Tag Archives: Boomergeddon

The Biggest Lie of All: Government Can Pay Its Pensions

State-local pensions are just one aspect of unsustainable government spending.

State-local pensions are just one aspect of unsustainable government spending.

Many people get infuriated by President Trump’s many inconsequential falsehoods — does it really matter how big his inaugural crowds were? — but they remain sanguine about the trillion-dollar untruths that our public pension system is built upon. The big lie that governments will make good on retirement promises to their employees is not merely mendacious but it is destructive. Millions of Americans have built their retirement plans around a fiction. And when the Ponzi scheme collapses, government workers won’t be the only ones to suffer.

In his latest column, George Will recites some of the more glaring examples of how the big lie is unraveling.

The Dallas police and fire fund recently sought a $1.1 billion transfusion, a sum roughly equal to the city’s entire general fund budget yet still not close to what is needed. Last year Illinois reduced its expected return on its teacher retirement fund portfolio from 7.5% annually to 7% (which is arguably still too optimistic), meaning that the state needs to add $400 million to $500 more to the fund — annually. Last September, the vice chair of the agency in charge of Oregon’s pension system wept when speaking about the state’s unfunded pension promises of $22 billion. Nationally, unfunded liabilities for teachers, not counting other government employees, amount to at least $500 billion.

And don’t get me started on the fact that the Medicare hospital trust fund is expected to run out in only 12 years and Social Security trust fund in 16 years, at which point payroll tax revenues will be insufficient to maintain full benefits… Or the fact that the pensions run by companies in the S&P 1500 Index were unfunded to the tune of $562 billion.

Some of the shortfall can be attributed to absurdly generous provisions of pension plans in particular states and localities, some to fiscal indiscipline by government at all levels, and some to the Fed’s seven years of near-zero interest-rate policies that have depressed returns on bond portfolios and juiced stock market gains that cannot possibly be replicated in the years ahead.

Will concludes with the salient point:

The problems of state and local pensions are cumulatively huge. The problems of Social Security and Medicare are each huge, but in 2016 neither candidate addressed them, and today’s White House chief of staff vows that the administration will not “meddle” with either program. Demography, however, is destiny for entitlements, so arithmetic will do the meddling.

Few elected officials are willing to deal with the issue that offers no immediate political reward. Here in Virginia, one of the few, House Speaker William J. Howell, R-Stafford, has announced that he will not seek re-election.

Thanks in part to Howell’s stewardship, Virginia’s budget, backed by a AAA bond rating, is in better shape than those of many other states. But the U.S. learned after the 2007 real estate crash what AAA bond ratings are worth when the economy shifts from normal conditions to crisis conditions. Boomergeddon is coming. The only question is when.

No Magical Solutions for Trump

Says Rep. Tom Cole, R-Oklahoma: Trump’s numbers don’t add up.

Someone in the national press corps is finally focusing on an issue less ephemeral than Donald Trump’s tweets: the fiscal disaster that looms if all of the president’s programs are enacted. Writes Rachel Blade and Josh Downey in Politico:

“I don’t think you can do infrastructure, raise defense spending, do a tax cut, keep Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security just as they are, and balance the budget. It’s just not possible,” said Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), a senior member of the House Budget Committee. “Sooner or later, they’re going to come to grips with it because the numbers force you to.”

Duh.

If designed properly, tax cuts could be stimulative, but it takes a leap of faith to think that faster economic growth would recoup all the lost revenue. Carefully designed deregulation of the healthcare, banking, telecommunications and energy sectors could promote growth as well, although not without some offsetting risks and costs. Even if economic growth does rebound, it will likely trigger inflation and the Federal Reserve will raise interest rates. There are no magical policy levers that will allow the U.S. to fulfill all of Trump’s promises without running up deficits and the national debt.

My hunch is that the GOPs in Congress can water down the more fiscally irresponsible of Trump’s plans but won’t stop them all. Trump will blame the resulting deficits on Obama, just as Obama blamed his deficits on Bush. Words won’t change anything. Boomergeddon is coming. The only question is when.

