#pensionblackhole

Should we trust ratings agencies on US state credit?

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The Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission concluded in 2011 that “the global financial crisis could not have happened without the ‘Big Three’ agencies – Moody’s, Standard & Poor’s and Fitch which allowed the ongoing trading of bad debt which they gave their highest ratings to despite over three trillion dollars of mortgage loans to homebuyers with bad credit and undocumented incomes.” The table above tabulates the deterioration in US corporate credit ratings since 2006. The ratings agencies have applied their trade far more diligently.

As written earlier in the week, US state public pensions are running into horrific headwinds. Unfunded pension liabilities are running at over double the level of 2008. With asset bubbles in stocks, bonds and property it is hard to see how plugging the gap (running at over 2x (California is 6x) the total tax take of individual states) in the event of a market correction is remotely realistic. However taking a look at the progression of US states’ credit ratings one would think that there is nothing to worry about. Even during GFC, very few states took a hit. See below.

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Looking at the trends of many states since 2000, many have run surpluses so the credit ratings do not appear extreme. It is interesting to flip through the charts of each state and see the trajectory of revenue collection. A mixed bag is putting it lightly. Whether the rebuild after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, since 2008 revenue collection in Louisiana has drifted.

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Looking through S&P’s own research at the end of last year it included an obvious reference.

U.S. state and local governments can use pension obligation bonds (POBs) to address the unfunded portion of their pension liabilities. In certain cases, POBs can be an affordable tool to lower unfunded pension liabilities. But along with the issuance of POBs comes risk. The circumstances that surround an issuance of POBs, as well as the new debt itself, could have implications for the issuer’s creditworthiness. S&P Global Ratings views POB issuance in environments of fiscal distress or as a mechanism for short-term budget relief as a negative credit factor.”

Perhaps the agencies have learnt a painful lesson and trying to stay as close to being behind the curve as possible. It doesn’t seem like public pensions are being factored at levels other than their actuarial values. Marked-to-market values would undoubtedly impact these credit ratings.

As mentioned in the previous piece on public pensions, a state like Alaska has public pension unfunded liabilities equal to $145,000 per household, treble the 2008 figure. It is 3.5x annual tax collections. The state’s per capita operating budget of $13,728 per person is way above the national average of $6,826 per person. Alaska relies on oil taxes to finance most of its operating budget, so a sudden drop in oil prices caused tax revenues to sharply decline. The EIA’s outlook doesn’t look promising in restoring those fortunes in any scenario. So S&P may have cut Alaska two places from AAA in 2015 to AA in 2017.

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While pension liabilities aren’t all due at once, the last 8 years have shown how quickly they can fester. It wasn’t so long ago that several Rhode Island public pension funds reluctantly agreed to a 40% haircut, later retirement ages and higher contributions with a larger component shifted from defined benefits to defined contributions raising the risk of market forces exerting negative outcomes on the pension fund.

In 2017, despite a ‘robust’ economy, 22 states faced revenue shortfalls. More states faced mid-year revenue shortfalls in the last fiscal year than in any year since 2010, according to the National Association of State Budget Officers.

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Pew Charitable Trust (PCT) notes in FY2015 federal dollars as a share of state revenue increased in a majority of states (29). Health care grants have been the main driver of this. FY2015 was the 3rd highest percentage of federal grants to states since 1961.

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By state we can see which states got the heftiest federal grants. Most states with higher federal shares expanded their Medicaid programs under Obamacare (ACA) and got their first full year of grants under the expanded program in FY2015.

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PCT also wrote “At the close of fiscal year 2017, total balances in states’ general fund budgets—including rainy day funds—could run government operations for a median of 29.3 days, still less than the median of 41.3 days in fiscal 2007…North Dakota recorded the largest drop in the number of days’ worth of expenses held in reserves after drawing down almost its entire savings to cover a budget gap caused by low oil prices. It held just 5.4 days’ worth of expenditures in its rainy day fund at the end of fiscal 2017 compared with 69.4 days in the preceding year… 11 states anticipate withdrawing from rainy day funds under budget plans enacted for fiscal 2018

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Looking at the revenue trends of certain states, the level of collection has been either flat or on the wane since 2010 for around 26 states. As an aside, 23 of them voted for Trump in the 2016 presidential election. The three that didn’t were Maine, NJ and Illinois.

Optically US states seem to be able to justify the credit ratings above. Debt levels aren’t high for most. Average state debt is around 4% of annual income. Deficits do not seem out of control. However marking-to-market the extent of public pension unfunded liabilities makes current debt levels look mere rounding errors.

