Tag Archives: Illinois

The use of locally-imposed selective taxes to fund public pension liabilities

Many eyes are on Kentucky policymakers as they grapple with finding a solution to their $40 billion state-reported unfunded public pension liability. As talks of a potential pension bill surface, various proposals have been made by legislators, but very few have gained traction. One such proposal stands out from the rest. A proposal that has since been shut down suggested imposing selective taxes on tobacco, prescription opiates, and outsourced labor to generate revenue to direct towards paying down the state’s pension debt. Despite its short-lived tenure, this selective tax proposal reflects a recent trend in pension funding reform; a trend that policymakers should be wary of. Implementing new taxes on select goods or services may seem like a good idea as it could, in theory, potentially raise additional revenues, but experience at the local level suggests otherwise.

In chapter 12 of a new Mercatus book on sin taxes, NYU professor Thad Calabrese examines the practice of locally-imposed selective taxes that are used to fund public pension liabilities and doesn’t find much evidence to support their continued usage.

Selective taxes are sales taxes that target specific goods and are also known as ‘sin taxes’ because of their popular usage in taxing less healthy goods such as cigarettes, junk food, or alcohol. In the examples that Calabrese examines, selective taxes are used to target insurance premiums as revenue sources for pensions.

Only a select few states have begun this practice – including Illinois, Pennsylvania, as well as municipalities in West Virginia and Missouri – but it may become more popular if courts begin to restrict the way in which current pension benefits can be modified. Once benefits are taken off the table as an avenue for reform, like in Illinois, policymakers will feel more pressure to find new revenue sources.

The proposal in Kentucky may seem appealing to policymakers, especially because of its potential to raise $600 million a year, but this estimate overlooks the unintended effects that such new taxes could facilitate. Thankfully, the proposal did not go through, but I think some time should be spent looking at what similar proposals have looked like at the local level, so that other states do not get tempted pick up where Kentucky left off.

Calabrese draws on the experiences in Pennsylvania and Illinois to examine how these taxes have operated, how the decoupling of setting and financing employee benefits tends to lead to these taxes, and how the use of these taxes is associated with significantly underfunded pension systems. Below I highlight Pennsylvania’s experience and caution against further usage of this mechanism for pension funding.

How it works (or doesn’t)

In 1895, Pennsylvania implemented a 2 percent tax on out-of-state fire and casualty insurance companies’ premiums on in-state property and then earmarked this for distribution to local governments to pay for pensions. Act 205 of 1984 replaced the original act in which the state of Pennsylvania allocated pension aid based on where the insured property was located and instead the new allocation was based on the number of public employees in a locality.

Calabrese explains how the funds were distributed:

“Each public employee was considered a ‘unit,’ and uniformed employees (such as police and fire) each represented two units. The pool of insurance tax revenue collected by the state was then divided by the sum of municipal units to arrive at a unit value. This distribution could subsidize local governments’ pension expenditures up to 100 percent of the annual cost. In 1985, this tax generated $62.3 million in revenues; as a result, each unit value was worth $1,146 – meaning that local governments received $1,146 for pension funding for each public employee and an additional $1,146 for pension funding for each uniformed public employee. Importantly, 75 percent of municipalities received enough funding from this revenue in 1985 to fully offset their pension costs.”

The new mechanism raised more funds, but it also unexpectedly raised costs. If a municipality had to contribute less than the $1,146 annually for a regular employee or $2,292 for a uniformed employee, for example, the municipality was essentially incentivized to increase benefits to public employees up to this limit, because local public employees would receive increased benefits at no direct budgetary cost to the municipality.

“…the tax likely increased insurance costs for residents and businesses (and then only a small fraction of the cost), but not directly for the government employer. Further, this system privileged benefits relative to other compensation, because these payments (borne at least statutorily by out-of-state companies) could only be used for financing pensions and not other forms of compensation.”

A tax originally implemented to fund pension costs statewide resulted in a system that encouraged more generous benefits.

Despite increased subsidies from the state, only 38 percent of municipalities received sufficient allocated funds from the pool to fully offset the costs of pensions. This was because annual pension contributions were growing at a faster rate than the rate at which the subsidy from the state insurance tax was growing.

