Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Civil Disobedience and Detroit’s financial manager

Michigan’s Governor Rick Synder may be greeted by protestors when he arrives for a meeting today on Detroit’s financial condition. His recent appointment of Kevyn Orr as the city’s emergency financial manager has angered many of Detroit’s residents who are afraid he has powers that are far too sweeping and is thereby destroying local control. The purpose of the financial manager law is to help the city stave off bankruptcy and allows the emergency manager the ability to renegotiate labor contracts and potentially sell city assets. The last recession has worsened the already-struggling city’s financial outlook. Detroit has a $327 million budget deficit and $14 billion in long-term debt and has shown very little willingness to make the kind of structural changes it needs in order to stay solvent.

Detroit’s problems are acute. The city’s population has fallen from 1.8 million to 700,000, giving the city, “a look and feel that rivals post World War II Europe.” But as Public Sector Inc’s Steve Eide writes, the real problem is that local leaders have proven unable to deal with fiscal realities for far too long. His chart shows the consequences. The gap between estimated revenues and expenditures over time is striking. In sum, Detroit overestimates its revenues and underestimates its spending, by a lot, when it plans for the budget. That is a governance and administration crisis and one that the state has decided needs outside intervention to set straight.

Standard & Poors likes the appointment and has upgraded Detroit’s credit rating outlook to “stable.”

March 18, 2013

The battle of the taxes

In my last post, I discussed several exciting tax reforms that are gaining support in a handful of states. In an effort to improve the competitiveness and economic growth of these states, the plans would lower or eliminate individual and corporate income taxes and replace these revenues with funds raised by streamlined sales taxes. Since I covered this topic, legislators in two more states, Missouri and New Mexico, have demonstrated interest in adopting this type of overhaul of their state tax systems.

At the same time, policymakers in other states across the country are likewise taking advantage of their majority status by pushing their preferred tax plans through state legislatures and state referendums. These plans provide a sharp contrast with those proposed by those states that I discussed in my last post; rather than prioritizing lowering income tax burdens, leaders in these states hope to improve their fiscal outlooks by increasing income taxes.

Here’s what some of these states have in the works:

  • Massachusetts: Gov. Deval L. Patrick surprised his constituents last month during his State of the State address by calling for a 1 percentage point increase in state income tax rates while simultaneously slashing state sales taxes from 6.25% to 4.5%. Patrick defended these tax changes on the grounds of increasing investments in transportation, infrastructure, and education while improving state competitiveness. Additionally, the governor called for a doubling of personal exemptions to soften the blow of the income tax increases on low-income residents.
  • Minnesota: Gov. Mark Dayton presented a grab bag of tax reform proposals when he revealed his two-year budget plan for the state of Minnesota two weeks ago. In an effort to move his state away from a reliance on property taxes to generate revenue, Dayton has proposed to raise income taxes on the top 2% of earners within the state. At the same time, he hopes to reduce property tax burdens, lower the state sales tax from 6.875% to 5.5%, and cut the corporate tax rate by 14%.
  • Maryland: Last May, Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley called a special legislative session to balance their state budget to avoid scheduled cuts of $500 million in state spending on education and state personnel. Rather than accepting a “cuts-only” approach to balancing state finances, O’Malley strongly pushed for income tax hikes on Marylanders that earned more than $100,000 a year and created a new top rate of 5.75% on income over $250,000 a year. These tax hikes were signed into law after the session convened last year and took effect that June.
  • California: At the urging of Gov. Jerry Brown, California voters decided to raise income taxes on their wealthiest residents and increase their state sales tax from 7.25% to 7.5% by voting in favor of Proposition 30 last November. In a bid to put an end to years of deficit spending and finally balance the state budget, Brown went to bat for the creation of four new income tax brackets for high-income earners in California. There is some doubt that these measures will actually generate the revenues that the governor is anticipating due to an exodus of taxpayers fleeing the new 13.3% income tax and uncertain prospects for economic growth within the state. 

It is interesting that these governors have defended their proposals using some of the same rhetoric that governors and legislators in other states used to defend their plans to lower income tax rates. All of these policymakers believe that their proposals will increase competitiveness, improve economic growth, and create jobs for their states. Can both sides be right at the same time?

