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by John Rubino on December 8, 2013 · 26 comments
The main difference between well-run and badly-run countries is certainty. In well-run countries, money is worth pretty much the same from one year to the next, the police come when called and protect rather than prey on the caller, and contracts, including pensions and other retirement plans, behave as advertised. In badly-run countries, not so much.
With the contract part of this story, Americans have been living in two different countries, depending on whether they’re in the private or public sectors. Private sector workers discovered years ago that things like pensions and employment contracts are just so much scrap paper. But until recently the public sector had been spared such nasty surprises. Baby boomer teachers, firefighters and college professors have spent lifetimes doing their jobs and watching their pensions accrue. They’ve known for decades that when they retire they’ll get X amount per year for life and have X amount of their health care covered. This certainty makes them perhaps the last segment of US society to retain a belief that the system works.
But that changed earlier this month, when Detroit’s bankruptcy judge declared that pensions can be cut along with everything else:
A federal judge’s ruling clears the way for Detroit to proceed with the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history
For 90 minutes Tuesday, as snow fell on protesters outside, Judge Steven Rhodes laid out his rationale for allowing Detroit to seek the biggest municipal bankruptcy in American history.
“This is indeed a momentous day,” Rhodes told the hushed courtroom. “We have a finding that this proud and once prosperous city cannot pay its debts.”
By the time the soft-spoken federal judge had finished, it was clear that from worker pensions to the city’s art treasures, nothing in Detroit is completely safe in Chapter 9 bankruptcy.
The effect of his ruling is likely to touch all corners of the city and could serve as a legal precedent for other municipalities reckoning with unsustainable debt. Here are three of the most important takeaways:
Pensions Aren’t Sacred. Lawyers for the city’s 48 organized-labor groups argued strenuously that Michigan law protected state employees’ pensions. Rhodes disagreed, noting that the state’s constitution classified pensions as a contractual obligation on cities’ part, not something requiring special treatment.
That means the city can treat pensions like any other potentially voidable contract. Expect it to do so. On Tuesday afternoon Detroit’s emergency manager, Kevyn Orr, said he couldn’t fix the city’s financial problems simply by restructuring the debt owed to banks. “It can’t be done without impacting pensions,” Orr said.
“For the image of labor, Detroit is a catastrophe,” said Gary Chaison, a professor of industrial relations at Clark University in Worcester, Mass. “The aristocrats of labor have become the paupers of labor. What affected yesterday’s manufacturing workers is now affecting policemen and firefighters. Nobody is safe.”
Detroit is just the first of many. Pension plans across the country have failed to put away enough to cover their obligations while hiding that fact from beneficiaries and bondholders:
Pity the municipal bondholder. Between Detroit’s bankruptcy and the rising concerns over unfunded pensions in Illinois and elsewhere, it has been a rough year for many muni bond investors. While the Standard & Poor’s municipal bond index has recovered from its September lows, it is still off 2.7 percent for the year.
A big problem for investors in this $3.7 trillion municipal market — mostly individuals — is that financial disclosures by states, cities and other issuers of tax-exempt debt can be decidedly inadequate.
Securities laws require issuers of municipal debt to provide the information investors need to make informed decisions when buying or selling these instruments. But lax disclosure practices remain, making it hard to spot signs of problems like those hobbling some states and cities. Disclosures about the soundness of public pensions, for example, can be essential to weighing the health of municipal bond issuers that are responsible for funding them.
Investors aren’t the only ones who need more information. This was on full display last week, when a judge in Detroit suggested in a groundbreaking ruling that the city’s pensioners would not get priority in the city’s bankruptcy, and their retirement pay could be considered an unsecured obligation.
John R. Mousseau, executive vice president and director of fixed income at Cumberland Advisers, a money management firm in Sarasota, Fla., said: “Detroit’s pensioners may be as eligible to take a haircut as the city’s bondholders or vendors. This development should demand more disclosure.”
