Tag Archives: pension

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.

 

Pension reform from California to Tennessee

Earlier this month Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) workers went on their second strike of the year. With public transport dysfunctional for four days, area residents were not necessarily sympathetic to the workers’ complaints, according to The Economist. The incident only drew attention to the fact that BART’s workers weren’t contributing to their pensions.

Under the new collective bargaining agreement employees will contribute to their pensions, and increase the amount they pay for health care benefits to $129/month.  The growing cost of public pensions, wages and benefits on city budgets is a real matter for mayors who must struggle to contain rapidly rising costs to pay for retiree benefits. San Jose’s mayor, Chuck Reed has led the effort in California to institute pension reforms via a ballot measure that would give city workers a choice between reduced benefits or bigger contributions, known as the Pension Reform Act of 2014. Reed is actively seeking the support of California’s public sector unions for the measure that would give local authorities some flexibility to contain costs. Pension costs are presenting new threats for many California governments. Moody’s is scrutinizing 30 cities for possible downgrades based on their more complete measurement of the economic liability presented by pension plans.  In spite of this dire warning, CalPERS has sent municipalities a strong message to struggling and bankrupt cities: pay your contributions, or else.

Other states and cities that are looking to overhaul how benefits are provided to employees include Memphis, Tennessee which faces a reported unfunded liability of $642 million and a funding ratio of 74.4%. This is using a discount rate of 7.5 percent.  I calculate Memphis’ unfunded liability is approximately $3.4 billion on a risk-free basis, leaving the plan only 35% funded.

The options being discussed by the Memphis government include moving new hires to a hybrid plan, a cash balance plan, or a defined contribution plan. Which of these presents the best option for employees, governments and Memphis residents?

I would suggest the following principles be used to guide pension reform: a) economic accounting, b) shift the funding risk away from government, c) offer workers – both current workers and future hires – the option to determine their own retirement course and to choose from a menu of options that includes a DC plan or an annuity – managed by an outside firm or some combination.

The idea should be to eliminate the ever-present incentive to turn employee retirement savings into a budgetary shell-game for governments. Public sector pensions in US state and local governments have been made uncertain under flawed accounting and high-risk investing. As long as pensions are regarded as malleable for accounting purposes – either through discount rate assumptions, re-amortization games, asset smoothing, dual-purpose asset investments, or short-sighted thinking – employee benefits are at risk for underfunding. A defined contribution plan, or a privately managed annuity avoids this temptation by putting the employer on the hook annually to make the full contribution to an employee’s retirement savings.

America’s best pension system? The case of Milwaukee

NPR reports that while many municipal and state governments’s pension systems are suffering from deep underfunding, there are some outliers. One such city is Milwaukee, Wisconsin. With a funding ratio of 90 percent, Milwaukee’s public employees’ plan would seem to have beaten the odds with a very simple (and laudable) strategy: fully fund the pension plan every year.

It is common sense. Make the full annual contribution and the plan can ensure that the benefits promised are available when retirement day arrives.

Except, thanks to government accounting guidance, it’s a little more complicated than that.

The problem is that the annual contribution the city is (prudently) making each year is calculated incorrectly. This flawed approach is why Detroit could claim a few short years ago that its plans were 100 percent funded. It is why New Jersey thought its plans were overfunded in the late 1990s.

Public plans calculate their liabilities – and thus the annual amount needed to contribute to the fund – based on how much they expect the assets to return. Milwaukee’s discount rate is 8.25%, recently lowered from 8.5%.

Unfortunately, if these liabilities are considered safe and guaranteed by the government, then they should valued as such. A better rate to use is the yield US Treasury bonds. In economist-speak: the value of liabilities and assets are independent. By way of analogy: Your monthly mortgage payment doesn’t change based on how much you think you may earn in your 401(K).

On a default-free, market valuation basis, Milwaukee’s pension plans is 40% funded and has a funding gap of $6.5 billion.

The good news – Milwaukee’s elected officials have funding discipline. They aren’t skipping, skimming, or torturing their contributions based on  the desire to avoid paying their bills. And this can be said of many other cities and states. Funding a pension shouldn’t be magic or entail lots of uncertainty for the sponsor or employee.

But that leads to the bad news. Even when governments are responsible managers, they’re being sunk by bad accounting. Public sector accounting assumptions (GASB 25) lead governments to miscalculate the bill for public sector pension contributions. Even when governments pay 100 percent of the recommended amount – as it is presently calculated – this amount is too little to fully fund pension promises.