Economic intuition suggests that policymakers should create a tax system that imposes the lowest burdens on the engines of economic growth. It makes sense, then, for states to avoid taxing individual and corporate income so that these groups have more money to save and invest. Additionally  increasing marginal tax rates on income and investments limits the returns to these activities and causes people to work and invest less. Saving and investment, not consumption, are the drivers of economic growth. Empirical studies have demonstrated that raising marginal income tax rates have damaging effects on economic growth. Policymakers in Massachusetts, Minnesota, Maryland, and California may have erred in their decisions to shift taxation towards income and away from consumption. The economies of these states may see lower rates of growth as a result.

In my last post, I mused that the successes of states that have lowered or eliminated their state income taxes may prompt other states to adopt similar reforms. If the states that have taken the opposite approach by raising income taxes see slowed economic growth as a result, they will hopefully serve as a cautionary tale to other states that might be considering these proposals.

February 8, 2013

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.

 

 

February 1, 2013

The Home Mortgage Interest Deduction: A Bad Deal for Taxpayers

A new policy brief released by the Mercatus Center and co-authored by Jeremy Horpedahl and Harrison Searles analyzes one of the most popular—and therefore one of the most difficult to reform—subsidies in the tax code: the home mortgage interest deduction. This study touches on many of the points that Emily talked about in her op-ed on the subject last month; namely, this policy’s failure to achieve its intended effects and the fact that a lion’s share of the benefits go to high-income homeowners. Despite widespread enthusiasm for the home mortgage interest deduction, the authors argue that the benefits of this policy are overstated and the consequences are understated.

The home mortgage interest deduction is one of the largest tax expenditures in the U.S. tax code, second only to the non-taxation of employer-provided health insurance and pension contributions. Proponents of the home mortgage interest deduction argue that this policy provides needed tax relief to the middle class and encourages the oft-invoked American dream of homeownership. These folks may be surprised to learn, as Horpedahl and Searles point out, that a mere 21.7% of taxpayers even claim this benefit. What’s more, most of these benefits don’t go to the middle class, but rather to households with incomes of over $200,000. Here’s a breakdown of the tax savings from the brief:


The claim that this policy is necessary to encourage home ownership is dubious as well. The authors explain:

Empirical evidence supports the claim that the mortgage interest deduction has little effect on homeownership rates in the United States. Between 1960 and 1997, homeownership rates stayed within a narrow range of 62 to 66 percent, despite the fact that the implicit tax subsidy fluctuated dramatically. During the recent housing bubble, the homeownership rate rose to 69 percent, but it has since returned to the historical range. This rise appears to have been unrelated to the mortgage interest deduction, though it was almost certainly related to other housing policies that encouraged the bubble. More sophisticated analysis suggests that the homeownership rate would be modestly lower without the deduction, by around 0.4 percent.

Ironically, the home mortgage interest deduction likely creates the perverse effect of discouraging homeownership by artificially raising home values. Economic intuition suggests, and empirical studies have supported, that the deduction does not provide much in the way of savings at all since the value of the deduction is simply capitalized into the value of home prices. The artificially higher house prices prevent would-be home owners on the margins of affordability from purchasing a home within their price range. This effect, combined with the low rates of deduction claims and concentration of benefits to high-income earners, likely contributes to the inefficacy of the home mortgage interest deduction to boost homeownership to the degree that its proponents envisioned.

Additionally, countries like Canada and Australia have managed to produce comparable rates of home ownership as the US without the crutch of a mortgage interest deduction.

While the home mortgage interest deduction doesn’t do much for increasing the number of houses, it has a knack for increasing the size of houses, as a study by Lori Taylor of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas pointed out. The deduction has had the unintended consequence of directing capital and labor to high-income residential housing projects that might not have been taken without government intervention—and the benefits overwhelmingly go to the wealthy.

This is all before considering the regressive effects of the policy by design: low- and middle-income renters are made to subsidize the increasingly opulent residences (and sometimes the extra vacation homes!) of their more well-off peers while they struggle to make ends meet in a sometimes-inhospitable economy. This injustice, combined with the inefficacy of the tax deduction to increase homeownership in any meaningful way, causes the justifications for the mortgage interest deduction to grow scarce.

In fact, it is becoming increasingly clear that this policy, which evaded the fate of its similar counterpart—the credit card interest deduction—during the tax fight of 1986, continues as law not because of good economics but because of bad political incentives.