More Hidden Deficits: Bad Bridges and Bad Metro

Virginia has its share of bad bridges.

Bad bridges. Image source: USA Today

Update on America’s hidden deficits: Nearly 56,000 bridges across the country are structurally unsound, according to the American Road and Transportation Builders Association (ARTBA), as reported by USA Today.

More than one in four of the bad bridges are at least 50 years old and have never had major reconstruction work, according to the ARTBA analysis. Thirteen thousand are along interstates that need replacement, widening or major reconstruction. Virginia falls in the middle tier of states where the percentage of bad bridges ranges between 5% and 8.9%.

Don’t county on the federal government for help — unless the Trump administration moves ahead on its fiscally unsustainable $1 trillion infrastructure spending plan. The U.S. highway trust fund spends $10 billion a year more than it takes in. The USA Today article did not say how much it would cost the country to remedy the structural deficiencies.

Bacon’s bottom line: Welcome to the American way of building infrastructure. Uncle Sam subsidizes the up-front costs and the fifty states eagerly jump on board. Forty or fifty years later, the bridges wear out. The states haven’t salted away any money to fix them, and the feds say,” So, sorry, we only fund construction, not maintenance and repairs.”

If you want to build roads, bridges, highways, airports, and mass transit, you need a plan for long-term financing. Otherwise, you’re just creating a huge problem for the next generation. Eventually, the bills come due. If we can’t afford to fix what we’ve already built, we have no business building new stuff we can’t afford.

But we build new stuff anyway. A case in point comes from Loudoun Now: New estimates suggest that Loudoun County’s payments to the Washington Metro could run as much as $27.9 million higher than expected — double what was expected. (The number may be somewhat overstated because it includes the cost of a bus service, which Loudoun is already providing.)

Loudoun doesn’t have a station on the Metro Silver Line yet, but it will in a couple of years when Phase 2 is complete, and it will have to start paying its share of operations and capital costs. Unfortunately for Loudoun — and this was entirely predictable because METRO’s fiscal ills have been well known for years — METRO needs much more money than in the past to compensate for decades of under-funding and scrimped maintenance.

METRO’s problem has been brewing for decades. Fiscal conservatives have been sounding the warning for years and years. Government officials been making financial projections that everyone knows, or should know, have no basis in reality. But everyone pretends everything is fine to keep the gravy train rolling.

If it’s any consolation, $28 million is no big deal in a county budget that runs $2.4 billion a year, says county finance committee Chairman Matthew F. Letourneau. who also represents the county on the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments and the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission. “We’re the jurisdiction that’s building $35 million in elementary schools ever year.”

Hmmm…. I wonder if the county is socking away any money for maintenance, repairs and replacement of all those elementary schools. I would be astonished if it is.

Chesterfield Finds $83 Million Unfunded Liabilities

Somehow Chesterfield County schools missed $83 million in unfunded liabilities until late last year.

Somehow Chesterfield County schools missed $83 million in unfunded liabilities until late last year.

Our society is riddled with unfunded liabilities. Nowhere is the magnitude of short-term thinking more egregious than the federal government. As case in point, the U.S. military has put off maintenance and repairs to the point where we don’t have the money for the military we have, much less the military we would like to have.

“The Department of Defense “has breathtaking liabilities — as much as $88 billion a year — that ought to be addressed before procuring a single additional plane, ship, or tank,” says Tom Spehr, as quoted by Robin Beres in her Richmond Times-Dispatch op-ed today.

But Virginians can’t get sanctimonious. Not only do we have the example of Petersburg to to keep us humble, we now hear of scandalous inattention to hidden liabilities afflicts one of Virginia’s most populous jurisdictions — and one with the reputation, no less, of being exceptionally well run.

In Chesterfield County, school officials are grappling with massive unfunded liabilities for a supplementary teacher retirement benefit. Under the program, teachers can retire then get re-hired under the program working part-time, temporary jobs similar to their pre-retirement work. As incentive, they get a lucrative supplement to their normal Virginia Retirement System benefits.

