Tag Archives: Jersey

Strong words from the SEC on Public Sector Pensions

As state and local governments begin to pull back the curtain on the true value of their pension liabilities with the implementation of GASB 68, Daniel Gallagher, Commissioner of the SEC issued an important statement last week, noting in plain terms that how governments measure their liabilities would have serious repercussions in the private sector. Here’s part of the remarks worth considering:

 …for years, state and local governments have used lax governmental accounting standards to hide the yawning chasm in their balance sheets…

The riskiness of a pension obligation depends on state law.[32]  If pension obligations have the same preference as general obligation debt, then the municipality’s own municipal bond yield (generally around 5%) would be the proper discount rate.[33]  Or, if as we’ve seen from Detroit, pensions will be saved before all else, then we should use a default-free measure to discount the liability:  specifically, the Treasury zero-coupon yield curve.[34]  This would result in a discount rate in the low 3% range.

Obviously, the higher the discount rate, the lower the present value of the liability.  The difference between a discount rate in the range of seven percent and one in the range of three percent is in large part responsible for the hidden $3 trillion in unfunded liabilities that are currently going unreported.

This lack of transparency can amount to a fraud on municipal bond investors, and it does a disservice to state and local government workers and retirees by saving elected officials from making the hard choices either to fully fund the pension promises that were made to public employees,[35] or not to make the promises in the first place.

In the private sector, the SEC would quickly bring fraud charges against any corporate issuer and its officers for playing such numbers games.  And, we would also pursue and punish the so-called fiduciaries who recklessly seek yield to meet unrealistic accounting assumptions.  We should not treat municipalities any differently.”

GASB 68 asks that sponsors use a high- yield, tax exempt 20-year municipal GO bond only on the unfunded portion of the liability. This will reveal bigger funding gaps in public sector pension plans. But it does not reveal the full value of the liability since it allows sponsors to continue using the higher discount rates on the funded portion of the liability.

 In addition to using the new GASB standards, Commissioner Gallagher advises that governments should also disclose their pension liabilities on a risk-free basis. This would have the effect of showing the value of these promises on a ‘guaranteed-to-be-paid’ basis. Commissioner Gallagher’s suggestions are extremely sensible and a call to basic transparency in public sector liability reporting.

Ignoring the value of pension benefits is not going to make them cheaper to fund, and the longer a state waits to accurately measure the liabilities and payments, the worse it gets. Just ask New Jersey –  which is struggling to balance its budget and meet a fraction of a fraction of the required annual pension contribution to its state pension system. The situation is so dire that it could trigger yet another downgrade for the Garden State.

 

Embrace Change

Kaiserin_Maria_Theresia_(HRR)Whenever someone suggested a new innovation or an improvement, Empress Maria Theresa had a favorite response: “Leave everything as it is.” As the sovereign of most of central Europe during the 18th Century, the Habsburg Empress epitomized absolutist rule, claiming that her powers had no limit.

But as her statement demonstrates, she clearly understood that her powers were limited by new and disruptive innovations. Her husband, Holy Roman Emperor Francis I understood this as well. Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson relate that when an English philanthropist suggested some social reforms for the benefit of Austria’s poorest, one of Francis’s assistants replied: “We do not desire at all that the great masses shall become well off and independent….How could we otherwise rule over them?” (A&R, 224).

This is why these Habsburg rulers did everything they could to stand athwart innovation. As Acemoglu and Robinson put it:

In addition to serfdom, which completely blocked the emergence of a labor market and removed the economic incentives or initiative from the mass of the rural population, Habsburg absolutism thrived on monopolies and other restrictions on trade. The urban economy was dominated by guilds, which restricted entry into professions. (A&R, 224).

Francis went so far as to block new technologies. For instance, he banned the adoption of new industrial machinery until 1811. He also refused to permit the building of steam railroads. Acemoglu and Robinson inform us that:

[T]he first railway built in the empire had to use horse-drawn carriages. The line…was built with gradients and corners, which meant that it was impossible subsequently to convert it to steam engines. So it continued with horse power until the 1860s. (A&R, 226).

Unfortunately, history is replete with examples of despots who stood in the way of innovation. In Russia, Nicholas I enacted laws restricting the number of factories and “forbade the opening of any new cotton or woolen spinning mills and iron foundries.” (A&R, 229). And in the Ottoman Empire, sultans banned the use of printing. So stultifying was the effect that “well into the second half of the nineteenth century, book production in the Ottoman Empire was still primarily undertaken by scribes hand-copying existing books.” (A&R, 214).

The centuries and the miles that separate us from these episodes give us some objectivity and allow us to see them for what they are: the naked exercise of government force to obstruct innovation for the benefit of a few entrenched interests. But how different are these episodes, really, from the stories we read in today’s newspapers? Are they all that different from New Jersey’s refusal to allow car companies to sell directly to consumers? Are they any less silly than the anti-Uber laws cooked up by a dozen U.S. cities? We like to think that our own political process is more enlightened but right now, federal, state and city policy makers are working to block the development of promising innovations such as wearable technologies, 3D printing, smart cars, and autonomous vehicles.

book-cover-smallFor a thoughtful and forceful discussion of what might be called the anti-Maria Theresa view, everyone should read Permissionless Innovation by my colleague Adam Thierer. It is a well-researched and well-argued defense of the proposition that our default policy should be “innovation allowed.” You can find Kindle and paperback versions on Amazon. Or you can check out the free PDF version at the Mercatus Center. For a nice overview of his book, see Adam’s post (and video) here. Please read it and send (free) copies to any modern-day Maria Theresas you may know.

Tesla’s Teachable Moment in New Jersey

Behind every privilege to a particular firm, there is a taxpayer, a customer, or a competitor who ends up paying for it. And those who are privileged today can easily find themselves on the other side of the equation tomorrow.

Tesla Motor Company is coming to learn this lesson the hard way. This past week New Jersey sided with the state’s powerful car dealership lobby to keep the electric car manufacturer from selling directly to consumers.

That’s me, writing over at RealClearMarkets. More here.

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.”