Horpedahl and Searles offer three proposals for scaling back the home mortgage interest deduction: policymakers could 1) eliminate the deduction entirely, 2) eliminate the deduction while simultaneously lowering marginal income tax rates to compensate for the virtual tax increase, or 3) stop the deduction and replace it with a tax credit that taxpayers could redeem upon purchase of their first house. Horpedahl and Searles demonstrate that while this deduction is popular with the public and the real estate industry, it is simply a bad deal for most taxpayers.

January 8, 2013

Maryland’s budget troubles continue into the New Year

Each year a committee made up of Maryland state legislators gets together to set a spending growth limit for Maryland’s general fund budget. The Spending Affordability Committee (SAC) has been in place for 30 years. Originally created to avoid instituting a Tax and Expenditure Limit (TEL), the SAC has proven unable to stop the persistent structural deficit which emerged in 2007. This year the SAC recommends a budget of $37 billion, one billion more than last year. That’s an increase in spending of 4 percent

In a paper for the Maryland Journal entitled, “The Appearance of Fiscal Prudence” Benjamin Van Metre and I detail the flaws of the SAC process based on our read of the official reports. The main problem with the process is that lawmakers have convinced themselves that the SAC imposes fiscal prudence on the legislature. We find while there is some formulaic guidance in the form of a limit based on the growth in personal income, it only applies to part of  the budget. The SAC also involves policymakers deliberating over spending “needs” while referring to revenue estimates. The result is not a hard limit on spending but a recipe for a budget soufflé. To be fair, the SAC wasn’t designed to be a hard limit. It was built to be flexible.That’s fine if the SAC is clear about its own limitations in setting a spending limit.

What’s interesting is that over the years there’s been a bit of hand-wringing in the SAC reports about fast-growing areas of the budget – the Transportation Trust Fund, Medicaid, and a growing reliance on debt finance. Debt limits are covered by a separate legislative committee, the Capital Debt Affordability Committee (CDAC). But, the SAC’s warnings about debt tiered up with the CDAC’s increase in the debt cap. It leads one to conclude that these two committees are, at best, talking past one another.

Given the recent history of Maryland it’s more likely legislators will continue finding ways to fund “increased needs.” And they will do so by seeking more revenues in the form of new taxes, tax rate increases, and debt.  As one legislator put it with this year’s SAC recommendation, ”we’re setting our citizens up for massive tax increases.”

 

 

December 17, 2012

Eileen Norcross on News Channel 8 Capital Insider discussing Virginia and the fiscal cliff

Last week I appeared on NewsChannel 8′s Capital Insider to discuss how the fiscal cliff affects Virginia. There are several potential effects depending on what the final package looks like. Let’s assume the deductions for the Child Care Tax Credit, EITC, and capital depreciation go away. This means, according to The Pew Center, where the state’s tax code is linked to the federal (like Virginia) tax revenues will increase. That’s because removing income tax deductions increases Adjusted Gross Income (AGI) on the individual’s income tax filing (or on the corporation’s filing) thus the income on which the government may levy tax increases. According to fellow Mercatus scholar, Jason Fichtner, that could amount to millions of dollars for a state.

On the federal budget side of the equation,the $109 billion in potential reductions is now equally shared between defense and non-defense spending. Of concern is the extent to which the region’s economy is dependent on this for employment. Nearly 20 percent of the region’s economy is linked to federal spending. Two points: The cuts are reductions in the rate of growth in spending. For defense spending, they are relatively small cuts representing a return to 2007 spending levels as Veronique points out. So, these reductions not likely to bring about the major shakeup in the regional economy that some fear. Secondly, the fact that these cuts are causing worry is well-taken. It highlights the importance of diversification in an economy.

Where revenues, or GDP, or employment in a region is too closely tied to one industry, a very large and sudden change in that industry can spell trouble. An analogy: New Jersey’s and New York’s dependence on financial industry revenues via their income tax structure led to a revenue shock when the market crashed in 2008, as the New York Fed notes.

On transportation spending there are some good proposals on the table in the legislature and the executive. Some involve raising the gas tax (which hasn’t been increased since 1986), and others involve tolls. The best way to raise transportation revenues is via taxes or fees that are linked to those using the roads. Now is no time to start punching more holes in the tax code to give breaks to favored industries (even if they are making Academy-award quality films) or to encourage particular activities.