In 2014, reports the Times-Dispatch, unfunded liabilities were found to be $58.7 million. Now they are $83 million.

Here’s the amazing part. The T-D quotes Donald Wilms, president of the Chesterfield Education Association, as being shocked when he learned of the program’s underfunding for the past five years. “Teachers were continually told that the program isn’t going away. So I think it was natural to assume that the program was healthy,” he said. “Nobody told you it was in danger.”

Nobody, that is, except for MGT America, which provided an efficiency review of Chesterfield schools in 2010 (!!!) and noted that the  supplemental retirement plan faced a large unfunded liability in the next few years as Baby Boomer teachers began retiring. “The increased number of participants will dramatically increase the cost of this program,” warned the report.

Somebody wasn’t paying attention.

Forget the federal government. Let Donald Trump and Congress worry about that. Here in the provinces, we need to worry about how we handle our own business. Do other school systems have supplemental retirement programs like Chesterfield’s? How many other unfunded liabilities, the existence of which lurk deep within Comprehensive Annual Financial Statements, are ticking time bombs? Is anyone paying attention?

Quantitative Squeezing

Bond yields have declined steadily for thirty years. As long-term and mid-term bonds expire and get rolled over at lower yields, pension funds generate much lower returns on their bonds portfolios. State and local funding for public pension funds has not kept pace with this market reality. Graphic credit: Wall Street Journal.

Bond yields have declined steadily for thirty years. As bonds expire and get rolled over at lower yields, pension funds have been generating lower returns on their portfolios. State and local funding for public pension funds has not kept pace with this market reality. Graphic credit: Wall Street Journal.

It’s nice to see mainstream media highlighting an issue that I’ve been hammering here at Bacon’s Rebellion for a couple of years now. A front-page Wall Street Journal article discusses how the zero-interest rate policies of central banks around the world are crippling returns on pension portfolios, making it difficult for nations and municipalities to meet their obligations.

Among the numbers cited in the article… Global pensions on average put roughly 30% of their assets in bonds. Investment-grade bonds that once yielded 7.5% a year now deliver almost no income at all. Low rates helped pull down assets of the world’s 300 largest pension funds by $530 billion in 2015.

The California Public Employees’ Retirement System (CALPERS) posted a 0.6% return in fiscal 2016. Its investment consultant, reports the Journal, recently estimated that annual returns will be closer to 6% over the next decade, shy of its 7.5% annual target.

If CALPERS is ready to admit that investment returns will remain depressed over the decade ahead, maybe it’s time for the Virginia Retirement System to do the same. The VRS assumes a 7% annual return on its portfolio — not as divorced from reality as many states, but significantly more than justified by bond returns. The problem, of course, is that acknowledging reality will expand Virginia’s public pension unfunded liabilities by billions of dollars — and nobody knows where the money will come from. So, we’ll pretend the problem doesn’t exist… until it becomes a crisis.

This Is What a Fiscal Meltdown Looks Like, Part V: Big Legal Fees

quicksandAs creditors close in and the City of Petersburg struggles to avoid default, it is spending large sums on legal and consulting fees. In the latest litigation, the city has hired the Richmond-based law firm Sands Anderson to fight an Oct. 4 order by a Petersburg Circuit Court Judge appointing a special receiver to ensure that city residents’ wastewater payments are forwarded to the regional sewage treatment agency.

In his order, Circuit Court Judge Joseph M. Teefey Jr. appointed an attorney from Richmond-based LeClair Ryan as the receiver. Presumably, the city will be responsible for covering LeClair Ryan’s fees as well.

The city is in more than $1 million in arrears in its payments to the South Central Wastewater Authority because it diverted wastewater revenues to other uses. The appointment of a receiver could trigger a default in other obligations, including more than $10 million in water, sewer and stormwater revenue-backed bonds.

Those debts include clauses specifying that the appointment of a receiver automatically constitutes an “Event of Default,” reports the Progress-Index.

“If the receivership is not vacated and the multitude of bond defaults described herein are triggered, it is expected that any short-term or long-term debt restructuring to facilitate … cash-flow relief for the city … will be extremely difficult to obtain,” states the city’s motion.