To highlight a city with severely distressed pension plans, Philadelphia continued to struggle even following the implementation of the state insurance tax. The police pension plan, nonuniformed plan, and firefighter pension plan were all only 49, 47, and 45 percent funded, respectively. In 2009, the City Council passed a temporary 1 percentage point increase in their sales tax and when the temporary rate was renewed in 2014, any revenue in excess of $120 million was dedicated to the city’s pension plans. Additionally, the state permitted the city to pass a $2 per pack cigarette tax to fund a planned budget deficit for the school system; likely because its income tax capacity was largely exhausted.

Philadelphia’s new taxes technically generated new revenues, but they did little to improve the funding of the city’s pension plans.

The selective taxes implemented to fund pension liabilities in Pennsylvania were effectively a Band-Aid that was two small for the state’s pension funding problem, which in turn required the addition of more, insufficient pension Band-Aids. It merely created a public financing system that encouraged pension benefit growth which led to the passage of additional laws requiring certain pension funding levels. And when these funding levels were not met, even more laws were passed that provided temporary pension funding relief, which further grew liabilities for distressed municipalities.

Act 44 became law in 1993 and provided plan sponsors pension funding relief, but primarily by allowing sponsors to alter actuarial assumptions and thereby reduce required pension contributions. Another law delayed funding by manipulating how the required contribution was calculated, rather than providing any permanent fix.

Moving forward

Selective taxes for the purpose of funding pensions are still a relatively rare practice, but as pension liabilities grow and the landscape of reform options changes, it may become increasingly attractive to policymakers. As Calabrese has demonstrated in his book chapter, however, we should be wary of this avenue as it may only encourage the growth of pension liabilities without addressing the problem in any meaningful way. Reforming the structure of the pension plan or the level of benefits provided to current or future employees would provide the most long-term solution.

A solution with the long-term in mind and that doesn’t involve touching current beneficiaries includes moving future workers to defined contribution plans; plans that are better suited to keeping costs contained. The ballooning costs aren’t stemming solely from overly generous plan benefits, but more seriously are the result of their poor management and incentives for funding, only exacerbated by poor accounting practices. The problem is certainly complicated and moving towards the use of defined contribution plans wouldn’t eliminate all issues, but it would at least set governments on a more sustainable path.

At the very least, policymakers interested in long-term solutions should be cautioned against using selective taxes to fund pensions.

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.

No, bailouts are not something to celebrate

Robert Samuelson at the Washington Post is celebrating the auto bailout.

Last December I had a piece in the Post in which I argued that “pro-business” policies like bailouts are actually bad for business. I offered five reasons:

  1. Pro-business policies undermine competition.
  2. They retard innovation
  3. They sucker workers into unsustainable careers.
  4. They encourage wasteful privilege seeking.
  5. They undermine the legitimacy of government and business.

Read my piece for the full argument.

But aren’t things different in the midst of a major economic and financial crisis? Shouldn’t we have more leeway for bailouts in exigent circumstances?

No. Here is why:

First, we should always remember that the concentrated beneficiaries of a bailout have every incentive to overstate its necessity while the diffuse interests that pay for it (other borrowers, taxpayers, un-favored competitors, and the future inheritors of a less dynamic and less competitive economy) have almost no incentive or ability to get organized and lobby against it.

Bailout proponents talk as if they know bailouts avert certain calamity. But the truth is that we can never know exactly what would have happened without a bailout. We can, however, draw on both economic theory and past experience. And both suggest that the macroeconomy of a world without bailouts is actually more stable than one with bailouts. This is because bailouts incentivize excessive risk (and, importantly, correlated risk taking). Moreover, because the bailout vs. no bailout call is inherently arbitrary, bailouts generate uncertainty.

Todd Zywicki at GMU law argues convincingly that normal bankruptcy proceedings would have worked just fine in the case of the autos.

Moreover, as Garett Jones and Katelyn Christ explain, alternative options like “speed bankruptcy” (aka debt-to-equity swaps) offer better ways to improve the health of institutions without completely letting creditors off the hook. This isn’t just blind speculation. The EU used this approach in its “bail in” of Cyprus and it seems to have worked pretty well.

