Category Archives: Finance (government)

No Compromise on the AAA Rating

Virginia Secretary of Finance Aubrey Layne talks fiscal responsibility. Photo credit: Richmond Times-Dispatch

A downgrade of Virginia’s AAA credit rating could cost the Commonwealth between $33.9 million to $72.7 million in additional interest costs on its roughly $4.8 billion in state debt, says Secretary of Finance Aubrey Layne.

“If S&P downgrades and the other two follow, which they usually do, it could cost us millions,” Layne said, as reported by the Daily Press. “No governor, no secretary of finance, no legislator wants to be the guy on whose watch we lost the triple-A.”

Layne based his remarks on a preliminary assessment by the Public Resources Advisory Group, a New York-based consultancy hired by the state. The fragility of the state’s top bond rating has become an issue as the Governor Ralph Northam and the General Assembly continue to tangle with deep structural divisions over the fiscal 2019-20 biennial budget.

Thirty-four million dollars ain’t chump change. But in a two-year state budget of $114 billion, it’s a rounding error. OK, it’s a big rounding error, but it’s still a rounding error. Why do Virginians worry about the bond rating so much?

“Maintaining Virginia’s Triple-A bond rating is more than saving on the cost of borrowing, it is a recognition of being one of the best managed states in the country,” House Appropriations Chair Chris Jones, R-Suffolk, said, as quoted by the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Referring to the three bond-rating agencies that grade government debt, he added, “Virginia has been a Triple-triple A bond rated state for as long as bond rating agencies have conferred the rating, a distinction held only by a handful of states.”

The AAA bond rating is a red line that both Virginia Republicans and Democrats agree must not be breached — a rare example of bipartisan consensus. By itself, a downgrade to AA would not be the end of the world. AA is still investment grade, and Virginia still could issue bonds relatively cheaply. But allowing the rating to slip is like an alcoholic thinking, what the heck, it’s just one little drink, what could go wrong?

Over a couple of decades, AA degrades to A, and then to BBB. Next thing you know, you’re Illinois with billions in unpaid bills and a massive pension liability. And then you’re Puerto Rico, too fiscally feeble to respond effectively to a natural disaster.

At some point, whether ten years in the future or twenty, the federal government will face a fiscal crisis. The national debt exceeds $20 trillion, deficit spending soon will be adding another $1 trillion a year, interest rates on that debt are rising, and Washington, D.C., is neither interested in reforming the entitlement state nor in scaling back America’s global military commitments. Meanwhile, the Medicare Trust Fund for hospital expenses will run out in eleven years and the Social Security Trust Fund will run out in 16 years. And that’s the favorable scenario because it assumes no recessions between now and then.

When Washington plunges into crisis and chaos, we Virginians will be glad we have a federal form of government. And we’ll be glad the state has a AAA bond rating. While Illinois and New Jersey collapse into fiscal insolvency, the Commonwealth will be able to preserve essential functions of government. Virginia’s ability to maintain an orderly government and society is literally what’s at stake. That dystopian future is still a decade or two down the road, so prophesies of calamity seem like scare mongering. But absent a sea change in public and political sentiment that seems nowhere in evidence, that is where we’re heading, and that is why there can be no compromise on the AAA rating.

Just a Reminder…

The national debt has passed the $21 trillion mark. It took only six months to get there from $20 trillion. Unlike the last time the U.S. racked up debt this rapidly, the economy is growing, not in a recession. Blame whomever you want — Boomergeddon is coming. It’s just a matter of time.

The New Normal: Rising Interest Rates

U.S. Treasury Department

The United States enjoyed a three-decade decline in interest rates, beginning with the early-1980s quashing of inflation by Federal Reserve Board Chairman Paul Volker and culminating with Ben Bernanke’s Quantitative Easing in the mid-2010s. Lower interest rates, which made equities look more favorable by comparison, helped drive stock market indices like the Dow Jones Industrial Average and the S&P 500 to record highs.

Now the age of declining interest rates is over. Dead. Pound the nail in the coffin. Dig the grave.

The implications of this seismic shift are dire for the world’s largest debtor, the U.S. federal government. But state and local governments have cause for concern, too.

The manic bull market for stocks took its first big drubbing earlier this week when U.S. Treasury yields took an unexpected uptick. It is finally dawning on financial markets that as good as the Trump tax cuts may prove to be for the economy, they will increase federal budget deficits and borrowing, which will pressure interest rates higher. Even accounting for a stronger economy that pumps up tax revenues, nonpartisan groups say the tax law could add $1 trillion to deficits over the next 10 years.

Meanwhile, the Treasury Borrowing Advisory Committee has estimated that the Treasury will need to borrow a net $955 billion in the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, 2018, up from $519 billion the previous year. Borrowing will increase further to $1,083 billion next year and $1,128 billion the following year. That’s with a strong economy, not a recession.

The Treasury borrowed even larger sums back in 2009 and 2010 as the U.S. economy struggled to pull out of the global recession. But the economic picture looked very different back then, allowing the U.S. to finance $1.6 trillion annual deficits without driving interest rates higher. As the Wall Street Journal explains:

Back then, global demand for safe assets was high and investors gobbled up U.S. Treasury issues, pushing up Treasury prices and down their yields. The Federal Reserve had also cut short-term interest rates to near zero and was beginning a series of programs to buy government debt itself, putting further upward pressure on Treasure prices and downward pressure on interest rates. …

Treasury’s increased borrowing now comes against a much different economic and financial backdrop. The economy is strong and inflation is expected to rise gradually in the months ahead. In response, the Fed is pushing short-term interest rates higher and allowing its portfolio of Treasury and mortgage debt to shrink as bonds mature.

