Tag Archives: pension

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.

Fixing decades of fiscal distress in Scranton, PA

In new Mercatus research, Adam Millsap and I and unpack the causes for almost a quarter of a century of fiscal distress in Scranton, Pennsylvania and offer some recommendations for how the city might go forward.

Since 1992, Scranton has been designated as a distressed municipality under Act 47, a law intended to help financially struggling towns and cities implement reforms. Scranton is now on its fifth Recovery plan, and while there are signs that the city is making improvements, it still has to contend with a legacy of structural, fiscal and economic problems.

We begin by putting Scranton in historical context. The city, located in northeastern Pennsylvania was once a thriving industrial hub, manufacturing coal, iron and providing T-rails for railroad tracks. By 1930, Scranton’s population peaked and the city’s economy began to change. Gas and oil replaced coal. The spread of the automobile and trucking diminished demand for railroad transport. By the 1960s Scranton was a smaller service-based economy with a declining population. Perhaps most relevant to its current fiscal situation is that the number of government workers increased as both the city’s population and tax base declined between 1969 and 1980.

An unrelenting increase in spending and weak revenues prompted the city to seek Act 47 designation kicking off two decades of attempts to reign in spending and change the city’s economic fortunes.

Our paper documents the various recovery plans and the reasons the measures they recommended either proved temporary, ineffective, or simply “didn’t stick.” A major obstacle to cost controls in the city are the hurdle of collective bargaining agreements with city police and firefighters, protected under Act 111, that proved to be more binding than Act 47 recovery plans.

The end result is that Scranton is facing rapidly rising employee costs for compensation, health care and pension benefits in addition to a $20 million back-pay award. These bills have led the city to pursue short-term fiscal relief in the form of debt issuance, sale-leaseback agreements and reduced pension contributions. The city’s tax structure has been described as antiquated relying mainly on Act 511 local taxes (business privilege and mercantile business tax, Local Services Tax (i.e. commuter tax)), property taxes and miscellaneous revenues and fees.

Tackling these problems requires structural reforms including 1) tax reform that does not penalize workers or businesses for locating in the city, 2) pension reform that includes allowing workers to move to a defined contribution plan and 3) removing any barrier to entrepreneurship that might prevent new businesses from locating in Scranton. In addition we recommend several state-level reforms to laws that have made it harder to Scranton to control its finances namely collective bargaining reform that removes benefits from negotiation; and eliminating “budget-helping” band-aids that mask the true cost of pensions. Such band-aids include state aid for municipal pension and allowing localities to temporarily reduce payments during tough economic times. Each of these has only helped to sustain fiscal illusion – giving the city an incomplete picture of the true cost of pensions.

To date Scranton has made some progress including planned asset monetizations to bring in revenues to cover the city’s bills. Paying down debts and closing deficits is crucial but not enough. For Pennsylvania’s distressed municipalities to thrive again reforms must replace poor fiscal institutions with ones that promote transparency, stability and prudence. This is the main way in which Scranton (and other Pennsylvania cities) can compete for businesses and residents: by offering government services at lower cost and eliminating penalties and barriers to locating, working and living in Scranton.

Banking on risky investments is no way to guarantee a public pension

Over the past several years I’ve spent a lot of time studying public pension systems. That’s involved diving into the economics and actuarial literature, reading through many individual plan reports, and analyzing the trends in those systems in the context of the principles of financial economics. Why do this? It isn’t just a public finance problem. Twenty million Americans participate in these plans. If research points to systematic structural weaknesses in public sector plans, that under the right conditions, can lead to plan failure, then it is an imperative to point it out and recommend solutions to ensure that retirees receive the pensions they’ve been promised without placing unnecessary burdens on taxpayers or forcing painful budget tradeoffs at the worst possible time: during a recession.

The only way to protect pensions is to accurately assess their true value and funded status and then contribute what is needed to pay out those benefits. Unfortunately, the story of US public sector pension is that they are built on investment risk and accounting illusions.

Pension finance is not without controversy. Misunderstandings can arise in part due to the very different approaches taken by financial economists and traditionally trained actuaries over how to most appropriately value pension liabilities and assets, as well as the nature of investment risk.