Ironically, one can make a reasonable case that many (most?) bailouts are themselves the result of previous bailouts. The 1979 bailout of Chrysler taught a valuable lesson to the big 3 automakers and their creditors. It showed them that Washington would do whatever it took to save them. That, and decades of other privileges allowed the auto makers to ignore both customers and market realities.

Indeed, at least some of the blame for the entire 2008 debacle falls on the ‘too big to fail’ expectation that systematically encouraged most large financial firms to leverage up. While it was hardly the only factor, the successive bailouts of Continental Illinois (1984), the S&Ls (1990s), the implicit guarantee of the GSEs, etc., likely exacerbated the severity of the 2008 financial crisis. So a good cost-benefit analysis of any bailout should include some probability that it will encourage future excessive risk taking, and future calls for more bailouts. Once these additional costs are accounted for, bailouts look like significantly worse deals.

Adherence to the “rule of law” is more important in a crisis than it is in normal times. Constitutional prohibitions, statutory limits, and even political taboos are typically not needed in “easy cases.” It is the hard cases that make for bad precedent.

What would a business-cycle balanced budget rule look like in Illinois?

A few years ago, I testified before the U.S. House Judiciary Committee. I’d been invited to talk about the design of a federal balanced budget amendment and much of my testimony drew on the lessons offered from state experience. Since 49 of the 50 states have such requirements, and since these requirements vary from state to state, I noted that federal lawmakers could learn from the state laboratory.

The best requirement, I argued, would have the following characteristics:

  1. Require balance over some period longer than a year. This effectively disarms the strongest argument against a balanced budget amendment: namely, that it would force belt-tightening in the middle of a recession. In contrast, if budgets need to balance over a longer time period, then Congress is free to run deficits in particular years as long as they are countered by surpluses in others.
  2. Allow Congress some time to come into compliance. You don’t have to be a Keynesian to worry that a 45 percent reduction in the deficit overnight might be a shock to the system.
  3. Minimize the gamesmanship associated with revenue estimation: Across the country, states with balanced budget requirements have to estimate revenue throughout the year (I’m a member of Virginia’s Joint Advisory Board of Economists and our responsibility is to pass judgment on the validity of these estimates). But this invites all sorts of questions: what model to use for the economy, should revenue be scored dynamically or statically, etc. One way to sidestep all of these questions is to make the requirement retrospective: require that spending this year not exceed revenue from years past.

Michigan Republican Justin Amash has proposed an amendment along these lines. It would be phased-in over 9 years and from there on out would stipulate that outlays “not exceed the average annual revenue collected in the three prior years, adjusting in proportion to changes in population and inflation.” Because it requires balance over three years rather than one, Amash calls it the “business cycle balanced budget amendment.”

Writing in Time, GMU’s Alex Tabarrok points to Sweden’s positive experience with a similar rule. And economists Glenn Hubbard and Tim Kane also endorse such a rule in their book, Balance.

Now, some Illinois state lawmakers have put together a proposal for a state rule that appears to be largely based on this model. It requires:

Appropriations for a fiscal year shall not exceed the average annual revenue collected for the 3 prior years, adjusting in proportion to changes in population and inflation.

(Unlike the Amash plan, however, the Illinois plan is not phased in over a number of years. Rather, it takes effect immediately upon passage of the bill.)

To see how it might work in a state, I decided to take the Amash Amendment for a test drive, using Illinois data. The solid blue line in the figure below charts Illinois’s actual general revenue from 1990 to 2012 in billions of current dollars. The dashed blue line phases in an Amash-type “business cycle” balanced budget rule. Once fully phased-in, it would limit spending to the average revenue of the three previous years, with an adjustment for inflation and population growth.


Notice three things:

  1. From 1990 to 2002, and from 2004 to 2007, the rule would have kept Illinois spending in line with Illinois revenue, and would have even allowed the state to run surpluses.
  2. In lean years (like 2008) when revenue levels off, the limit actually continues to rise. That’s because it is based on a longer time trend. This means that it wouldn’t require the sort of draconian budget cuts that balanced budget critics often fear. The accumulated surpluses from previous years could also be used to soften the blow.
  3. Lastly, note the (9 percent) revenue uptick from 2011 to 2012. The amendment would prudently make legislators wait a few years before they can go out and spend that money.