Considering stock, bond and property bubbles are cruising at unsustainably high levels, any market routs will only make the current state of unfunded liabilities blow out to even worse levels. The knock on effects for pensioners such as those taking a 40% haircut in Rhode Island at this stage in the cycle can only feasibly brace themselves for further declines. This is a ticking time bomb. More states will need to address the public pension crisis.

A national government shelling out c.$500bn in interest payments on its own debt in a rising rate environment coupled with a central bank paring back its balance sheet limits the options on the table. Moral hazard is back on the table folks. Is it any wonder that Blackstone has increased its short positions to $22 billion?

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Truly sickening US Public Pensions data

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Following on from the earlier post and our 2016 report on the black hole in US state public pension unfunded liabilities, we have updated the figures to 2016. It is hard to know where to start without chills. The current state of US public pension funds represents the love child of Kathy Bates in Misery and Freddie Krueger. Actuarial accounting allows for pension funds to appear far prettier than they are in reality. For instance the actuarial deficit in public pension funds is a ‘mere’ $1.47 trillion. However using realistic returns data (marking-to-market(M-2-M)) that explodes to $6.74 trillion, 4.6-fold higher.  This is a traffic accident waiting to happen. US Pension Tracker illustrates the changes in the charts presented.

Before we get stuck in, we note that the gross pension deficits do not arrive at once. Naturally it is a balance of contributions from existing employees and achieving long term growth rates that can fund retirees while sustaining future obligations. CM notes that the problems could well get worse with such huge unfunded liabilities coinciding with bubbles in most asset classes. Unlike private sector pension funds, the states have an unwritten obligation to step up and fill the gap. However as we will soon see, M-2-M unfunded liabilities outstrip state government expenditures by huge amounts.

From a layman’s perspective, either taxes go up, public services get culled or pensioners are asked politely to take a substantial haircut to their retirement. Apart from the drastic changes that would be required in lifestyles, the economic slowdown that would ensue would have knock on effects with state revenue collection further exacerbating a terrible situation.

CM will use California as the benchmark. Our studies compare 2016 with 2008.

The chart above shows the M-2-M 2016 unfunded liability per household. In California’s case, the 2016 figure is $122,121. In 2008 this figure was only $36,159. In 8 years the gap has ballooned 3.38x. Every single state in America with the exception of Arizona has seen a deterioration.

The following chart shows the growth rate in M-2-M pension liabilities to total state expenditure. In California’s case that equates to 3.2x in those 8 years.

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Sadly it gets worse when we look at the impact on current total state expenditures these deficits comprise. For California the gap is c.6x what the state spends on constituents.

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Then taking it further,  in the last 8 years California has seen a 2.62-fold jump in the gap between liabilities and state total expenditures.

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This is a ticking time bomb. Moreover it is only the pensions for the public sector. We have already seen raids on particular state pension funds with some looking to retire early merely to cash out before there is nothing left. Take this example in Illinois.

Sadly the Illinois Police Pension is rapidly approaching the point of being unable to service its pension members and a taxpayer bailout looks unlikely given the State of Illinois’ mulling bankruptcy. Local Government Information Services (LGIS) writes, At the end of 2020, LGIS estimates that the Policemen’s Annuity and Benefit Fund of Chicago will have less than $150 million in assets to pay $928 million promised to 14,133 retirees the following yearFund assets will fall from $3.2 billion at the end of 2015 to $1.4 billion at the end of 2018, $751 million at the end of 2019, and $143 million at the end of 2020, according to LGIS…LGIS analyzed 12 years of the fund’s mandated financial filings with the Illinois Department of Insurance (DOI), which regulates public pension funds. It found that– without taxpayer subsidies and the ability to use active employee contributions to pay current retirees, a practice that is illegal in the private sector– the fund would have already run completely dry, in 2015…The Chicago police pension fund held $3.2 billion in assets in 2003. It shelled out $3.8 billion more in benefits to retired police officers than it generated in investment returns between 2003 and 2015…Over that span, the fund paid out $6.9 billion and earned $3.0 billion, paying an additional $134 million in fees to investment managers.”

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To highlight the pressure such states/cities could face, this is a frightening example of how the tax base can evaporate before one’s eyes putting even more pressure on bail outs.