However, some of the conflict is due to the implications of the pension literature. Applying the economic approach to valuing pension fund liabilities reveals trillions more in obligations and far bigger funding gaps for states and cities. It shows how public sector plans have exposed themselves to an unwise amount of investment risk effectively linking guaranteed pension payments to market volatility and putting taxpayers on the hook for losses. Some state and local governments have responded to this debate either through small accounting reforms or policy changes meant to shore up pension systems. These reforms are not necessarily sufficient but it’s a tacit recognition that the math really matters.

There are some plans that continue to staunchly defend a “More investment risk = safe and guaranteed pension with no downsides” approach. And at least one system has gone on the offense against any suggestion that increasing investment risk in a government-guaranteed pension system amounts to gambling with employees’ pension benefits.

In May 2014 I authored a paper that made the case for economic accounting and better funding for Alabama’s three state-run pension plans.[1] My study was featured in The Advisor in July 2014, the newsletter the Retirement Systems of Alabama (RSA) provides to its members.[2] One article written by “RSA staff” purports to debunk my paper, but ends up missing the implications of both the literature and my analysis.

The RSA staff’s main complaint revolves around one sentence in which I cite a peer-reviewed 2010 study in the National Tax Journal by Joshua Rauh entitled, “Are State Public Pension Plans Sustainable?[3] Rauh finds that, without policy changes, Alabama might run out of assets to pay benefits by 2023, necessitating the move to a pay as you go system. To be sure, that is a sobering claim.

The RSA staff argues that the runout date calculated by Rauh is based on “bad data” from 2006, when Alabama offered a 3.5 percent ad hoc Cost of Living Adjustment (COLA). It further contends the runout date is based on the assumption of a risk-free discount rate and asset values from 2009, and this all unfairly inflates liabilities and cherry-picks a low-point for asset values. In addition, Rauh assumes that the plan only pays for normal costs going forward (not for past benefits), in keeping with the contribution behavior of most plans at the time of the study.

The first two claims by the RSA staff are incorrect. In the “run-out dates” paper, Rauh’s data is assembled from, “the individual plans and the Center for Retirement Research on a plan-by-plan basis.”[4] This dataset was originally developed for a previous peer-reviewed paper with Robert Novy-Marx entitled, “Public Pension Promises: How Big Are They and What Are They Worth?” which drew from the individual Comprehensive Annual Financial Reports (CAFRs) of 116 state-sponsored pension plans.[5] Nine data items were taken from the pension plan CAFRs that were available as of December 31, 2008. (The FY 2008 CAFR contains data for 2007 that the authors project to 2009). These CAFR-derived items are:

  • the plans’ stated liability
  • its state-chosen discount rate
  • the actuarial method (EAN or PUC)
  • a benefit factor
  • a Cost of Living Adjustment
  • an inflation assumption
  • the share of active workers in the plan;
  • the share of retired workers in the plan; and
  • the dollar amount of benefits paid in the most recent year.

The third item – the actuarial method – was drawn from both the CAFR and information from the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College as of 2006.[6]

Novy-Marx and Rauh estimated a total of $42 billion projected liabilities as of June 2009 for all three of Alabama’s plans. [7] The authors’ estimate closely matches the reported value of $41.6 billion in September 30, 2009 in RSA’s FY 2010 CAFR. Novy-Marx and Rauh re-calculate the value of state promised pension liabilities when valued based on risk-free Treasury bonds. They find that Alabama’s total liabilities of $42 billion increase to $61.8 billion when discounted using the risk-free Treasury rate.

Their paper triggered a lot of attention. Clearly, the finding that GASB 25 was leading state plans to obscure the true size of their pension liabilities generates a lot of follow-up questions, such as, “When will they run out of money?”

In a subsequent paper Rauh (2010) tackles this very question. His assumptions are key to interpreting the run out date. Beginning with the data that he and Novy-Marx assembled, Rauh models the cash flows of these pension plans under the rate of return assumed by the plan itself, in the case of Alabama: 8 percent. A further assumption is made that future contributions to the plan will be equal in value to the benefits earned by employees in that year, “an assumption broadly in keeping with states’ recent contribution behavior.”[8] If the state fully funds benefits as they are accrued how long will the assets last under the assumption that the plans earn 8 percent each year?