But better disclosure practices among tax-exempt issuers are slow in coming, investors say.
If issuers make material misstatements or omit information, they can face civil or criminal penalties. The Securities and Exchange Commission has brought eight cases contending disclosure failings by municipal issuers this year.
A large case last March involved accusations that the state of Illinois misled investors about its unfunded pension. From 2005 to 2009, a period when the state issued $2.2 billion in bonds, the S.E.C. said Illinois failed to warn investors about the pension system’s woes and “the resulting risks to the state’s financial condition.”
Among the details missing from the state’s offering statements and filings, the commission said, were those relating to the contributions made by the state to its various pension funds. The commission said investors were not told that the state was contributing far less to the pensions than was required each year. Last week, the Illinois Legislature voted to shore up the pensions by raising the retirement age for some workers and lowering cost-of-living adjustments. The state is facing a pension shortfall of $97 billion.
Illinois settled with the S.E.C., but the agency did not impose fines or penalties. The S.E.C. doesn’t typically exact penalties in such cases, its officials said, because the money would come out of a state or city budget, making matters worse.
A crucial metric that should be found in issuers’ offering statements and filings is one cited by the S.E.C. in the Illinois case: the shortfall in annual contributions that are needed to keep a pension fully funded. Known as annual required contributions, or ARC, many states fail to meet them.
This has the effect of masking an issuer’s financial troubles, Mr. Tobe said. “There almost needs to be a bold statement saying the state is not paying 100 percent of its ARC payments,” he said.
He cites a December 2011 offering statement for $72 million of bonds issued by the University of Illinois. Nowhere does it detail the shortfalls in state contributions to the university system’s pension fund in recent years. Investors seeking this information must go to the Illinois State Universities Retirement System website.
It has been generally understood for a while that pension plans use unrealistic return assumptions to hide the fact that their governments aren’t contributing enough each year. But it’s interesting that even with a raging bull market in equities – which have of late returned a lot more than the typical pension target of 8% – many plans are becoming even more underfunded. Part of this is due to the fact that the bonds in pension fund portfolios have gone down in the past year, offsetting gains in equities. And part is due to governments failing to contribute as much as they’ve promised they would.
Stocks, based on most historical measures, are ripe for a correction, and bonds, even after a recent uptick in rates, yield next-to-nothing. So the average pension fund, instead of making its optimistic 8% return target, might actually lose money in the next couple of years. In that case, their underfunding would be too horrendous to hide.
With a growing number of cities (and some states) devoting unsustainable portions of their operating budgets to paying former rather than current workers, Detroit might become the template for dozens of other cities in 2014 and beyond. And millions of people who thought they’d nailed down a middle class retirement in a well-run country will find out they’re not in that country any more.
About The Author
Senior Washington Correspondent
Neil Macdonald is the senior Washington correspondent for CBC News, which he joined in 1988 following 12 years in newspapers. Before taking up this post in 2003, Macdonald reported from the Middle East for five years. He speaks English and French fluently, and some Arabic.
America’s rugged individualists have argued for many years that governments can’t be trusted. Turns out they were right. More so than they probably ever realized.
Municipalities, utilities and states across the U.S., faced with debts and liabilities piled up by irresponsible elected officials over the years, now want to renege.
Cities are seeking, and obtaining, permission to walk away from their commitments. State governments are simply giving themselves that permission.
And U.S. conservatives, who preach financial accountability (Bush-era Republicans saw to it, for example, that credit card debt collectors can follow ordinary Americans all the way to the grave), are not just cheering those faithless governments, but demanding that they go even further.
The shrunken city of Detroit is the latest and biggest example.
It just secured a judge’s permission to declare bankruptcy, and will now begin imposing “haircuts” on its creditors, who it appears will end up shaven nearly bald.
The most vulnerable of them are Detroit’s 23,000 retired municipal pensioners.
People like Gwendolyn Beasley, a 67-year-old who worked as a Detroit library clerk for 34 years and now collects $13,085 a year.