This problem is going to get catastrophically worse with the state of bloated asset markets with puny returns. Looking at how it has been handled in the past Detroit, Michigan gives some flavor. It declared bankruptcy around this time three years ago. Its pension and healthcare obligations total north of US$10bn or 4x its annual budget. Accumulated deficits are 7x larger than collections. Dr. Wayne Winegarden of George Mason University wrote that in 2011 half of those occupying the city’s 305,000 properties didn’t pay tax. Almost 80,000 were unoccupied meaning no revenue in the door. Over the three years post the GFC Detroit’s population plunged from 1.8mn to 700,000 putting even more pressure on the shrinking tax base.

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This can’t wait

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John Mauldin has written an informative piece entitled “this can’t wait” which sums up a lot of pieces I’ve written on the sickening state of public pension unfunded liabilities and the debt super cycle that is facing us. While Mauldin is trying to sell his investment services on the back of this, I wasn’t when I wrote mine. Public service announcement? Maybe but the stats of the black holes we face in pensions and central bank QE which has failed to boost money velocity will bite. Hard. There will be no “I told you so” glory because almost everyone will lose big.

Even if people want to criticize me for being a perma-bear there is no harm in being aware of what is likely coming.

Illinois Police Pension can’t protect or serve – it is going bust

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Sadly the Illinois Police Pension is rapidly approaching the point of being unable to service its pension members and a taxpayer bailout looks unlikely given the State of Illinois’ mulling bankruptcy. Local Government Information Services (LGIS) writes, “At the end of 2020, LGIS estimates that the Policemen’s Annuity and Benefit Fund of Chicago will have less than $150 million in assets to pay $928 million promised to 14,133 retirees the following year…Fund assets will fall from $3.2 billion at the end of 2015 to $1.4 billion at the end of 2018, $751 million at the end of 2019, and $143 million at the end of 2020, according to LGIS…LGIS analyzed 12 years of the fund’s mandated financial filings with the Illinois Department of Insurance (DOI), which regulates public pension funds. It found that– without taxpayer subsidies and the ability to use active employee contributions to pay current retirees, a practice that is illegal in the private sector– the fund would have already run completely dry, in 2015…The Chicago police pension fund held $3.2 billion in assets in 2003. It shelled out $3.8 billion more in benefits to retired police officers than it generated in investment returns between 2003 and 2015…Over that span, the fund paid out $6.9 billion and earned $3.0 billion, paying an additional $134 million in fees to investment managers.”

The public pension black hole in America is an alarming issue.  In the piece, “The Public Pension Black Hole” it was plain to see the problems of unfunded state pensions is rife across America. Take California- “The US Federal Reserve (Fed) reported in 2013 that the State of California had an official unfunded pension liability status equivalent to 43% of state revenue. However, if marked-to- market with realistic discount rates we estimate that it is equivalent to 300% of state revenue or 7x greater. Going back to 2000, California had an unfunded liability less than 11% of tax collections. As a percent of GDP it has grown from 2% to 9.7% based on official figures. If our estimate is correct, the mark-to market reality is that California’s unfunded state pension (i.e. for public servants only) is around 18% of state GDP!”

The problem for Illinois is that a taxpayer funded bailout is all but impossible. The State of Illinois ranked worst in the Fed study on unfunded liabilities.  The unfunded pension liability is around 24% of state GDP. In 2000 the unfunded gap to state revenue was 30% and in 2013 was 124% in 2013. Chicago City Wire adds that the police fund isn’t the only one in trouble.

“Chicago’s Teachers Union Pension Fund is $10.1 billion in debt. Its two municipal worker funds owe $11.2 billion and its fire department fund owes $3.5 billion…All will require taxpayer bailouts if they are going to pay retirees going into the next decade…Put in perspective, the City of Chicago’s property tax levy was $1.36 billion in 2017…Paying for retirees “as we go,” which will prove the only option once funds run dry, will require almost quadrupling city property tax bills…Last year, it would have required more than $4 billion in revenue– including $1 billion for City of Chicago workers, $1.5 billion for teachers, and $1.5 billion for retired police officers and fire fighters.”

This problem is going to get catastrophically worse with the state of bloated asset markets with puny returns. Looking at how it has been handled in the past Detroit, Michigan gives some flavor. It declared bankruptcy around this time three years ago. Its pension and healthcare obligations total north of US$10bn or 4x its annual budget. Accumulated deficits are 7x larger than collections. Dr. Wayne Winegarden of George Mason University wrote that in 2011 half of those occupying the city’s 305,000 properties didn’t pay tax. Almost 80,000 were unoccupied meaning no revenue in the door. Over the three years post the GFC Detroit’s population plunged from 1.8mn to 700,000 putting even more pressure on the shrinking tax base.