Virginia’s in a good starting position to handle what may be in store for the US over the coming years. Virginia has a relatively flat tax structure with low rates. It has a good regulatory environment. This is one reason why people and businesses have located here.

Keep the tax and regulatory rules fair and non-discriminatory and let the entrepreneurs discover the opportunities. Don’t develop an appetite for debt financing. A tax system  is meant to collect revenues and not engineer individual or corporate behavior. Today, Virginia beats all of its neighbors in terms of economic freedom by a long shot. The goal for Virginia policymakers: keep it this way.

Here’s the clip

December 4, 2012

Eileen Norcross on News Channel 8 Capital Insider discussing Virginia and the fiscal cliff

Last week I appeared on NewsChannel 8′s Capital Insider to discuss how the fiscal cliff affects Virginia. There are several potential effects depending on what the final package looks like. Let’s assume the deductions for the Child Care Tax Credit, EITC, and capital depreciation go away. This means, according to The Pew Center, where the state’s tax code is linked to the federal (like Virginia) tax revenues will increase. That’s because removing income tax deductions increases Adjusted Gross Income (AGI) on the individual’s income tax filing (or on the corporation’s filing) thus the income on which the government may levy tax increases. According to fellow Mercatus scholar, Jason Fichtner, that could amount to millions of dollars for a state.

On the federal budget side of the equation,the $109 billion in potential reductions is now equally shared between defense and non-defense spending. Of concern is the extent to which the region’s economy is dependent on this for employment. Nearly 20 percent of the region’s economy is linked to federal spending. Two points: The cuts are reductions in the rate of growth in spending. For defense spending, they are relatively small cuts representing a return to 2007 spending levels as Veronique points out. So, these reductions not likely to bring about the major shakeup in the regional economy that some fear. Secondly, the fact that these cuts are causing worry is well-taken. It highlights the importance of diversification in an economy.

Where revenues, or GDP, or employment in a region is too closely tied to one industry, a very large and sudden change in that industry can spell trouble. An analogy: New Jersey’s and New York’s dependence on financial industry revenues via their income tax structure led to a revenue shock when the market crashed in 2008, as the New York Fed notes.

On transportation spending there are some good proposals on the table in the legislature and the executive. Some involve raising the gas tax (which hasn’t been increased since 1986), and others involve tolls. The best way to raise transportation revenues is via taxes or fees that are linked to those using the roads. Now is no time to start punching more holes in the tax code to give breaks to favored industries (even if they are making Academy-award quality films) or to encourage particular activities.

Virginia’s in a good starting position to handle what may be in store for the US over the coming years. Virginia has a relatively flat tax structure with low rates. It has a good regulatory environment. This is one reason why people and businesses have located here.

Keep the tax and regulatory rules fair and non-discriminatory and let the entrepreneurs discover the opportunities. Don’t develop an appetite for debt financing. A tax system  is meant to collect revenues and not engineer individual or corporate behavior. Today, Virginia beats all of its neighbors in terms of economic freedom by a long shot. The goal for Virginia policymakers: keep it this way.

Here’s the clip

December 4, 2012

Illinois conjures Squeezy the Pension Python

Illinois Office of the Governor has released a video aimed at school kids. It’s subject: the importance of paying workers their government pensions. It’s meant to get Illinoisans excited about pension reform. Illinois has the worst pension system in the country. The pension liability grew by $12 billion this year. According to Illinois official accounting the unfunded liability is $100 billion. Under market valuation the unfunded liability is over $200 billion. The Civic Federation calls the system, “Unfixable.”

Enter, Squeezy the Pension Python.

Cute.

There’s some history about the Romans, the American Revolution, and World War I. There’s a basic message about why we (i.e. government on your behalf)  should make sure promises are kept. But, not surprisingly, this video totally misdiagnoses why the pension fund is running on empty. I didn’t expect it to contain much in the way of discount rates. Instead the blame is shifted to yesterday’s politicians and the 2008 Wall Street crash (and the fact that people live longer). There is barely a mention of why the economic assumptions that drive the valuation and accounting really matter. Sure, it’s not easy to explain arbitrage, present value, discounting, or the time value of money to second graders. So, instead the video makes the case for how the buck has been passed time and time again, for the children.

Reactions to the video have been decidedly mixed.