Under an 8 percent discount rate with no COLA, and only funding the normal cost, Rauh projects that the RSA will run out of assets in 2023. The implication is that state contributions will have to increase, placing a greater demand on state budgets, necessitating increased taxes or cuts to spending. One thing going in Alabama’s favor is that they have a history of making the full contribution each year. However, this contribution amount is calculated under optimistic assumptions that I demonstrate in the paper are based on assuming a large amount of investment risk. And that is where the danger lies.

Contrary to the RSA staff’s claim:

  • There is no COLA assumption in Rauh’s 2010 run-out date study
  • The run out date of 2023 is based on a discount rate of 8 percent.

The RSA staff is correct to note that Rauh’s calculation is based on only paying the normal cost. Since Alabama has a history of making the full annual contribution this will help the system to forestall a run-out. The question is by how much, by how many years? As long as the RSA assumes an 8 percent discount rate and embraces a risky investment strategy they are operating under an accounting illusion that leads them to low-ball the annual contribution needed to fund the system.

If the market has a great run over the next decade with returns exceeding 8 percent per year and the RSA continues to to pay 100 percent of the ARC under these conditions it would stay solvent. The RSA points to the fact that between 2009 and today its assets have grown by 46 percent, or $35 billion. [9]

But there’s another problem. The RSA’s funded status continues its decade-long drop. Let’s look at Alabama’s assets, liabilities, and funded status of the plan between 2008 and 2013 (the most recent data available) taken from the plan CAFRs, with no adjustments to the data. The trend is clear. Liabilities are growing faster than the assets. Funding ratios are falling.

For Teachers’ Retirement System (TRS) over the period the total actuarial value of assets fell by six percent from $20.8 billion to $19.6 billion, while total liabilities grew from $26 billion to $29 billion (11 percent), leaving the system with a funded ratio of 66 percent.

Table 1. Teachers Retirement System Actuarial Accrued Liability and Actuarial Assets (2008-2013) Adjusted for Inflation

($ mil) 2008 2009 2010 2011 2012 2013 % change 2008-2014
TRS Liabilities $26,804 $27,537 $28,299 $28,776 $28,251 $29,665 11%
TRS Assets  $20,812 $20,582 $20,132 $19,430 $18,786 $19,629 -6%

Source: Comprehensive Annual Financial Report (CAFR) for Retirement System of Alabama (RSA) FY 2009-2014.

The same story can be told of the Employees Retirement System (ERS). Assets fell by 4 percent as liabilities grew by 11 percent over the period. The ERS is currently funded at 65 percent, down from 77 percent in 2009. Four years of increased returns have not reversed the decline.

Table 2. Employees’ Retirement System Actuarial Accrued Liabilities and Actuarial Assets 2008-2013

($ mil) 2008 2009 2010 2011 2012 2013 % change 2008-2014
ERS Liabilities $13,078 $13,756 $14,248 $14,366 $13,884 $14,536 11%
ERS Assets $9,905 $9,928 $9,739 $9,456 $9,116 $9,546 -4%

Source: Comprehensive Annual Financial Report (CAFR) for Retirement System of Alabama (RSA) FY 2009-2014

The Judicial Retirement Fund (JRF) had the steepest increase in liabilities. Assets fell by 6 percent and liabilities grew by 28 percent. JRF is the most weakly funded at 58 percent.

Table 1. Judicial Retirement System Actuarial Accrued Liability and Actuarial Assets (2008-2013) Adjusted for Inflation

($ mil) 2008 2009 2010 2011 2012 2013 % change 2008-2014
JRF Liabilities $323 $340 $358 $393 $380 $414 28%
JRF Assets $259 $252 $246 $235 $234 $243 -6%

Source: Comprehensive Annual Financial Report (CAFR) for Retirement System of Alabama (RSA) FY 2009-2014

Looking back at the decade shows an even more dramatic trend. These systems began 2003 with funding levels of 90 percent. They have fallen every year since to their current levels of between 66 percent and 58 percent.

The RSA has stated in the past that 80 percent funding is good enough and that investing assets in a risky portfolio currently comprised of 70 percent equities will enable the system to comfortably meet its obligations. But as these funding trends show a volatile portfolio comes with a downside. The assets may be back to where they were five years ago, but in the meantime, liabilities continue their steady growth.

