#pensions

Add the Dutch to the $15.8tn pension shortfall

Negligence. No other word for it. Unrealistic assumptions coupled with a race to the bottom on interest products has meant the top 20 nations have a $15.8 trillion unfunded liability in pensions. CM wrote of the crisis awaiting US public pensions a while back.

It seems the Dutch are the latest bunch of pensioners to reach for the pitchforks at the prospect of having their retirement severely cut back. Shaktie Rambaran Mishre, chair of the Dutch pension federation (representing 197 pension funds and their members), said contributions might have to rise by up to 30% over the next few years to ward off the prospect of having to cut the pensions of 2 million retirees. That will go down a treat.

Zerohedge noted the lower Dutch risk-free rate is not low enough, and as a result about 70 employer-run pension funds with 12.1m members had funding ratios below the statutory minimum at the end of September, according to the Dutch central bank. And here lies the rub: if funds have ratios below the legal minimum for five consecutive years or have no prospect of recovering to a more healthy level, they must cut their payouts.

Can you imagine all of the Dutch who were looking forward to taking a round the world cruise to celebrate 40 years of hard work to face the reality that they’ll only be able to take a cruise down the Amsterdam canals.

This is an utter disgrace. You’d have to be asleep at the wheel as a regulator not to recognize expected returns on funds were so unrealistic as to beggar belief. Actuarial accounting lets you get away with it.

Yet the evil pensions funds will be the villains even though the supervisor left these children alone with a box of matches. Just watch them come home and act surprised that the house has burnt down.

We’re getting a taste of the remedy from the State of Illinois. It is issuing bonds specifically to help plug the gap. Rhode Island has gone the other way – take a 40% haircut or risk having nothing. Way to go!

It is worth factoring the longer term risk of the fall in consumption that this will ultimately have if even a slither or $16tn is no longer recycled into the economy.

Cut the crap

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Labor Party MP Richard Marles posted this picture to his Facebook page pointing to the threat of the 2014 budget ahead of the 2013 election. It is all on the public record to see that this is blatant rubbish. Of course, the hope is that the “stupid” voters will not bother to fact check these claims 2 days ahead of an election. CM was fascinated to see how these numbers stack up against the actual budget papers. Complete fiction.

Entire health spending in 2013-14 was $64.6bn. In the 2014-15 projection, it was $68.1bn. Up $3.5bn. How does Labor get to -$57bn? In 2018-19, health spending was $78.8bn. The budget paper notes, “The increase in expenses of 6.8 per cent in real terms from 2013-14 to 2014-15 reflects the Commonwealth’s commitment to provide additional hospital funding from 2014-15 under current agreements with the States.

Education spending was $29.75bn in 2013-14 and projected $30.39bn the following year. (+$640mn). Technically if $30bn was cut from schools there would be no budget at all. In 2018-19, education spending was $34.7bn.

Government school spending in 2013-14 was $2.8bn which leapt to $5.1bn in the 2014-15 budget. In 2018-19 it was $7.7bn.

Indigenous Affairs welfare fell by $104m in the 2014-15 budget. In 2018-19, this budget was DOUBLE the 2014-15 number at $2.1bn.

ABC spending (split into TV & Radio – refer page 6-39) went up $18mn not -$35.5mn. In 2018-19 the budget was $1.03bn. As CM has written before, the ABC is a shoddily run organisation. Staff engagement at the ABC is 46%, down 6% from the previous survey. It isn’t a money problem. It is a management problem.

On page 6-11, income support for seniors went  UP from $39.5bn to $42.1bn). In 2018-19 it was $46.8bn. Total assistance to the aged went UP from $54.98bn to $57.97bn in 2014-15. In 2018-19 that sum was $66.77bn.

Welcome to pre-election political accounting 101.

Paris still in flames post Notre Dame

23 weekends straight now. While the world focused on the tragedy that was Notre Dame, the yellow vest protests continue. Many cars and motorcycles around Paris were set alight.

The yellow vests see Macron’s (unsurprising) immediate call to rebuild the historic landmark yet another slap in the face. The French president continues to ignore their grievances. The yellow vests feel that unemployment, the rise in the cost of living and higher taxation are burying them. They want the same priority shown to them as the 850yo cathedral.