Last week I posted the Tax Foundation’s map of what pension funding levels look like under market valuation. Almost all state plans are under the 50 percent funded level. That is, they are in far worse funding shape than their current accounts recognize.

Until plans de-link the value of the liability from the expected performance of plan assets, even the best -managed plans are going to be in danger of not having put aside enough to pay these promises. Even the best intentions cannot undo the effects of bad accounting assumptions.

 

 

Obama Administration will bailout Detroit

The Obama administration announced today it plans to send Detroit $320 million to “aid in its recovery,” according to The Hill.

The dollars come from existing federal money that is being re-purposed. It includes $24 million to rehabilitate buses and install safety cameras, $1.35 million for a community policing program, and the underwriting of 150 new firefighters. There are also funds for streets lights, police bike patrol, $3 million to hire new police, dollars for urban revitalization, and $25.4 million for demolition. A few months ago the administration said Detroit would have to work with creditors to resolve its bankruptcy issues. The city owes its creditors $18.5 billion.

Another example of how Detroit ended up in this awful position is highlighted in yesterday’s New York Times report of how Detroit City Council members skimmed $2 billion off of the pension system’ “excess earnings” to give employees ‘extra payments’ that had nothing to do with their pension benefits. This practice which spanned a 23 year period was justified as follows, quoting the NYT:

“People were having a hard time, living hand-to-mouth, and we thought we would give them some extra,” Ms. Bassett said.

Of all the nonpension payments, she said, 54 percent went to active workers, 14 percent went to retirees and 32 percent went to the city, which used its share to lower its annual contributions to the fund. The excess payments were often made near the end of the year, when recipients needed money for the holidays, or to heat their homes.

Of course the practice sounds wrong. Except it’s really another example of what happens when pensions value their liabilities based on asset returns. Detroit gave workers these “excess earnings.” New Jersey and scores of other states believed they were overfunded also and they “skipped payments” when the market was hot in the 1990s and early 2000s. The accounting gave them the illusion that this would all work out in the end. It is a dangerous fiction that these pension systems operate under.

That illusion of “overfunding in boom years” flows from the practice – discussed often in this blog – of discounting liabilities based on expected asset returns.The math really matters. For a long discussion, see here. 

How much damage has this accounting assumption and all the behaviors that flow from it caused? For Detroit – a significant amount. The city reports its pensions are underfunded by $634 million. It’s actually $9 billion underfunded on a market basis. 

I am not entirely surprised by the bailout, which sounds like a mini-stimulus via federal municipal grant programs. And I openly wonder what it portends for other cities that find themselves looking at similarly dire economic and financial situations.

How are the states doing with pension funded ratios?

The Tax Foundation has a new pension map. It shows the funding levels of plans in the states, based on a risk-free discount rate. The numbers were crunched by State Budget Solutions, using a yield on (notional) 15-year Treasury bonds of 3.2 percent.

They estimate that the overall funding gap in the states is $4.1 trillion, much larger than the $1.3 trillion typically reported when using the state’s own assumptions (or a discount rate of about 7.5 percent). According to this map, no state is anywhere near the general standard of 80 percent funded. Most states are hovering around the 30 to 40 percent funded ratio. The state with the lowest funded ratio is Illionis at 24%funded. Connecticut is next at 25% funded. The best funded are Wisconsin (57%) and North Carolina (54%) – better, but not great.

taxfoundation

 

 

 

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.

 

 

The political economy of state and local public pensions

Edward Glaeser of Harvard and Giacomo Ponzetto of Centre de Recerca en Economia Internacional have a new paper on fiscal illusion in state and local public pensions (and they don’t cite James Buchanan?!):

Why are public-sector workers so heavily compensated with pensions and other non-pecuniary benefits? In this paper, we present a political economy model of shrouded compensation in which politicians compete for taxpayers’ and public employees’ votes by promising compensation packages, but some voters cannot evaluate every aspect of compensation. If pension packages are “shrouded,” meaning that public-sector workers better understand their value than ordinary taxpayers, then compensation will be inefficiently back-loaded. In equilibrium, the welfare of public-sector workers could be improved, holding total public sector costs constant, if they received higher wages and lower pensions. Central control over dispersed municipal pensions has two offsetting effects on pension generosity: more state-level media attention helps taxpayers better understand pension costs, which reduces pension generosity; but a larger share of public sector workers will live within the jurisdiction, which increases pension generosity. We discuss pension arrangements in two decentralized states (California and Pennsylvania) and two centralized states (Massachusetts and Ohio) and find that in these cases, centralization appears to have modestly reduced pension arrangements; but, as the model suggests, this finding is unlikely to be universal.

