telling statistic as cities often take many other steps to alleviate budget problems and view bankruptcy as a last resort. When times get tough, city officials often reduce payments into their pension systems, raise taxes – or when that doesn’t seem adequate – find themselves cutting services or laying off public workers.

It turns out that many municipalities weathered the 2008 recession without needing to take such extreme actions. Studying how these cities managed to recover more quickly than cities like Stockton provides interesting insight on what courses of action can help city officials better respond to fiscal distress.

A new Mercatus study examines the types of actions that public officials have taken under fiscal distress and then concludes with recommendations that could help future crises from occurring. Their empirical model finds that increased reserves, lower debt, and better tax structures all significantly improve a city’s fiscal health.

The authors, researchers Evgenia Gorina and Craig Maher, define fiscal distress as:

“the condition of local finances that does not permit the government to provide public services and meet its own operating needs to the extent to which these have been provided and met previously.”

In order to determine whether a city or county government is under fiscal distress, the authors study the actual actions taken by city officials between 2007 and 2012. Their approach is unique because it stands in contrast with previous literature that primarily looks to poorly performing financial indicators to measure fiscal distress. An example of such an indicator would be how much cash a government has on hand relative to its liabilities.

Although financial indicators can tell someone a lot about the fiscal condition of their locality, they are only a snapshot of financial resources on hand and don’t provide information on how previous policy choices got them to their current state. A robust analysis of a city’s financial health would require a deeper look. Looking at policy decisions as well as financial indicators can paint a more complete picture of just how financial resources are being managed.

The figure here displays the types of actions, or “fiscal distress episodes”, that the authors of the study found were the most common among cities in California, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. As expected, you’ll see that bankruptcy occurs much less frequently than other courses of action. The top three most common attempts to meet fundamental operating needs and service requirements during times of fiscal distress include (1) large across-the-board budget cuts or cuts in services, (2) blanket reduction in employee salaries, and (3) unusual tax rate or fee increases.

fiscal-distress-episodes

Another thing that becomes clear from this figure is that public workers and taxpayers appear to be adversely affected by the most common fiscal episodes. Cuts in services, reductions in employee salaries, large tax increases, and layoffs all place much of the distress on these groups. By contrast, actions like fund transfers, deferring capital projects, or late budget enactment don’t directly affect public workers or taxpayers (at least in the short term).

I decided to break down how episodes affected public workers and taxpayers for each state examined in the sample. 91% of California’s municipal fiscal distress episodes directly affected public employees or the provision of public services, while the remaining 9% indirectly affected them. Michigan and Pennsylvania followed with 85% and 66% of episodes, respectively, directly affecting public workers or taxpayers through cuts in services, tax increases, or layoffs.

Many of these actions surely happen in tandem with each other in more distressed cities, but it seems that more often than not, the burden falls heavily on public workers and taxpayers.

The city officials who had to make these hard decisions obviously did so under financially and politically intense circumstances; what many, including researchers like Gorina and Maher, consider to be a fiscal crisis. In fact, 32 percent of the communities across the three states in their sample experienced fiscal distress which, on its own, sheds light on the magnitude of the 2007-2009 recession. A large motivator of Gorina and Maher’s research is to understand what characteristics of the cities who more quickly rebounded from the Great Recession allowed them to prevent hitting fiscal crisis stage in the first place.

They do so by testing the effect of a city’s pre-existing fiscal condition on their likelihood to undergo fiscal distress. After controlling for things like government type, size, and local economic factors, they found that cities that had larger reserves and lower debt tended to weather the recession better relative to other cities. More specifically, declining general revenue balance as a percent of general expenditures and increases in debt as a share of total revenue both increase the odds of fiscal distress for a city.

Additionally, the authors found that cities with a greater reliance on property taxes managed to weather the recession better than governments reliant on other revenue sources. This suggests that revenue structure, not just the amount of revenue raised, is an important determinant of fiscal health.

No city wants to end up like Detroit or Scranton. Policymakers in these cities were forced to make hard choices that were politically unpopular; often harming public employees and taxpayers. Officials can look to Gorina and Maher’s research to understand how they can prevent ending up in such dire situations.

When approaching municipal finances, each city’s unique situation should of course be taken into consideration. This requires looking at each city’s economic history and financial practices, similar to what my colleagues have done for Scranton. Combining each city’s financial context with principles of sound financial management can surely help more cities find and maintain a healthy fiscal path.