“I am very angry,” she tells reporters, futilely.
Michigan’s constitution, she points out, explicitly protects government pensions.
Tough luck, ruled the judge. Beasely’s pension is now in the barber’s chair.
In America’s Hunger Games economy, nothing is protected anymore.
(Except, of course, the banks and big corporations like Chrysler and General Motors that had to be rescued with tax dollars when everything crashed five years ago.)
In the state of Illinois, the legislature just passed a legislative “fix” for the $100-billion hole in its workers’ pension plan, which actually won’t come anywhere near to fixing it.
At least, though, Illinois is trying to respect the pension deals it already signed, and is focusing the financial pain on younger workers, who still have the option of finding work elsewhere and retaking control of their futures.
Illinois has also raised taxes to pay for its pensions, provoking the fury of conservatives.
The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page, scourge of taxation everywhere, blames the whole mess on greedy unions and cowardly politicians.
And in one respect, at least, the Journal is right: Of course unions are greedy, just as businessmen are greedy. Greed, otherwise known as acting in your own economic interest, is what makes the U.S. economy work.
The real villains are the politicians who agreed to labour deals they likely knew were unsustainable.
A ‘fraud’ on the public
“These jurisdictions didn’t face up to how much money they would need to put in to meet the commitments they made,” says Chester Spatt, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University and the former chief economist for the Securities Exchange Commission.
“Frankly, in other contexts, one calls that fraud.”
Politicians, who usually want to be re-elected, have a long record of incurring big debts, then walking away and leaving the mess to successors, who, if they can, then pull the same stunt.
And their pension plan advisers, anxious to please, play along.
Even now, pension funds across the U.S. are assuming “ridiculous” returns of seven and eight per cent to try to show how solvent they are, says Spatt: “It’s stunningly irresponsible.”
But as the bills arrive, politicians, especially Republicans, are choosing to demonize the victims, and it is easy to see why.
Campaigning against the rapacious clerks, teachers, librarians, police and firefighters who had the nerve to accept these pension deals has become a surefire political win.
Many voters don’t have pensions at all. Why, they ask, should government workers?
Indeed, some public servants do enjoy pensions and benefits that look shockingly generous and would be difficult to sustain without imposing higher taxes, which is definitely not a vote-getter.
The point, though, is that these workers signed deals to which governments agreed, in many cases accepting lower salaries than they would have earned in the private sector.
And they held up their end. Whatever you might think of the value of their services, they supplied them, as contracted.
More questionable debt
A deal is supposed to be a deal. But in post-crash, jobless-recovery America, what is supposed to be is not what is.
Spatt calculates the total unfunded liability of government pensions in the U.S. is probably in the trillions of dollars.
But the problem goes further than that. In fact, the vast majority of Americans, whether they realize it or not, will be looking to collect from government someday, and chances are the money won’t be there.
The Social Security system, America’s biggest pension plan, is basically broke. Successive governments have raided the Social Security fund, and shied away from increasing premiums. By some calculations, it owes $20 trillion more over the long term than it can pay.
Detroit’s bondholders – a lot of them senior citizens who purchased municipal bonds as a form of substitute pension – have now learned that not all government debt is safe.
They, along with the city’s pensioners, have reportedly been offered pennies on what they are owed.
Federal and state debt is less risky, but only because those levels of government can borrow more easily and Washington can print money. (Which, of course, has lowered interest rates and further put the screws to retirees who are getting miserable returns on their savings.)
In Detroit’s case, there is no talk of Washington stepping in, and Spatt, for one, says that is a good thing.
Not only would federal involvement set off an endless chain of government-to-government bailouts (the city of Chicago’s pension hole is $20 billion), Spatt says it would ultimately do nothing to stop irresponsible politicians from creating the same situation again.
Ultimately, says Spatt, workers must understand that pensions are risky benefits, and investors must understand that “the full faith and credit of government doesn’t mean what it used to mean.”