The next observation the RSA staff makes is that these numbers are too bleak since they are based on 2009 asset values. Since then the assets have grown by 11 percent on average over the period. To be sure, once you exclude 2008, things look better. But that’s a bit like excluding the F when you calculate your average grade for the semester. Ignoring the downturn doesn’t mean it didn’t happen or that it didn’t erode the assets. It takes exceptional and sustained performance to make up for it.

The five and 10-year period tell a less bullish story.

Annualized returns for the RSA for the Fiscal Year ended September 30, 2013. (p. 60)

Total Portfolio 1 year Last 3 Years Last 5 Years Last 10 Years
TRS 14.93% 11.45% 6.68% 6.29%
ERS 14.6% 11.4% 6.17% 5.97%
JFR 14.05% 10.89% 8.74% 7.06%

While investments have rebounded for the RSA, plan funding status is falling despite increased contributions. Since 2012 employers and most employees are making bigger contributions to these plans. Alabama now operates a Two-tiered pension system. Tier 1 TRS and ERS employees (those hired before January 1, 2013) saw their individual contributions rates increase from 5 percent of pay in 2011 to 7.5 percent of pay in 2013. JRF members, firefighters, police officers and correctional officers contribution rates increased from 6 percent in 2011 to 8.25 percent of pay in 2013. Tier II members (those hired after January 1, 2013) will have lower contribution rates and diminished benefits. Both tiers will give something up.

Employers are also contributing more. The state’s contributions have increased. For the TRS (Tier 1 employees), the state’s contribution has risen from 6.3 percent of payroll in 2000 to 11.7 percent in 2014. Employer contributions for the ERS (Tier 1) rose from 4 percent to 12 percent of payroll over the same period. JRF has the largest employer contribution “In 2000, the state contribution to the JRF was 21 percent of payroll. It reached 35% by 2014.”

Rauh’s 2010 study points to a trend worth monitoring. Funding levels are dropping. Assets are not growing fast enough to keep up with the growth in liabilities necessitating more revenues, higher contributions or some other action. Yet the RSA staff points to its recent returns of 11%, as if that is something the RSA can sustain. The stock market does reward risk-taking with high returns in bull markets, but at a cost of negative returns in recession years like 2008. Increasing the risk of RSA assets to chase high stock market returns is banking on something neither the RSA nor anyone else can guarantee.

Valuing a guaranteed pension based on the expected returns of risky and volatile assets increases the chance of a funding shortfall. It is likely that Alabama will find it will need more revenue to fund the RSA. Already inadequate funding levels are falling. The investment portfolio is heavily exposed to market risk. And contribution rates are rising.

The RSA staff’s response to my research is part of a more general problem. Many of those responsible for public sector pensions think that investment risk can be ignored or it can just be passed on to taxpayers. The point of this entire body of literature drives home one theme consistently: public sector pension accounting flaunts the established principles of finance by claiming that there is no price for assuming investment risk. Financial theory can be abstract. But recent history gives us a demonstration of these core principles. Many pensions systems, the RSA included, have ignored the lessons of the Great Recession and are exposing pensions to even more investment risk.

[1] Eileen Norcross, “Pension Reform in Alabama: A Case for Economic Accounting,” in Improving Lives in Alabama: A Vision for Economic Freedom and Prosperity, The Johnson Center at Troy University, May 2014 (https://nebula.wsimg.com/35b439dc51fd0dae2bd46e38024dadd2?AccessKeyId=F0B126F45D4E1A4094F7&disposition=0&alloworigin=1)

[2] “Troy University Report on RSA has Erroneous Assumptions,” by RSA Staff, The Advisor, July 2014 (http://www.rsa-al.gov/uploads/files/Advisor_July2014.pdf)

[3] Joshua Rauh, “Are State Public Pension Plans Sustainable? Why the Federal Government Should Worry about State Pension Liabilities,” National Tax Journal 63(3) p. 585-601, May 2010. (http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1596679)

[4] Ibid, p. 6 and p. 9.