 

November 26, 2012

The most egregious budget gimmicks of 2012: pension underfunding

Bob Williams at State Budget Solutions has a nice chart that shows by how much states are underfunding their pensions. Budgets are always about tradeoffs. But not funding the pension is similar to skipping credit card payments without cutting into your daily expenses at all (or figuring out how to boost your income).

Here’s the link.

In addition, the article notes all the other ways states  have of papering over deficits – floating bonds, revenue estimates, shifting dates around. This isn’t confined to the usual suspects (Illinois, New Jersey, California). There are plenty of examples to share from across the country.

 

 

November 16, 2012

New Jersey’s double-dipping sheriffs

I spoke yesterday at the Franklin Center’s annual meeting. And I was treated to a very compelling piece of video reporting by NJ WatchDog reporter Mark Lagerkvist. 

What impressed me is not only the quality of the reporting but how Mark dug into the data made available by the state of New Jersey.

He found a story that highlights the kinds of abuses many pension reformers must tackle – double-dipping – or collecting a pension benefit while simultaneously working a government job. In this case, the job didn’t really change  the employee simply figured out a way to quit and get-rehired at a higher salary while cashing out a pension for the previous pay grade. Mark’s reporting delves into the practice among New Jersey sheriffs.

The video says it better than any summary I can give.

View more videos at: http://nbcnewyork.com.

 

November 13, 2012

The lessons of bankruptcies and near-bankruptcies

Last week I had the pleasure of speaking at the plenary session for the Association for Budgeting and Financial Management (ABFM)’s annual meeting in New York. My co-panelists included NYU finance professor Dall Forsythe who as Budget Director for the State of New York during the fiscal crisis that pushed New York City to near bankruptcy in the mid-1970s, gave us an inside look of what went into staving off fiscal collapse.  Professor Forsythe explained New York City may not be a generalizable example of municipal bankruptcy but it is an excellent study of  how a major city avoided collapse and rebuilt itself into a financial powerhouse over the following decades.

Ted Orson also spoke. As lead legal council for Central Falls’ recent bankruptcy proceedings, Mr. Orson gave a riveting talk about how leaders in Central Falls worked with the state government and retired workers to come to terms with the city’s empty coffers. It was not easy. Retired firemen and police officers were asked to take a 55 percent cut in their pension benefits. I think his talk underscored the importance of transparency and truth in pension accounting. No one wants to have it get to this point.

Newsmakers 9/23: Gallogly, Orson

My talk zoned in on pension accounting – the new GASB rules and what they mean. In a followup post I’ll explore how GASB 67 and GASB 68 are likely to affect government’s accounts. And also the role that Moody’s decision to discount pensions using a corporate bond rate is going to change the way we view municipal and state finances.

 

October 15, 2012

The lessons of bankruptcies and near-bankruptcies

Last week I had the pleasure of speaking at the plenary session for the Association for Budgeting and Financial Management (ABFM)’s annual meeting in New York. My co-panelists included NYU finance professor Dall Forsythe who as Budget Director for the State of New York during the fiscal crisis that pushed New York City to near bankruptcy in the mid-1970s, gave us an inside look of what went into staving off fiscal collapse.  Professor Forsythe explained New York City may not be a generalizable example of municipal bankruptcy but it is an excellent study of  how a major city avoided collapse and rebuilt itself into a financial powerhouse over the following decades.

Ted Orson also spoke. As lead legal council for Central Falls’ recent bankruptcy proceedings, Mr. Orson gave a riveting talk about how leaders in Central Falls worked with the state government and retired workers to come to terms with the city’s empty coffers. It was not easy. Retired firemen and police officers were asked to take a 55 percent cut in their pension benefits. I think his talk underscored the importance of transparency and truth in pension accounting. No one wants to have it get to this point.

Newsmakers 9/23: Gallogly, Orson

My talk zoned in on pension accounting – the new GASB rules and what they mean. In a followup post I’ll explore how GASB 67 and GASB 68 are likely to affect government’s accounts. And also the role that Moody’s decision to discount pensions using a corporate bond rate is going to change the way we view municipal and state finances.

 

October 15, 2012

Discount rates and pension plans: 98 percent of economists agree….

I realize that 98 percent sounds impossibly unified around any subject. But I find this recent survey by the University of Chicago’s IGM Economics Experts panel especially compelling. According to their survey of 39 professional economists, 98 percent agree that public sector plans understate pension liabilities and costs by using high discount rates.