Gated versions here and here.

The math really matters in pension plans

Writing in The Wall Street Journal, Andy Kessler, a former hedge fund manager, gets to the heart of the matter on why state and local pension plans are running out of assets (and time): the math is a mess. Economists, financial professionals and some actuaries have been making the case for awhile that the way public sector pension plans value their liabilities is a dangerous fiction.

Today, U.S. governments calculate the present value of plan liabilities based on the returns they expect to earn on plan assets (typically between 7 and 8 percent annually). That’s all wrong. How the assets perform is immaterial to the present value of plan benefits. Instead a public sector worker’s pension should be valued as a risk-free guaranteed payout much like a bond. Unfortunately, when pensions are valued on a “guaranteed payout” basis, unfunded liabilities skyrocket. Some major plans are not just a bit underfunded, they are deeply in the hole.

Many plan managers disregard the discount rate critique of the actuarial assumptions and persist in underestimating the funding shortfalls by an order of magnitude. In conflating expected asset returns with the value of plan benefits, another troubling behavior has ensued: shifting assets into higher-return/higher-risk vehicles to catch up after market downturns, a problem I note in a recent analysis of Delaware (and they are by no means alone in this approach.)

He gives an analogy to what is happening in Stockton and is certain to visit other California cities to his experience watching GM’s pension plan bottom out. The company’s pension shortfall spiked from $14 billion to $22.4 billion between 1992 and 1993. GM got some advice from Morgan Stanley: invest the money in alternatives and watch expected returns double from 8 percent to 16 percent. Make this assumption and the hole will be filled.

But as Kessler notes, “you can’t wish this stuff away.” Instead:

Things didn’t go as planned. The fund put up $170 million in equity and borrowed another $505 million and invested in—I’m not kidding—a northern Missouri farm raising genetically engineered pigs. Meatier pork chops for all! Everything went wrong. In May 1996, the pigs defaulted on $412 million in junk debt. In a perhaps related event, General Motors entered 2012 with its global pension plans underfunded by $25.4 billion.”

 The debate between economists and government accountants continues.

 

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.

Pensions

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.”

Public pension plan portfolios: pursuing higher risk at what cost?

How should a public sector pension plan invest its assets? A trend since the 2007 financial crisis is public pension funds making up for losses by seeking higher returns in riskier portfolios. Michael Corkery at The Wall Street Journal takes a look at the Texas Teachers’ Retirement Fund which is placing more of its assets in private equity in an attempt to “hit its target” of 8 percent annual returns. Therein lies the problem.

Due to how public pension liabilities (i.e. the benefits owed to retirees) are valued (based on the expected return on plan assets), there is pressure to invest plan assets to achieve a targeted return that is linked to how the liability is valued. This approach is deeply flawed and been criticized often. Instead, plan assets should be invested in a way that hedges the risks inherent in the liability. These risks include changes in wages and interest rates since the value of the retiree’s benefits is affected by changes to wages and are usually indexed to inflation.

In a recent paper in the Journal of Pension Economics and Finance entitled Portfolio Allocation for Public Pension Funds, George Pennachhi and Mahdi Rastad find that a “benchmark” portfolio for public pensions would consist of 160 percent fixed income, with a 9 percent short position in equities, a 67 percent short position in hedge funds and a 24 percent investment in private equity. A short position implies the fund should borrow in other asset categories to increase its holdings in fixed income. Where short selling isn’t feasible or permitted  one would take a 100 percent position in fixed income.

Instead public plans tend to invest assets with a view towards meeting a numerical goal. Over time, this has led plans to increase their exposure to higher risk investments, changing the composition of pubic sector plan portfolios from being more heavily invested in bonds (almost exclusively so in 1952) to more heavily invested in high-return, high-risk investments like real estate, with the average plan exposed to a 21 percent investment in alternatives.

There are two inter-related problems here. Firstly, the liability is undervalued based on high-risk discount rates and secondly, the asset investment strategy is focused on targeting returns rather than hedging risks in the liability. An unfortunate but predictable result of this flawed linkage between liability valuation and asset investments is that during a downturn, plans have opted to “double-down” on risk and expose plans to potentially bigger losses down the road.

Indeed, as plans continue to fall short of return expectations many are turning to alternative investments including “exotics,” a strategy  that shows no sign of abating, according to Pensions & Investments.