[5] Robert Novy-Marx and Joshua Rauh, “Public Pension Promises: How Big Are They and What Are They Worth?” Journal of Finance 66 (4), 1211-1249, 2011 (http://www.jstor.org/stable/29789814?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents)

[6] Ibid p. 1224, “The actuarial method (item 3) combines our own data collection with information from the state and local pension data made available by the Center for Retirement Research (2006.)

[7] Ibid, p. 1239

[8] Rauh, (2010) “Are Public Pensions Sustainable?” p. 2.

 

State government spending hits new heights

There is a large literature in macroeconomics that examines the extent to which federal spending “crowds out” investment in the private sector. Basic theory and common sense lead to the conclusion that government spending must replace some private sector spending. After all, dollars are scarce – if the government taxes Paul and uses his money to build a road Paul necessarily has less money to invest in his landscaping business. In theory government spending on public goods like roads could be a net gain. This would occur if the additional value produced by spending one more dollar on roads was greater than the additional value produced by investing one more dollar in Paul’s landscaping business. But even in this scenario, Paul himself may be worse off – he’s one dollar poorer and he may not use the new road – and there is still a dead-weight loss due to the tax.

In reality, the federal government does a lot more than build roads, especially productive ones. In 2014, only 1.9% of federal income tax revenue was spent on transportation. And most of the other stuff that the government does is way less productive, like shuffling money around via entitlement programs – Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security – and investing in businesses that later go bankrupt like Solyndra. So while it is possible that a dollar spent by the government is more productive than a dollar spent by a guy like Paul, in a country with America’s spending habits it’s unlikely to be the case.

The same crowding out that occurs at the federal level can occur at the state level. In fact, in many states state spending as a percentage of gross state product (GSP) exceeds federal spending as a percentage of GDP. The graph below shows state spending as a percentage of GSP for all 50 states and Washington D.C. in 1970, 1990, and 2012 (data). The red, dashed line is federal spending as a percentage of GDP in 2012 (21.9%).

state spending gsp graph

As shown in the graph, nearly every state increased their spending relative to GSP from 1970 – 2012 (triangles are above the X’s). Only one state, South Dakota, had lower spending relative to GSP in 2012 than in 1970. In 2012, 15 of the 50 states spent more as a percentage of GSP than the federal government spent as a percentage of GDP (states where the triangle is above the red, dashed line). In 1990 only two states, Arizona and Montana, spent at that level.

It used to be the case that state and local spending was primarily focused on classic government services like roads, water/sewer systems, police officers, firemen, and K-12 education. But state spending is increasingly looking similar to federal spending. Redistributive public welfare expenditures and pension expenditures have increased substantially since 1992. As an example, the tables below provide a breakdown of some key spending areas for two states, Ohio and Pennsylvania, in 1992 and 2012 (1992 data here, 2012 data here). The dollar per capita amounts are adjusted for inflation and are in 2009 dollars.

ohio spending table

penn spending table

As the tables show, spending on public welfare, hospitals, and health increased by 120% in Ohio and 86% in Pennsylvania from 1992 to 2012. Pension expenditures increased by 83% and 125% respectively. And contrary to what many politicians and media types say, funding for higher education – the large majority of state education spending is on higher education – increased dramatically during this time period; up 250% in Ohio and 199% in Pennsylvania. Meanwhile, funding for highways – the classic public good that politicians everywhere insist wouldn’t exist without them – has increased by a much smaller amount in both states.

The state spending increases of the recent past are being driven in large part by public welfare programs that redistribute money, pensions for government employees, and higher education. While one could argue that higher education spending is a productive public investment (Milton Friedman didn’t think so and I agree) it is hard to make a case that public welfare and pension payments are good investments. This alone doesn’t mean that society shouldn’t provide those things. Other factors like equity and economic security might be more important to some people than economic productivity. But this does make it unlikely that the marginal dollar spent by a state government today is as economically productive as that dollar spent in the private sector. Like federal spending, state spending is likely crowding out productive private investment, which will ultimately lower output and economic growth in the long run.