A recap of the grounds of protest:

Economy/Work

  • A constitutional cap on taxes – at 25%
  • Increase of 40% in the basic pension and social welfare
  • Increase hiring in public sector to re-establish public services
  • Massive construction projects to house 5 million homeless, and severe penalties for mayors/prefectures that leave people on the streets
  • Break up the ‘too-big-to-fail’ banks, re-separate regular banking from investment banking
  • Cancel debts accrued through usurious rates of interest

Politics

  • Constitutional amendments to protect the people’s interests, including binding referenda
  • The barring of lobby groups and vested interests from political decision-making
  • Frexit: Leave the EU to regain our economic, monetary and political sovereignty (In other words, respect the 2005 referendum result, when France voted against the EU Constitution Treaty, which was then renamed the Lisbon Treaty, and the French people ignored)
  • Clampdown on tax evasion by the ultra-rich
  • The immediate cessation of privatization, and the re-nationalization of public goods like motorways, airports, rail, etc
  • Remove all ideology from the ministry of education, ending all destructive education techniques
  • Quadruple the budget for law and order and put time-limits on judicial procedures. Make access to the justice system available for all
  • Break up media monopolies and end their interference in politics. Make media accessible to citizens and guarantee a plurality of opinions. End editorial propaganda
  • Guarantee citizens’ liberty by including in the constitution a complete prohibition on state interference in their decisions concerning education, health and family matters

Health/Environment

  • No more ‘planned obsolescence’ – Mandate guarantee from producers that their products will last 10 years, and that spare parts will be available during that period
  • Ban plastic bottles and other polluting packaging
  • Weaken the influence of big pharma on health in general and hospitals in particular
  • Ban on GMO crops, carcinogenic pesticides, endocrine disruptors and monocrops
  • Re-industrialize France (thereby reducing imports and thus pollution)

Foreign Affairs

  • End France’s participation in foreign wars of aggression, and exit from NATO
  • Cease pillaging and interfering – politically and militarily – in ‘Francafrique’, which keeps Africa poor. Immediately repatriate all French soldiers. Establish relations with African states on an equal peer-to-peer basis
  • Prevent migratory flows that cannot be accommodated or integrated, given the profound civilizational crisis we are experiencing
  • Scrupulously respect international law and the treaties we have signed.

Regardless of the need to restore a national monument, Macron has had no impact on restoring order.

Macron’s poll numbers got a bounce from 29% approval to 32% on the back of Notre Dame. He has merely moved from catastrophic to diabolical. Notre Dame is a one off event for Macron. The question is whether they buy his proposed tax cuts for the poor or boosts for small pensions. The yellow vests don’t want platitudes.

Pension blackhole widens

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CM has been saying for quite some time that the US public pension system is a runaway train running out of track. It seems Zerohedge today confirms many of those same trends. The ratcheting down of return targets by ridiculously small amounts because to actuarially mark-to-market to reality is too scary to contemplate.

To quote the article,

CalSTRS is making the bold move to drop its future goal to… 7%…And CalPERS is ratcheting down its return goals in steps to… wait for it, 7% by 2021.

with interest rates near their lowest levels in human history, it’s been difficult for these pensions to generate a suitable return without taking on more and more risk.

And that’s another big problem with pensions – their investment returns are totally unrealistic.

Most pension funds require a minimum annual return of about 8% a year to cover their future liabilities.

But that 8% is really difficult to generate today, especially if you’re buying bonds (which is the largest asset for most pensions). So pensions are allocating more capital to riskier assets like stocks and private equity.”

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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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.

 

44% of Americans can’t raise $400 in an emergency. It is actually an improvement

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44%. This is actually an improvement on the 2015 survey that said 47% of Americans can’t raise $400 in an emergency without selling something. The consistency is the frightening part. The survey in 2013 showed 50% were under the $400 pressure line. Of the group that could not raise the cash, 45% said they would go further in debt and use a credit card to pay It off over time. while 25% would borrow from friends or family, 27% would forgo the emergency while the balance would turn to selling items or using a payday loan to get by. The report also noted just under a quarter of adults are not able to pay all of their current month’s bills in full while 25% reported skipping medical treatments due to the high cost in the prior year. Additionally, 28% of adults who haven’t retired yet reported to being largely unprepared, indicating no retirement savings or pension whatsoever. Welcome to a gigantic problem ahead. Not to mention the massive unfunded liabilities in the public pension system which in certain cases has seen staff retire early so they can get a lump sum before it folds.