Hercules, California’s Herculean debts

What lead the city of Hercules, California to default on its debts? Guest poster Marc Joffe, Principal Consultant at Public Sector Credit, finds a case of mission-creep in the “dynamic city on the Bay’s”  decision to issue debt to finance power plants and affordable housing.

(For more of Marc Joffe’s research on modeling credit risk, read his 2013 Mercatus Working paper comparing Illinois and Indiana)

Hercules, California Public Power Failure Leads to Default

by Marc Joffe

Cities can default on obligations to their creditors without filing for Chapter IX bankruptcy protection.  This is the lesson of Hercules, California – a 25,000-resident San Francisco suburb whose finances are not quite as mighty as its name implies. Hercules experience is also illustrative of the risks that cities take when they expand beyond their core functions of public safety and public works.

The city is threatening to default on $12.8 million of municipal bonds as early as this August.  In a tender offer issued earlier this month, Hercules offered holders of these bonds 90% of their securities’ face value. According to the bondholder notice, “If an insufficient number of bonds are not tendered, the City anticipates it will soon default on the bonds.” Offering bondholders 90 cents on the dollar in order to avoid facing the risk of non-payment is, for all intents and purposes, a default.

In fact, it is the city’s third default in recent years. In 2011, Hercules failed to repay a $3.75 million loan from the California Housing Financing Agency (CHFA). The state loan was intended to support a mixed use development Hercules planned to build. The development, which included a large affordable housing component, was stymied by neighborhood opposition to low income housing and the City’s inability to acquire a portion of the intended construction site from a nearby homeowner’s association. Earlier this year, Hercules sold the site to a developer who plans to build market rate housing. It has also agreed to repay the CHFA loan in installments through 2026 at a reduced interest rate.

Hercules’ second default occurred on February 1, 2012, when it failed to make a $2.4 million interest payments on Redevelopment Agency (RDA) bonds. The default was absorbed by Ambac, the agency’s municipal bond insurer. Ambac filed suit against the city claiming it had failed to remit RDA related property tax collections to the bond trustee as required. In March 2012, Ambac and the City settled the litigation with the City pledging two parcels of land to the insurer. The City further agreed to place these two properties on the market, apparently to offset the $4.05 million property tax remittance the city had failed to make earlier.

The most recent default (or, more euphemistically, the current tender offer) involves bonds issued to finance a failed public power scheme. In 2001, the City established a public power company – the Hercules Municipal Utility (HMU) – on the assumption that it could replace the area’s for-profit utility, Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E). The expectation was that HMU would generate a similar rate of profit to PG&E, but under public ownership, those profits could fund other city spending priorities. Unfortunately for Hercules creditors and taxpayers, things did not work out as planned.

In a 2011 expose, the Huffington Post reported that HMU was serving only 840 customers, charging rates 17% higher than PG&E and had lost money in every year since its 2003 inception. In 2010, the City issued $13.5 million in new bonds to finance HMU, but the proceeds were never invested. Now the City has agreed to sell its power plant to the local utility – Pacific Gas & Electric. Unfortunately, PG&E’s bid was insufficient to retire the $12.8 million in 2010 bonds still outstanding and (for reasons discussed below) the city lacks reserves that could be used to fully redeem these remaining bonds. Thus the need for a 90% tender offer.

Municipal bond analysts often assess a city’s fiscal well-being by reviewing its audited financial statements. Unfortunately, Hercules routinely files its audited financials on a delayed basis. Currently, the latest available statements for Hercules are for the fiscal year ended June 30, 2011. Many California cities have already filed their 2013 audits. The failure to file audited financials on a timely basis is part of a larger financial management issue in Hercules. In May and November 2012, the State Controller’s Office issued three audits highly critical of the city’s fiscal controls. One report “found the City of Hercules’ administrative and internal accounting control deficiencies to be serious and pervasive.” These insufficient controls may explain why RDA tax revenues could be directed away from debt service, thereby subjecting the city to costly litigation.