Grants to Puerto Rico haven’t helped much

Greece’s monetary and fiscal issues have overshadowed a similar situation right in America’s own back yard: Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico’s governor recently called the commonwealth’s $72 billion in debt “unpayable” and this has made Puerto Rico’s bondholders more nervous than they already were. Puerto Rico’s bonds were previously downgraded to junk by the credit rating agencies and there is a lot of uncertainty surrounding Puerto Rico’s ability to honor its obligations to both bond holders and its own workers, as the commonwealth’s pension system is drastically underfunded.   A major default would likely impact residents of the mainland U.S., since according to Morningstar most of the debt is owned by U.S. mutual funds, hedge funds, and mainland Americans.

So how did Puerto Rico get into this situation? Like many other places, including Greece and several U.S. cities, the government of Puerto Rico routinely spent more than it collected in revenue and then borrowed to fill the gap as shown in the graph below from Puerto Rico’s Office of Management and Budget. Over a recent 13 year period (2000 – 2012) Puerto Rico ran a deficit each year and accrued $23 billion in debt.

Puerto rico govt spending

Puerto Rico has a lot in common with many struggling cities in the U.S. that followed a similar fiscal path, such as a high unemployment rate of 12.4%, a shrinking labor force, stagnant or declining median household income, population flight, and falling house prices. Only 46.1% of the population 16 and over was in the labor force in 2012 (compared to an average of nearly 64% in the US in 2012) and the population declined by 4.8% from 2010 to 2014. It is difficult to raise enough revenue to fund basic government services when less than half the population is employed and the most able-bodied workers are leaving the country.

Like other U.S. cities and states, Puerto Rico receives intergovernmental grants from the federal government. As I have explained before, these grants reduce the incentives for a local government to get its fiscal house in order and misallocate resources from relatively responsible, growing areas to less responsible, shrinking areas. As an example, since 1975 Puerto Rico has received nearly $2.7 billion in Community Development Block Grants (CDBG). San Juan, the capital of Puerto Rico, has received over $900 million. The graph below shows the total amount of CDBGs awarded to the major cities of Puerto Rico from 1975 – 2014.

Total CDBGs Puerto Rico

As shown in the graph San Juan has received the bulk of the grant dollars. The graph below shows the amount by year for various years between 1980 and 2014 for San Juan and Puerto Rico as a whole plotted on the left vertical axis (bar graphs). On the right vertical axis is the amount of CDBG dollars per capita (line graphs). San Juan is in orange and Puerto Rico is in blue.

CDBGs per capita, yr Puerto Rico

San Juan has consistently received more dollars per capita than the other areas of Puerto Rico. Both total dollars and dollars per capita have been declining since 1980, which is when the CDBG program was near its peak funding level. As part of the 2009 Recovery Act, San Juan received an additional $2.8 million dollars and Puerto Rico as a country received another $5.9 million on top of the $32 million already provided by the program (not shown on the graph).

It’s hard to look at all of this redistribution and not consider whether it did any good. After all, $2.7 billion later Puerto Rico’s economy is struggling and their fiscal situation looks grim. Grant dollars from programs like the CDBG program consistently fail to make a lasting impact on the recipient’s economy. There are structural problems holding Puerto Rico’s economy back, such as the Jones Act, which increases the costs of goods on the island by restricting intra-U.S.-shipping to U.S. ships, and the enforcement of the U.S. minimum wage, which is a significant cost to employers in a place where the median wage is much lower than on the mainland. Intergovernmental grants and transfers do nothing to solve these underlying structural problems. But despite this reality, millions of dollars are spent every year with no lasting benefit.

Paving over pension liabilities, again

Public sector pensions are subject to a variety of accounting and actuarial manipulations. A lot of the reason for the lack of funding discipline, I’ve argued, is in part due to the mal-incentives in the public sector to fully fund employee pensions. Discount rate assumptions, asset smoothing, and altering amortization schedules are three of the most common kinds of maneuvers used to make pension payments easier on the sponsor. Short-sighted politicians don’t always want to pay the full bill when they can use revenues for other things. The problem with these tactics is they can also lead to underfunding, basically kicking the can down the road.

Private sector plans are not immune to government-sanctioned accounting subterfuges. Last week’s Wall Street Journal reported on just one such technique.

President Obama recently signed a $10.8 billion transportation bill that also included a provision to allow companies to continue “pension smoothing” for 10 more months. The result is to lower the companies’ contribution to employee pension plans. It’s also a federal revenue device. Since pension payments are tax-deductible these companies will have slightly higher tax bills this year. Those taxes go to help fund federal transportation per the recently signed legislation.