I would never, of course, suggest any of this would apply in Canada.
Canada, as we are all constantly told, is far more prudent and better managed, and Canadians trust their governments more.
Still, it might not hurt to take note.
A few days ago, when GMO released its quarterly thoughts, most focused immediately on the claim that the market is 75% overvalued. However perhaps an even more important analysis by author Ben Inker, and one which was largely ignored by most, is what front-loading so much market gains thanks to the Bernanke surge in the S&P means for future returns especially as it pertains to pension funds the bulk of which are already underfunded. GMO’s conclusion was not a happy one.
If equity returns for the next hundred years were only going to be 3.5% real or so, today’s prices are about right. We would be wrong about how overvalued the U.S. stock market is, but every pension fund, foundation, and endowment – not to mention every individual saving for retirement – would be in dire straits, as every investors’ portfolio return assumptions build in far more return. Over the standard course of a 40-year working life, a savings rate that is currently assumed to lead to an accumulation of 10 times final salary would wind up 40% short of that goal if today’s valuations are the new equilibrium. Every endowment and foundation will find itself wasting away instead of maintaining itself for future generations. And the plight of public pension funds is probably not even worth calculating, as we would simply find ourselves in a world where retirement as we now know it is fundamentally unaffordable, however we pretend we may have funded it so far.
One person who read this part of Inker’s paper and did do the calculation is none other than Bridgewater’s Ray Dalio. His conclusion is terrifying.
The reason why public and all other pension funds are the least discussed aspect of modern finance, is that while Bernanke has done his best to plug the hole in the asset side of the ledger resulting from poor asset returns, it is nowhere near sufficient since the liabilities have been compounding throughout the financial crisis since the two grow independently. Which means that anyone who does the analysis sees a very disturbing picture.
Indeed, while the asset side can and has suffered massively as a result of the great financial crisis, the liabilities are compounding on a base that has grown steadily. As Dalio notes, each year a growing percentage of assets are paid out in the form of distributions, leaving less assets to compound at a given return.
This dynamic is shown in the chart below, which shows the change of pension fund assets over the past decade relative to the present value of liabilities discounted at a rate that has been roughly constant at around 7.5%, and rising to reflect the growth in future liabilities. Obviously, if the assets equal the value of liabilities, then the fund would be able to make its payments at a 7.5% asset return. The problem is that even with the Bernanke rally of the past five years, public pension assets are now at about the same level as in 2007 while commitments have grown. Sadly, this means that recent good returns have barely closed the gap. Needless to say, the gap grows much faster in the coming years if the future returns are less than the assumed 7.5%, something that was the basis for the GMO observations.
A key component of the pension fund calculation is the increasing portion of annual distributions less contributions as a percentage of assets. Since each year public pensions distribute about 5% of the future value of their liabilities, and these liabilities have been growing at a compounded rate of about 4%, the net cash out as a percentage of flat and/or declining assets has been progressively rising. Today, annual cash outflows amount to roughly 9% of total assets which contributions are a paltry 5% of assets, which has led to a 4% cash flow drag. This increase in net cash outflows from 1.5% of assets in 2000 to 4% most recently is shown in the second chart below. The take home from this chart is that funds need to return 4% a year
in the near term just to avoid losing assets, and thanks to compounding,
over time the rising amount of NPVed liabilities raises the required
return even further.
That’s where we stand now, but where are we headed? Assuming a 4% return and a steady growth of the liabilities means the financial gap will grow at an accelerating pace, making it more and more difficult to close the funding gap. It also means that with every passing year the required rate of return to plug the gap will grow even faster. Today, for example, the required return is 8.9%. In the future, once again assuming a 4% return on assets, means the required rate of return grows to 13% in ten years and 16% in fifteen years. Naturally, if a fund has a larger funding gap, the required return is even larger and the funding gap blows out much faster. As Bridgewater summarizes this feedback mechanism, “the dynamics of compounding cause this case machine to operate like the event horizon of a black hole: the pressures rise exponentially until it is virtually impossible to recovery.”