Here’s the question as stated:

Question A: By discounting pension liabilities at high interest rates under government accounting standards, many U.S. state and local governments understate their pension liabilities and the costs of providing pensions to public-sector workers.

The response:

49 percent strongly agree

49 percent agree

Who was surveyed?

39 economists – from across the field –  including Richard Thaler (Chicago), Jose Scheinkman (Princeton), Robert Hall (Stanford), Austen Goolsbee (Chicago, and former advisor to President Obama), Barry Eichengreen (Berkeley), Claudia Goldin (Harvard), Alberto Alesina (Harvard) and Daron Acemoglu (MIT).

You can check out who was surveyed and their academic credentials at the site.

This principle concerning the valuation of pension liabilities is not very controversial (or even interesting) for economists as M. Barton Waring has noted in, Pension Finance. It only remains controversial among actuaries and policymakers/pension plan analysts and advisors in this one corner of the world: U.S. public sector pension plans. It is partly a matter of professional training. Economists and actuaries are using different toolkits to evaluate plans. (There are notable exceptions, see, Gold and Bader). It is also a matter of the implications of what happens when governments use discount rates more in line with the guaranteed nature of public plans. Lowering discount rates increases the necessary contribution.

But if governments are serious about offering these plans as guaranteed to retirees, then they should be especially interested in valuing them accurately.

 

 

October 2, 2012

Giving Illinois local governments control over their workers’ pensions

The Chicago Tribune makes a “modest proposal” this week. Discouraged by the inaction of the Illinois General Assembly on state-wide pension reform, the editorial board supports the idea that costs for teacher pensions should be shifted and shared with local governments. Republicans, fearful of property tax hikes, don’t like the notion. But the Tribune makes a good point: the cost shift should be accompanied with the ability of local governments to directly negotiate with their employees minus the influence of Springfield. It’s an interesting idea.

Ultimately, pension reform must proceed according to certain principles that clarify the following:

a) What is the true and full value of the benefit? The market valuation principle.

b) How do you incentivize such a system to properly value, steward, and fund benefits? The principal-agent problem.

c) How do you connect the full employee wage/benefit bill with taxpayers who enjoy the services? The fiscal illusion problem.

Right now, it’s a mess. Government accounting is a still a jumble. (But the real value is always knowable via market valuation.) No entity currently has the incentive to properly value and fund these systems. And in fact, we continue to see risk-taking and the shifting of assets into alternative investments, the issuance of Pension Obligation Bonds, and the deferral of reforms. Politicians have a short-term horizon.

And then there is the problem of “disjointed finance.”

Take the case of New Jersey. Local governments negotiate with their employees over wages. But pension policy is set by the state. New Jersey municipalities get an annual bill to fund their employee pensions based on the state actuary’s calculations. Local officials don’t have any sense of what those obligations look like going forward. The state’s annual funding calculations low-ball what is needed to fund the benefits. Could it be that such opacity leads local governments to offer wage enhancements, or hiring increases, that translate into total compensation packages that they can’t afford?

The Chicago Tribune’s idea only works if Illinois local governments accurately calculate what is needed on an annual basis to fund the pensions they negotiate with their workers and to have a full assessment of the value of compensation packages over time. How is market valuation incentivized? Perhaps Moody’s move to calculate pensions based on a corporate bond yield will have an effect. Or perhaps plans need to be managed by a third-party, as Roman Hardgrave and I suggest in our 2011 paper. 

Tying local costs to local taxpayers is a good idea. Another phenomenon the pension problem has revealed is gradual separation of taxing and spending in American public finance over the course of the past half century. That has produced a growing fiscal illusion in finance – where things seem less expensive than they actually are since the costs are spread over larger groups of taxpayers. Local costs are spread among state taxpayers, and now the worry is that state pension costs and debts will be spread across national taxpayers. At least, it’s been suggested.

In his 2012 budget, Governor Quinn alluded to a federal government guarantee  of Illinois’ pension debt. It’s not a popular idea with Congress at the moment. But it appears to have been part of the political calculations of those who are responsible designing and enforcing the rules that guide Illinois’ budget and determine pension policy.

 

 

 

 

September 20, 2012

The Problem with States’ Rights

This week, Eileen Norcross hosted a fiscal federalism symposium, bringing together scholars of various disciplines to discuss some of the challenges that our system of federalism faces today. Part of the discussion centered around Michael Greve’s new book The Upside-Down Constitution.