A little bit less is put into private-sector pension plans and a little bit more is put into the government’s coffers.

The WSJ notes that the top 100 private pension plans could see their $44 billion required pension contribution reduced by 30 percent, adding an estimated $2.3 billion deficit to private pension plans. It’s poor discipline considering the variable condition of a lot of private plans which are backed by the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC).

My colleague Jason Fichtner and I drew attention to these subtle accounting dodges triggered by last year’s transportation bill. In “Paving over Pension Liabilities,” we call out discount rate manipulation used by corporations and encouraged by Congress that basically has the same effect: redirecting a portion of the companies’ reduced pension payments to the federal government in order to finance transportation spending. The small reduction in corporate plans’ discount rate translates into an extra $8.8 billion for the federal government over 10 years.

The AFL-CIO isn’t worried about these gimmicks. They argue that pension smoothing makes life easier for the sponsor, and thus makes offering a defined benefit plan, “less daunting.” But such, “politically-opportunistic accounting,” (a term defined by economist Odd Stalebrink) is basically a means of covering up reality, like only paying a portion of your credit card bill or mortgage. Do it long enough and you’ll eventually forget how much those shopping sprees and your house actually cost.

Some private sector pensions also face funding trouble

A new report by the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp (PBGC) warns that while the market recovery has helped many multiemployer pension plans improve their funding there remain some plans that,”will not be able to raise contributions or reduce benefits sufficiently to avoid insolvency,” affecting between 1 and 1.5 million of ten million enrollees.

Multiemployer plans are defined as those which unions collectively bargained for, with multiple employers participating within an industry (e.g. building, construction, retail, trucking, mining and entertainment). They are also known as Taft-Hartley plans. Multiemployer plans grew out of the idea of offering pension benefits for unionized employees in transient kinds of work such as construction. These plans have been in trouble for awhile due to a variety of factors. Many plans have taken measures by increasing contributions and in a few cases cutting benefits according to GAO. But those steps have not been nearly enough to fix the growing shortfalls.

When a PBGC-insured pension plan goes insolvent beneficiaries are only guaranteed a fraction of their benefits. Those funds come from the premiums paid by remaining plans. The projected deficit for the ailing multiemployer plans range from $49.6 billion to $79.6 billion in 2022. By contrast the PBGC reports that single employer plans fare better with the current funding deficit of $27.4 billion narrowing to $7.6 billion by 2023.

Source: FY 2013 PBGC Projections Report

 

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.

 

Municipal pension news: Baltimore to offer DC plan

Earlier this month, Baltimore’s city council approved a measure to give the city’s workers a choice between a defined contribution or defined benefit plan plan. According to Pensions and Investments, new hires will contribute 5 percent of their salary to whichever plan they choose, a significant increase from the 1 percent that workers were required to begin contributing to the city’s pension system last year. (Previously, workers had not contributed to their pension). As the article notes, the choice between a DB and a DC plan is a compromise. Mayor Rawlings-Blake preferred to move all newly hired employees to a DC plan, but this was not agreed upon by unions. In total, Baltimore two pension systems have an unfunded liability of $1.4 billion on a GASB-basis.

Baltimore’s proposed reforms are a bit stronger than the plan currently considered by Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel, which is largely focused on filling in very daunting funding gaps in the city’s multiple plans. The Wall Street Journal reports that the mayor’s plan to raise property taxes by $250 million represents an increase of about $50 a year for the owner of a $250,000 home. And, it’s not enough to cover the gap. The state will demand an additional $600 million in annual payments for the city’s police and fire funds by 2016. In addition, Mayor Emanuel proposes benefit cuts, such as  increased employee contributions and reduced COLAs. But structural reforms aren’t being pushed too strongly, instead, the focus in Chicago appears to be a search for more revenues. Consider a proposal floated by The Chicago Teachers Union. They would like to see a per-transaction tax levied on futures, options, and stock trades processed on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange (CME) and Chicago Board Options Exchange.  Both the CME and Mayor Emanuel oppose the idea recognizing that it will simply drive the financial industry out of town.

 

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.”