But the scariest chart of all is the following simulation of the underfunding process over time and total fund assets held, assuming a 4% return on assets, which shows the accelerating decline in the value of asset holdings due to an increasingly negative cash flow yield, causing virtually all pension funds to run out of money. In the case of a 4% return, a pension fund that is assumed to be fully-funded today will run out of cash in 30 years; pensions that are 80% funded run out of money in 25 year, and so on. A fund with just a 20% funding ratio will have no money left in just over 5 years!
Curious what the current distribution of funds that match these criteria is? The chart below shows the percentage of current pension funds at each funding bracket. Nearly 50% of all fund are funded 80% or less.
The charts and simplistic calculations above show not only why virtually all pension funds are set for extinction in the not too distant future, but why Bernanke is stuck artificially reflating asset values if only to preserve the myth of the public pension funded welfare state. Because the biggest threat to Keynesians and monetarists everywhere is the social instability that would result once the myth of the Bismarckian welfare state unwinds.
But wait, there’s more.
Bridgewater next proceeds to calculate what the economic impact is in a world in which a generous, consistent 4% return on assets is assumed. As Dalio’s fund notes, in such a case the path to public pension sustainability will require some combination of benefit cuts or increased contributions to net out the liabilities and assets and close the funding gap. “Any way you cut it this will reduce someone’s income, with a likely impact on their spending. Higher taxes will reduce the disposable income of workers, although the impact will be different depending on whose taxes are raised; less government spending on other things will hurt growth directly; lower benefits will reduce the disposable income of retirees who have a high propensity to spend; borrowing to finance the deficit will hurt growth less directly and over the longer term.”
Bridgewater concludes that if public pensions don’t delay and start plugging the hole now, they will need to contribute just under $200 billion per year over the next 30 years, amounting to 1.2% of GDP and 8.8% of state and local tax revenues. If funds wait a decade, the impact per year explodes to $325 billion over 30 years and will “cost” 1.2% of GDP and 12.2% of tax revenues. But the most likely, and worst case scenario, is if pension funds do nothing at all, “let the machine run its course”, then the economic damage is unquantifiable as low asset returns inevitably cause lower income through benefits after assets are fully depleted.
And that in a nutshell is why the pension system, erected on an asset-liability mismatch gone horribly wrong, is doomed: a fact well known by the Fed chairman, and whose only countermeasure is to keep doing more of what has been done to date: inflating asset value while monetizing massive amounts of debt in the hope that the higher asset return will offset the funding gap. In principle this is great assuming the Fed can keep doing QE for the foreseeable future. However here, as everywhere else, we run into the fundamental problem with QE – the Fed is currently monetizing 0.3% of all private sector 10 Year equivalents per week, or about 15% per year. Since the Fed already holds about a third of the total, it has one, at best two years of QE left, before it is in control of an unprecedented two thirds of the entire bond market, and before the complete lack of market liquidity from central-planning gone wild, grinds Bernanke’s experiment to a halt.
It is at that point that the entire flawed economic system of the past century will finally be on its last legs, as one of the core pillars of the biggest lie of all, the welfare state, resting on the flawed assumption that asset grow at a faster compounded rate than liabilities, will have no choice but to look into the abyss.
If there is ever a case study about people who built up their reputation and then squandered it for first being right for all the wrong reasons, and then being wrong for the right ones, then Meredith Whitney certainly heads the list of eligible candidates. After “predicting” the great financial crisis back in 2007 by looking at some deteriorating credit trends at Citigroup, a process that many had engaged beforehand and had come to a far more dire -and just as correct – conclusion, Whitney rose to stardom for merely regurgitating a well-known meme, however since her trumpeted call was the one closest to the Lehman-Day event when it all came crashing down, it afforded her a 5 year very lucrative stint as an advisor. Said stint has now been shuttered.