As shown in the accompanying table, Hercules has persistently run large General Fund deficits since 2008.  The city’s inability to balance its books has resulted in the depletion of its financial reserves. According to Hercules most recent budget, the city had a negative unassigned General Fund balance at the end of FY 2012 and FY 2013, meaning it had no reserves that had not already been earmarked for one purpose or another. Despite having borrowed over $150 million, the city thus lacked liquid assets to cover contingencies.

Hercules General Fund Performance (FY 2008-FY2013)





























Sources: Hercules Audited Financial Statements (FY 2008-2011), FY 2014 Budget.
FY 2012 and FY 2013 are unaudited estimates.


Hercules fiscal straitjacket appears to be the result of government overreach. Instead of focusing on efficient delivery of basic services and providing effective financial oversight, City leaders ventured into enterprises attractive to many of their Progressive constituents: publicly owned power and publicly-financed affordable housing. Lacking the skills to properly manage these undertakings, city leadership squandered large sums of borrowed money and ran down their financial reserves. The result for Hercules will be years of higher taxes, subpar real estate performance and reduced access to the municipal bond market.


The “pension tapeworm” and Fiscal Federalism

In his annual report to shareholders, Warren Buffett cites the role that pension underfunding is playing in governments and markets:

“Citizens and public officials typically under-appreciated the gigantic financial tapeworm that was born when promises were made. During the next decade, you will read a lot of news –- bad news -– about public pension plans.”

He zones in on pension mathematics – “a mystery to most Americans” – as a possible reason for accelerating liabilities facing state and local governments including Puerto Rico, Detroit, New Jersey and Illinois. I might go further and state that pension mathematics remains a mystery to those with responsibility for, or interest in, these systems. It’s the number one reason why reforms have been halting and inadequate to meet the magnitude of the problem. But as has been mentioned on this blog before: the accounting will eventually catch up with the economics.

What that means is unrelenting pressure building in municipal budgets including major cities. MSN Money suggests the possibility of bankruptcy for Los Angeles, Chicago and New York City based on their growing health care and pension liabilities.

In the context of this recent news and open talk of big municipal bankruptcy, I found an interesting analysis by Paul E. Peterson and Daniel J. Nadler in “The Global Debt Crisis Haunting U.S. and European Federalism.”(Brookings Institution Press, 2014).

In their article, “Competitive Federalism Under Pressure,” they find a positive correlation between investors’ perception of default risk on state bonds and the unionization rate of the public sector workforce. While cautioning that there is much more at work influencing investors’ views, I think their findings are worth mentioning since one of the biggest obstacles to pension reform has been the reluctance of interested parties to confront the (actual) numbers.

More precisely, it leads to a situation like the one now being sorted out in federal bankruptcy court in Detroit. Pensioners have been told by Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr that if they are willing to enter into a “timely settlement” with the city and state, they may see their pensions reduced by less than the 10 to 30 percent now suggested. Meanwhile bondholders are looking at a haircut of up to 80 percent.

If this outcome holds for Detroit, then Peterson and Nadler’s findings help to illuminate the importance of collective bargaining rules on the structure of American federalism by changing the “rules of the game” in state and local finances. The big question for other cities and creditors: How will Detroit’s treatment of pensions versus bonds affect investors’ perception of credit risk in the municipal debt market?

But there are even bigger implications. It is the scenario of multiple (and major) municipal bankruptcies that might lead to federalism-altering policy interventions, Peterson and Nadler conclude their analysis with this observation:

[public sector] Collective bargaining has, “magnified the risk of state sovereign defaults, complicated the resolution of deficit problems that provoke such crises, heightened the likelihood of a federal intervention if such crises materializes, and set the conditions for a transformation of the country’s federal system.”

Credit Warnings, Debt Financing and Dipping into Cash Reserves

As 2013 comes to an end recent news brings attention to the structural budgetary problems and worsening fiscal picture facing several governments: New Jersey, New York City, Puerto Rico and Maryland.