Meanwhile, City Council also hired the Robert Bobb Group, a municipal turn-around group, to help the city work through its financial woes. The principal of the group, Robert Bobb, was city manager of Richmond from 1986 to 1997 and was instrumental in rooting out corruption and turning around the deficit-plagued Detroit school system. Sources have told WRIC News that the consulting fees could cost $300,000.

Bacon’s bottom line: It has to be galling for secretaries, police, fire fighters and other city employees to swallow pay cuts while the city is doling out funds for high-priced lawyers and consultants. But what is the alternative? Roll over and play dead? Sadly, the city is caught in legal quicksand now. The harder it struggles to stay afloat, the more it racks up big professional fees that it can’t afford. The moral of the story for everyone else: Don’t let yourself get caught in Petersburg’s situation.

— JAB

No State Bailout for Petersburg

petersburg_city_hallby James A. Bacon

The City of Petersburg is on its own. There appears to be no sentiment in either  the McAuliffe administration or the General Assembly for cutting the fiscally ailing city any slack. Even the city’s own representatives in the legislature aren’t pushing for any special treatment by the Commonwealth.

“There is a feeling that the state doesn’t want to reward poor public performance,” Secretary of Finance Richard D. “Ric” Brown told the Richmond Times-Dispatch in an article appearing today.

A bailout of Petersburg is out of the question, said Del. Steven Landes, R-Augusta, who is heading a subcommittee to study the problem fiscally stressed localities. “I’m not aware where the state has ever stepped in to provide a locality a bailout,” he said. “I don’t see that happening.”

The state requires localities to file Comprehensive Annual Financial Reports (CAFRs) each year with audited financial data. Landes said his committee will look into what the state can do to shorten its response time when a locality is heading toward a fiscal cliff. “We want to make sure that audit information is getting to the money committees and the administration, because we would much rather be kept abreast sooner rather than later.”

Bankruptcy is not an option either. Federal law allows financially distressed localities, public utilities and school districts to see the protection of Chapter 9 bankruptcy court, and more than 50 localities nationwide have sought it over the past seven years. But Chapter 9 refuge requires state approval, and Virginia law does not allow localities to file for bankruptcy.

Bacon’s bottom line: It is reassuring to see the state drawing a cordon around the badly managed city. Citizens have to clean up their own mess. A likely first step is to throw the bums out and replace them with more competent individuals. If the crisis impels a new leadership to re-think how core government services are provided, Petersburg could emerge better and stronger than before.

Moreover, Landes’ subcommittee can play a helpful role in spotting financial warning flags in other localities before they reach crisis dimensions. Citizen leaders of many small localities (and even some large ones) lack the knowledge to read the CAFRs with any discernment. One useful thing that the state can do is to monitor the CAFRs of all jurisdictions and let their elected officials know if their numbers are looking problematic.

An Aging Economy Is a Sluggish Economy

Source:

Source: “The Effect of Population Aging on Economic Growth, the Labor Force and Productivity.” (Click for more legible image.)

by James A. Bacon

Why is U.S. economic growth slowing? Perhaps for the same reason economic growth is slowing in Europe, Japan and other advanced economies — our populations are getting older. That was a major theme of my book “Boomergeddon,” written in 2010, when I accurately predicted that U.S. economic growth would fall short of the optimistic expectations in U.S. eonomic and budget forecasts. I don’t pretend I got everything right — I failed to foresee the fracking boom that ignited the U.S. energy boom, and I did not anticipate how quantitative easing would goose goosing the economy by inflating asset values. But I was pretty certain about one thing — the U.S. population was getting older, and an older population would dampen economic growth.

That’s not a controversial view among the handful of economists who study the impact of aging. It just isn’t appreciated by the broader economic profession, the geniuses who have consistently overshot economic growth forecasts over the past decade, or a political class that has shown no willingness to put entitlements and debt accumulation on an economically sustainable basis.