In order for states and local municipalities to overcome such gaps, they must reorganise the terms. It could be a simple task of telling retiree John Smith that his $75,000 annuity promised decades ago is now $25,000 as the alternative could be even worse if the terms are not accepted. Think of all the consumption knock on effects of this. I doubt many Americans will accept that hands down, leading to class actions and even more turmoil.

 

Pension Sinkhole

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The pension problem that many in the US face is no laughing matter. ‘Tis but a scratch is how many (especially state run) pension funds continue to view their predicament outwardly. Internally they must be panicking. Actuarial accounting is a wonderful thing. Tweak a few assumptions and immediately wash away a deep deficit. To put this in perspective the California Public Employee Retirement System (CalPERS) lost around 2% of its funds in 2015/16. The fund assumes an aggressive 7.5% return. Dr. Joe Nation of Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research thinks unfunded liabilities have surged to $150bn from $93bn in the last two years. Furthermore suggesting the use of a more realistic 4% rate of return. CalPERS has an unfunded liability of $412bn (or the equivalent of 3 years’ worth of state revenue). California collects $138bn in taxes annually in a $2.3 trillion economy (around the size of Italy). With over-inflated asset markets and increasingly negative returns on highly rated paper, the growth in unfunded liabilities is even more concerning as any market correction (likely to be severe given such blatant manipulation to date). If the correction is huge it will push the unfunded portion to even more dizzying levels.

According to a Bureau of Labor Statistics report from 2015, the average household income of someone older than age 75 is $34,097 and their average expenses are around $34,382. Despite such austerity, a pension collapse would literally kill off the ability to live a bare bones existence.

Years of poor investments have stuffed South Carolina’s government pension plans with a massive funding gap. The plans serve about 550,000 (11%) of residents, and the shortfall of $24.1 billion is more than 3x Palmetto State’s annual budget.

Rewind to 2008. The municipality of Vallejo, California filed for bankruptcy. It wasn’t just the evil bankers that caused financial markets to collapse resulting in tax revenues shrivelling. Sadly, the city of Vallejo was living high on the hog. Bloated pensions and fat cat salaries for public servants ruled by stubborn unions created a scenario where it could not bail water fast enough when the crash hit.

The police captain was paid over US$300,000 while his lieutenants were on c.US$250,000. The average fire fighter took home US$170,000. The police and firefighters pay and conditions sucked up three-quarters of the budget much more than the 55-60% of most municipalities. That $80mn budget suddenly faced a $17mn black hole.

The city was forced to fire 40% of its 260 police officers and told its residents to be judicious with calling 911. Crime rates soared above the state average.

Vallejo did not sort its pension obligations to CalPERS during its bankruptcy negotiations which ended up becoming its largest budget hole by a considerable margin. Even in 2011 when the city came out of bankruptcy the pension time bomb ticked away. Moreover, the declaration of bankruptcy prevented access to bond financing making budget gap filling even more complicated.

Fast forward to 2016, the anaemic (and slowing) economic growth around the world is putting stress on pension funds ability to payout retirees and fund future pensions. Pension funds set “return targets” which actuaries calculate to ensure the fund stays solvent. However, pension funds need to be diversified with a mixture of cash, bonds and equities. With equities reaching more outlandish valuations and bonds moving further into negative yield territory (capital appreciating at least) pension fund returns are undershooting. When pension funds undershoot then the unfunded liabilities keep growing. As more baby boomers retire the more outflows are putting more pressure on the unfunded portions.

San Bernardino, California also filed for bankruptcy after GFC carrying $140mn in unfunded pension liabilities including $50mn in debt it had to raise to fill the pension hole. Yes! It was borrowing money to plug a pension hole. Sort of like buying groceries on the credit card you can’t pay off.

Take Detroit, Michigan. It declared bankruptcy around this time three years ago. Its pension and healthcare obligations total north of US$10bn or 4x its annual budget. Accumulated deficits are 7x larger than collections. Dr. Wayne Winegarden of George Mason University wrote that in 2011 half of those occupying the city’s 305,000 properties didn’t pay tax. Almost 80,000 were unoccupied meaning no revenue in the door. Over the three years post the GFC Detroit’s population plunged from 1.8mn to 700,000 putting even more pressure on the shrinking tax base.

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Scroll forward to 2013 and this is how it looks. 2017 would look even more terrible.

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Do people then rely on Social Security? Well, according to the 2016 Social Security Trustees report it shows at the current rate the Social Security’s combined retirement and disability trust funds will be empty by 2034. The trustees estimate that the 75-year shortfall is $11.4 trillion in NPV terms. Good luck filling that.

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