First there was a warning from Moody’s for the Garden State. On Monday New Jersey’s credit outlook was changed to negative. The ratings agency cited rising public employee benefit costs and insufficient revenues. New Jersey is alongside Illinois for the state with the shortest time horizon until the system is Pay-As-You-Go. On a risk-free basis the gap between pension assets and liabilities is roughly $171 billion according to State Budget Solutions, leaving the system only 33 percent funded. This year the New Jersey contributed $1.7 billion to the system. But previous analysis suggests New Jersey will need to pay out $10 billion annually in a few years representing one-third of the current budget.

New Jersey isn’t alone. The biggest structural threat to government budgets is the unrecognized risk in employee pension plans and the purely unfunded status of health care benefits. Mayor Michael Bloomberg, in his final speech as New York City’s Mayor, pointed to the “labor-electoral complex” which prevents employee benefit reform as the single greatest threat to the city’s financial health. In 12 years the cost of employee benefits has increased 500 percent from $1.5 billion to $8.2 billion. Those costs are certain to grow presenting the next generation with a massive debt that will siphon money away from city services.

Public employee pensions and debt are also crippling Puerto Rico which has dipped into cash reserves to repay a $400 million short-term loan. The Wall Street Journal reports that the government planned to sell bonds, but retreated since the island’s bond values have, “plunged in value,” due to investor fears over economic malaise and the territory’s existing large debt load which stands at $87 billion, or $23,000 per resident.

This should serve as a warning to other states that continue to finance budget growth with debt while understating employee benefit costs. Maryland’s Spending Affordability Committee is recommending a 4 percent budget increase and a hike in the state’s debt limit from $75 million to 1.16 billion in 2014. Early estimates by the legislative fiscal office anticipate structural deficits of $300 million over the next two years – a situation that has plagued Maryland for well over a decade. The fiscal office has advised against increased debt, noting that over the last five years, GO bonds have been, “used as a source of replacement funding for transfers of cash” from dedicated funds projects such as the Chesapeake Bay Restoration Fund.


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.



Governors’ Priorities in 2013: Medicaid Funding, Pension Reform

As the month of March draws to a close, most governors have, by this point, taken to the podiums of their respective states and outlined their priorities for the next legislative year in their State of the State addresses. Mike Maciag at Governing magazine painstakingly reviewed the transcripts of all 49 State of the State addresses delivered so far (Louisiana, for some reason, takes a leisurely approach to this tradition) and tallied the most popular initiatives in a helpful summary. While there were some small state trends in addressing hot-button social issues like climate change (7 governors), gay rights (7 governors), and marijuana decriminalization (2 states), the biggest areas of overlap from state governors concerned Medicaid spending and state pension obligations.

Medicaid Spending

Judging from their addresses, the most common concern facing governors this year is the expansion of state Medicaid financing prompted by the Supreme Court’s ruling on the Affordable Care Act last year. While the ACA originally required states to raise their eligibility standards to cover everyone below 138 percent of the federal poverty level, the Supreme Court overturned this requirement and left up to the states whether or not they wanted to participate in the expansion in exchange for federal funding or politely decline to partake.  The governors of a whopping 30 states referenced the Medicaid issue at least once during their speech. Some of the governors, like Gov. Phil Bryant of Mississippi, brought up the issue to explain why they made the decision to become one of the 14 states that decided not to participate in the expansion. Others took to defending their decision to participate in the expansion, like Gov. John Kasich of Ohio, who outlined how his state’s participation would benefit fellow Buckeyes suffering from mental illness and addiction.

Neither the considerable amount of concern nor the markedly divergent positions of the governors are especially shocking. A recent Mercatus Research paper conducted by senior fellow Charles Blahous addresses the nebulous options facing state governments in their decision on whether to participate in the expansion. This decision is not one to make lightly: in 2011, state Medicaid spending accounted for almost 24 percent of all state budget expenditures and these costs are expected to rise by upwards of 150 percent in the next decade. The answer to whether a given state should opt in or opt out of the expansion is not a straightforward one and depends on the unique financial situations of each state. Participating in the Medicaid expansion may indeed make sense for Ohioans while at the same time being a terrible deal for Mississippi. However, what is optimal for an individual state may not be good for the country as a whole. Ohio’s decision to participate in the expansion may end up hurting residents of Mississippi and other states who forgo participating in the expansion because of the unintended effects of cost shifting among the federal and state governments. It is very difficult to project exactly who will be the winners or losers in the Medicaid expansion at this point in time, but is very likely that states will fall into one of either category.