One of his key points is a reminder of the reason federalists believed that states’ rights are important. We shouldn’t care about states’ rights for the sake of states’ rights — states are merely groups of residents. Rather, we should care about people’s rights, and how these can be better protected in a federalist system than under a centralized government. This distinction sometimes gets lost when people advocate states’ rights rather than states’ enumerated powers. The problem with advocating states’ rights is that this nuance paves the way for states to collude rather than to compete.

A clear example of this collusion happened in 1984 when Congress passed the National Minimum Drinking Age Act. Because setting a drinking age does not fall under the federal government’s enumerated powers, when Congress wanted to change the rules in this area, it had to bargain using tax dollars. States that kept a drinking age in place below 21 would have lost 10-percent of their federal highway funding dollars.

While this may sound like the federal government is coercing the states, it’s key to remember that the goal of federalism is individuals’ rights. With the National Minimum Drinking Age Act, the states and federal government colluded to bring an end to competition in policy. This Act made state policy in this area the same, taking away Americans’ opportunity to choose to live in states with lower drinking ages.

When multiple levels of government pay for a given service, such as roads, many opportunities arise for this type of collusion, leading to the growth of government and the erosion of competition between governments. A competitive federalism means both that governments have incentives to provide the policy environments that their residents want and that people will have greater variety of policy climates to choose from. If the drinking age is an important issue to a family, competitive federalism could provide them with the option of living in a city or state with a higher or lower minimum age.

In the coming year, we hope to pursue research exploring what institutions limit competition within American federalism and what institutions prevent collusion between the federal, state, and local jurisdictions.

 

September 17, 2012

Central Falls bankruptcy exit plan approved

In what is described as, “the quickest bankruptcy adjustment in U.S. history,” Central Falls, Rhode Island has reached an agreement to exit from bankruptcy with a plan that will fully repay bondholders (including any legal fees incurred), while slashing worker pensions by as much as 55 percent. None of Central Falls’ workers will get less than $10,000 and all will have to contribute 20 percent more for their health care until they are 65 and eligible for Medicare, according to Bloomberg News. The agreement was reached when the state promised to help supplement retiree pensions for five years.

Bondholders will be repaid via higher municipal taxes, or a four percent increase in property taxes each year for the next five years. No one escapes unscathed, except the bondholders, which is attributable to the fact that Rhode Island passed a law explicitly protecting them from municipal default last year. The bondholder protection law appears to have the intended effect with Moody’s promising to increase Central Falls’ credit rating.

Retirees are understandably upset but it’s important that the cause for plan underfunding be properly diagnosed. Accounting distortions rooted in risky discount rates are to blame. Central Falls’ Police and Fire Plan was deeply underfunded based on numbers that underestimated the liability. That is the lesson to be learned and the inescapable problem facing many other jurisdictions with defined benefit plans in the US. It is in the best interest of governments to accurately calculate their unfunded liabilities with reference to a risk-free discount rate and come up with a plan today. Waiting and gambling on a future market boom doesn’t do retirees any favors.

September 10, 2012

Fort Lauderdale issues a Pension Obligation Bond and adds to its debts

To fully fund its city pensions the City Council of Fort Lauderdale has voted to issue a $340 million pension bond. One problem with this plan is the city’s pension plans are underfunded to a far larger extent than the accounting recognizes. I calculate, using their 2011 CAFR, that while Fort Lauderdale’s two pension systems report an $388 million unfunded liability when using a risk-free discount rate, the total unfunded liability is closer to $1.7 billion.

In that year, both the General Employees’ plan and the Police and Fire Plan used a discount rate of 7.75 percent to calculate their liabilities. Today the 15-year Treasury bond is close to 2 percent. Thus, the source for great difference between the two unfunded liability calculations.

The rationale for issuing the POB is that the city’s pensions will earn better than the 4 percent assumed interest rate on the bond, and thus they will capture the arbitrage benefits. But that is a bet on both the bond market and the stock market, and not a certainty.  The pensions remain valued as though they are risky and now the city has effectively put more risk on the balance sheet, all in the service of lessening the pain of rising annual contributions. The POB does not address the structural reasons for rising costs even if it gives the Council a temporary sense of budgetary relief.

 

September 7, 2012

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