Now comes a study, “The Effect of Population Aging on Economic Growth, the Labor Force and Productivity,” by Nicole Maestas, Kathleen J. Mullen, and David Powell, and published by the National Bureau of Economic Research. Their disturbing conclusion: “We find that a 10% increase in the fraction of the population ages 60+ decreases the rate of GDP per capita by 5.5%. … Our results imply annual GDP growth will slow by 1.2 percentage points this decade and 0.6 percentage points next decade due to population aging.”

Extrapolating from differential rates of aging and economic growth in the 50 states, the authors see a number of forces at work. Slower growth in the workforce accounts for about one-third of the effect. The rest comes from slower productivity growth from an aging workforce, with possible spillover affects among younger workers.

The fraction of the United States population 60 or older will increase by 21% between 2010 and 2020, and by 39% between 2010 and 2050. This dramatic shift in the age structure of the U.S. population — itself the effect of historical declines in fertility and mortality — has the potential to negatively impact the performance of the economy as well as the sustainability of government entitlement programs.

We can argue over the impact of taxes, regulation, quantitative easing, fiscal policy, and most will retreat into our respective ideological corners, agreeing upon nothing. But the aging of the population is an undeniable phenomenon that transcends partisan analysis. And there is consensus in the economic profession that once a tipping point is reached — as it has in many countries — the economic impact is negative. The U.S. and other aging countries which once had the demographic wind at their back now are leaning into a gale. None are likely to return to the economic growth rates of the early post-World War II era.

Virginia impact. Sadly, the paper did not provide a state-by-state breakdown for aging. However, two maps in the appendix (including the one above) show that Virginia’s population aged more rapidly than that of most other states between 1990 and 2000, and again between 2000 and 2010. One could conjecture that the aging effect has dampened economic growth here somewhat more than the national average. There may be more to blame for Virginia’s economic sluggishness than federal sequestration or flawed public policy.

No one can foresee the future, but if there is one aspect of the future that is predictable with some reliability, it is a nation’s (or state’s) demographic profile. And if there’s one thing we can say with some certainty, it is that economic growth will be slower. Our elected leaders should bear in mind as they discuss expanding entitlements and taking on more debt. No miraculous resurgence of economic growth will make it easier to pay our bills.

When the political class ignores this advice, don’t say I didn’t warn you.

This Is What a Fiscal Meltdown Looks Like, IV: The State Intercepts Your Aid

Melt down

Melt down

by James A. Bacon

The City of Petersburg’s fiscal meltdown is reaching a new crisis stage as an Oct. 1 deadline nears to make a $1.4 million payment to the Virginia Resources Authority (VRA), a state funding source for local infrastructure financing.

In remarks to the Richmond Times-Dispatch following a House of Delegates Appropriations Committee hearing yesterday, Secretary of Finance Richard D. “Ric” Brown said that the state might have to “intercept” state aid to Petersburg in order to meet principal and interest payments on VRA bonds backed by the moral authority of the state.

The General Assembly had convened the session to discuss how to build a firewall between Petersburg and the rest of the state. The city faces a $12 million budget deficit this year as well as estimated backlog of $19 million in unpaid bills.

“I just hope we are not heading down this road where we are digging the state into a hole,” said Del. R. Steven Landes, R-Augusta, chairman of a task force formed to study the impact of fiscally stressed localities on the state.

“We’ve got to figure out what change we need to make from a state’s perspective; we need to protect ourselves,” said Committee Chairman Chris Jones, R-Suffolk, as reported by the Richmond Times-Dispatch. “VRA debt can be an issue that can affect our bottom line. We cannot allow [a default] to occur. It’s very distressing when you see what has occurred, and hopefully [the city] will continue to try — in a very straightforward way — to deal with the issues.”

So far, Petersburg officials have yet to ask for state bail-outs. Secretary of Finance Richard D. “Ric” Brown and his office have lent considerable “technical assistance” in disentangling the city’s finances. But other than shaking loose some funds to help the city’s school system, the McAuliffe administration has taken no concrete measure to ease the city’s burden — and it likely would meet considerable resistance if it tried to do so.