Another pressing concern for state governors is the health (or lack thereof) of their state pension systems. The governors of 20 states, including the man who brought us “Squeezy the Pension Python” himself, Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn, tackled the issue during their State of the State addresses. Among these states are a few to which Eileen has given testimony on this very issue within the past year.

In Montana, for instance, Gov. Steve Bullock promised a “detailed plan that will shore up [his state’s] retirement systems and do so without raising taxes.” While I was unable to find this plan on the governor’s website, two dueling reform proposals–one to amend the current defined benefit system, another to replace it with a defined contribution system–are currently duking it out in the Montana state legislature. While it is unclear which of the two proposals will make it onto the law books, let’s hope that the Montana Joint Select Committee on Pensions heeds Eileen’s suggestions from her testimony to them last month, and only makes changes to their pension system that are “based on an accurate accounting of the value of the benefits due to employees.”

Distinguishing between Medicaid Expenditures and Health Outcomes

As the LA Times reports, the Obama administration has vowed not to approve any cuts to Medicaid during budget negotiations:

Preserving Medicaid funding became even more crucial to the Obama administration after the Supreme Court ruled last summer that states were not required to expand their Medicaid coverage. Administration officials are working hard to convince states to expand and do not want any federal funding cuts that could discourage governors from implementing the law.

“There is a big irony,” said Ron Pollack, executive director of Washington-based Families USA, a leading Medicaid advocate. “The fact that the Supreme Court undermined the Medicaid expansion is now resulting in greater support and a deeper commitment to making sure the program is not cut back.”

Paying for Medicaid remains a major challenge for states. The program has been jointly funded by states and the federal government since it was created. And many states, including California, Illinois and New York, have had to make painful cutbacks in recent years to balance their budgets by reducing physician fees and paring benefits, such as dental care.

However, protecting Medicaid spending — without changing incentives for the healthcare industry or patients — does not necessarily mean improved health outcomes for beneficiaries. As of 2011, nearly one-third of doctors said that they would not accept new Medicaid patients because they are losing money on those who they do see, indicating not only a lower quality of care for Medicaid patients compared to those on private insurance, but reduced access to care. Under the current Medicaid structure, states are incentivized to spend more to receive larger federal matching funds grants, but at the same time federal requirements limit opportunities to improve quality of care through innovation.

The State Health Flexibility Act proposed by Representative Todd Rokita (R-IN) proposes a way to change these incentives. Under the State Health Flexibility Act, state funding for Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program would be capped at current spending levels. At the same time, states would be released from many federal Medicaid mandates and instead would have the flexibility to determine eligibility and benefits at the state level. Rokita proposed this bill last year, and parts of the bill made it into the House budget.

While this bill seems unlikely to make any progress under the current administration, it mirrors reforms proposed by at least one democratic state governor. Oregon’s Governor John Kitzhaber, a former emergency room doctor, received a Medicaid waiver in 2011 to receive a one-time $1.9 billion payment from the federal government to close the state’s Medicaid funding gap. In exchange, he promised to repay this money if the state failed to keep Medicaid costs growth at a rate two-percent below the rest of the country. Kitzhaber sought to achieve this by allowing local knowledge to guide cost savings. The Washington Post reports:

Oregon divided the state into 15 region and gave each one a set amount to care for each patient. These regions can divvy their dollars however they please, so long as patients hit certain quality metrics, like ensuring that adolescents get well-care visits and that steps are taken to control high blood pressure.

The hope is that each of the 15 regions, known as coordinated care organizations, will invest only in the most cost-effective health care. A behavioral health worker who can prevent emergency admissions becomes a lot more valuable, the thinking goes, when Medicaid funding is limited.

While the Oregon plan is not a block grant — the federal government has not capped the amount that it will provide to the state — it does share some similarities with the State Health Flexibility Act. The state and its designated regions have a strong incentive to provide their Medicaid recipients better health outcomes at lower costs because if they fail the state will have to repay $1.9 billion to the federal government. Additionally, the state and the regions have the freedom to find cost savings at the level of patients and hospitals, which isn’t possible under federal requirements.