The main reason for the shuttering, of course, is that in 2010 she also called an imminent “muni” cataclysm, staking her reputation once again not only on what is fundamentally obvious, but locking in a time frame: 2011. Alas, this time her “timing” luck ran out and her call was dead wrong, leading people to question her abilities, and ultimately to give up on her “advisory” services altogether. Which in some ways is a shame because Whitney was and is quite correct about the municipal default tidal wave, as Detroit and ever more municipalities have shown, and the only question is the timing.
However, as Citi’s Matt King recent showed, when it comes to stepwise, quantum leap repricings of widely held credits, the revelation is usually a very painful, sudden and very dramatic one. This can be seen nowhere better than in the default of Lehman brothers, where while the firm’s equity was slow to admit defeat it was nothing in comparison to the abject case study in denial that the Lehman bonds put in. However, as can be seen in the chart below, when it finally came, and when bondholders realized they are screwed the morning of Monday, Septembr 15 when the Lehman bankruptcy filing was fact, the move from 80 cents on the dollar to under 10 cents took place in a heartbeat.
It is the same kind of violent and anguished repricing that all unsecrued creditors in the coming wave of heretofore “denialed” municipal bankruptcy filings will have to undergo.Starting with Detroit, where as Reuters reports, the recovery to pensioners, retirees and all other unsecured creditors will be…. 16 cents on the dollar!… or less than what Greek bondholders got in the country’s latest (and certainly not final) bankruptcy.
On Friday, city financial consultant Kenneth Buckfire said he did not have to recommend to Orr that pensions for the city’s retirees be cut as a way to help Detroit navigate through debts and liabilities that total $18.5 billion.
Buckfire said it was clear that the city did not have the funds to pay the unsecured pension payouts without cutting them.
“It was a function of the mathematics,” said Buckfire, who said he did not think it was necessary for him or anyone else to recommend pension cuts to Orr.
“Are you saying it was so self-evident that no one had to say it?” asked Claude Montgomery, attorney for a committee of retirees that was created by Rhodes.
“Yes,” Buckfire answered.
Buckfire, a Detroit native and investment banker with restructuring experience, later told the court the city plans to pay unsecured creditors, including the city’s pensioners, 16 cents on the dollar. There are about 23,500 city retirees.
One wonders by how many cents on the dollar the recovery to pensioners would increase if the New York-based Miller Buckfire were to cut their advisory fee, but that is not the point of this post (it will be of a subsequent).
What is the point, is that creditors across all products, aided and abetted by the greatest credit bubble of all time blown by Benny and the Inkjets, will find the kind of violent repricings that Lehman showed take place whenever hope dies, increasingly more prevalent. And since retirees and pensioners are ultimately creditors, this is perhaps the fastest, if certainly most brutal way, to make sure that the United Welfare States of America is finally on a path of sustainability.
The only question is how will those same retirees who have just undergone an 84 cent haircut, take it. One hopes: peacefully. Because among those whose incentive to work effectively has just been cut to zero, is also the local police force. In which case if hope once again fails, it is perhaps better not to contemplate the consequences. For both Meredith Whitney, who will eventually be proven right, and for everyone else.
- Detroit pension cuts ‘function of mathematics’ -investment banker (uk.reuters.com)
- Judge allows banker’s Detroit bankruptcy testimony (crainsdetroit.com)
- Matt Taibbi: Wall Street hedge funds are stealing public workers’ pensions (rawstory.com)
- Detroit Spent Billions Extra on Pensions (kampconsultingblog.com)
- Detroit hits back against opposition to its bankruptcy (scooprocket.com)
- Detroit bankruptcy item of note – Detroit routinely raided its pension funds to award extra cash – including bonuses dubbed “the 13th check” – to both retirees and active employees. These payments were far in excess of the city’s negotiated obligations a (fredw-catharsisours.blogspot.com)
- Detroit Union Seeks to Revive `13th’ Pension Check Policy (bloomberg.com)
- Detroit files response to bankruptcy objections (news.yahoo.com)