City Council has been enacting draconian cuts to the budget in a desperate effort to stem the red ink. Whether it can find $1.4 million to pay the VRA is an open question. The state has a lot at stake.

Created by the General Assembly in 1984, the VRA has funded more than $7 billion in investment in 1,000 projects across the Commonwealth. According to the VRA website, this is how the program works:

VRA sells bonds and then loans the proceeds to local governments to finance eligible infrastructure projects. The borrowers’ interest rates are based on the rates that VRA obtains in the public bond market. Based in part on the use of the Commonwealth’s moral obligation, VRA’s high credit ratings typically result in interest rate savings for localities. This translates to reduced rates, taxes and user fees for borrowers’ constituents.

Come Oct. 1, if Petersburg fails to make its $1.4 million payment to VRA, absent state intervention, the authority will be unable to make the interest and principal on the bonds sold to investors on Petersburg’s behalf. Those bonds are backed by the “moral authority” of the state, which does not legally obligate the state to made good, as it would if the bonds were backed by the full faith and credit of the state. But a failure to back Petersburg’s payment would damage the state’s moral authority, thus undermining the entire premise of the VRA, harming other localities who might wish to borrow from it, and perhaps even calling into question the creditworthiness of other categories of bonds backed by the state’s moral authority.

Allowing a default on the VRA bonds is, in a word, unthinkable. But bailing out Petersburg would create a moral hazard. If the state bails out Petersburg once, then why not twice? If the state bails out Petersburg, then why not some other hard-pressed locality? Fiscal discipline could unravel.

Brown clearly understands the state’s quandary. Speaking to reporter Markus Schmidt after the hearing, the finance director said he might have to “take certain steps to intercept aid” from the state to Petersburg to make sure the payments are made. He acknowledged the hardship such an action would create: “In many cases for the city, that would make matters a lot worse for them.”

Boomergeddon Watch: Student Debt Relief

debt_reliefby James A. Bacon

It should surprise no one that Hillary Clinton is advocating free college tuition and  loan forgiveness for millions of students in an attempt to appeal to the Millennial vote. But the pandering of presidential candidates doesn’t begin to plumb the depths of perversity in the American political system. Now industry is joining the cause. Reports the Wall Street Journal:

Real estate agents, farmers, architects, startup lenders, lawyers, tech companies, benefits administrators — even podiatrists — have sent lobbyists to Capitol Hill over the past two years to push for legislation to forgive or at least reduce what workers and consumers owe on their student loans. … Many industries argue that freeing up student debt, even for well-paid workers, would help the economy.

The proposal with the most traction, says the WSJ, would allow employers to contribute up to $5,250 a year toward an employee’s student debt without it being taxed.

The bald self-interest of these industries is appalling. To be sure, forgiveness of all or part of the $1.3 trillion in student debt would stimulate consumer spending — Millennials could buy more houses, more cars, more consumer goods. But such measures would pass on the cost to taxpayers, and it would ratchet up moral hazard to unprecedented levels.

It is mind-numbing to me that anyone is considering massive debt relief that would reward the profligate and irresponsible while punishing those who dutifully paid off their obligations. But why not? After all, we bailed out Wall Street after the real estate crash. We bailed out Detroit. We hand out tax breaks to big business like John D. Rockefeller tossed out dimes. We allow affluent home owners to deduct mortgage interest from their taxes. Now Donald Trump wants to hand out billions for a day care entitlement. There’s no end to the goodies we dispense, so what’s one more multi-billion-dollar giveaway?

The blindness is breathtaking. Despite sequestration, despite the expiration of the Bush tax cuts, despite a zero interest-rate monetary policy, despite continued (though tepid) economic growth, the Congressional Budget Office says that the post-recession trend of declining deficits is over, and that spending shortfalls will continue to increase every year, pretty much forever, and so will the national debt.

projected_deficits

Adding another entitlement — a higher-ed entitlement — rather than addressing the underlying problem of rising college tuition will only accelerate America’s march to Boomergeddon. This cannot possibly end well.