Another factor, I might add, is the weakness of the dollar, which also discourages foreign purchases of U.S. debt and adds to inflationary pressure.

Why am I writing about the end of the era of low interest rates in a blog dedicated to Virginia public policy? Because state and local governments, colleges, universities, economic development authorities, and public service entities are big borrowers, too. Higher interest rates makes life harder for all of them.

To draw from the latest headlines, Mayor Levar Stoney wants to increase the City of Richmond meals tax to fund school building improvements because the city has maxed out its debt capacity and can borrow no more without undermining its AA bond rating. Likewise the Commonwealth of Virginia has borrowed close to its cap, constraining the state’s ability to issue new debt.

Virginia policy limits annual service on its long-term debt to 5% of General Fund revenues. Debt service can be broken into two main parts: the principal borrowed and the interest paid. It is axiomatic: If interest rates increase, so does the annual debt service…. Which means the state can borrow less.

Most important of all, Virginia has a massive unfunded pension liability. That liability, about $20 billion now, has shrunk modestly in the past couple of years thanks to the strong performance of the Virginia Retirement System (VRS) equities portfolio. The next VRS report, reflecting results from the astonishing Trump-era bull market, likely will be positive. Virginia, it will appear, is making continual progress in whittling down its liabilities. No one will be concerned.

But the stock market cannot possibly extend the past decade’s performance into the future. While earnings may continue to improve, stock prices will be dampened by interest rates and shrinking price-earnings multiples. Do not be deceived. The turning point in the bond market does not augur well for either the United States with its $20 trillion national debt or Virginia with its more modest obligations.

Petersburg Now Has a Plan. Does It Have the Will?

Robert Bobb, of the Robert Bobb Group, outlines a five-year financial plan for Petersburg.

The Robert Bobb Group, a consulting firm hired to straighten out the city of Petersburg’s finances, has outlined a five-year plan to keep the city on the fiscal straight and narrow. Among the 15 recommendations is creation of a Financial Advisory Board tasked to make monthly reports on the budget and ensure that financial policies and procedures are being followed, reports the Progress-Index.

The board, comprised of individuals credentialed in finance and accounting, along with a newly created position of Internal Auditor, would give City Council independent insight into what’s happening in city government.

The Bobb Group report also recommended selling the city water system’s excess water capacity or privatizing the utility entirely, and disposing of parcels of city-owned real estate properties, including the Petersburg Hotel and the old Ramada Inn. Converting those properties to cash would help rebuild the city’s fund balance, which currently stands at negative $7.7 million.

The city, which experienced a $12 million budget gap last year and faced $19 million in unpaid bills, narrowly averted a default on its debt. The Bobb Group,  which assumed extraordinary budget powers in a $520,000 contract, rescued the city from insolvency. Among other contributions, the firm claims to have identified more than $10 million in savings and avoided costs. But its contract has expired, the consultants are leaving, and City Council and the apparatus of city government are on their own again.

In their parting report, the Bobb Group listed steps that Council “must take” to keep finances on track. The consultants’ report urged the city to “continue to develop solid financial and business policies, practices and procedures.”

Changing the culture of city government will be easier said than done. A recently released forensic audit of city finances found extensive evidence of abuse of city money and resources in the run-up to fiscal disaster. Reports the Progress-Index in a separate article: “Included in these allegations of misconduct are: misappropriations of fuel for city vehicles, falsification of overtime hours, vacation/sick leave abuse, use of city property for personal gain including lawn mowers and vehicles for travel, excessive or lavish gifts from vendors, and questionable hiring practices.”

“The perception that employees had was that the ethical tone had not been good for quite some time,” said chief auditor John Hanson. “The culture led employees to do things they might not otherwise do.”

Are Virginia Colleges Deferring Maintenance?

Source: State Council of Higher Education for Virginia

According to calculations of the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV), the replacement value of the buildings and grounds of Virginia’s public colleges and universities totals $12.2 billion. And according to the National Association of College and University Business Officers (NACUBO), institutions should plan for an annual reinvestment rate of between 1.5% and 3.5% of that replacement value to offset wear, tear and depreciation.

The Commonwealth established a maintenance reserve program in 1982 to provide funding for facility repairs that are not addressed in the institutions’ operating budgets and are too small to quality for bond financing. Examples might be roof repairs, boiler and chiller replacements, or major electric system upgrades.

Over the past 10 years, the Commonwealth has chipped in about $75 million per year to the maintenance reserve program, according to a report (page 212) submitted Monday to the SCHEV Resources and Planning Committee. That contribution has fallen consistently short of the 1% guideline ($120 million this year) that SCHEV recommends. As of 2011, the cumulative shortfall had grown to $501 million, and this year the state kicked in only l$63.2 million for higher-ed maintenance. 

Instead of funding the maintenance reserve out of operating revenue, the state addressed the condition of colleges’ buildings and grounds by making two state bond issues for new construction. Those outlays did improve the condition of college and university buildings and grounds. But the effect since FY 2009, states the SCEHV report, has been to change the funding source for the maintenance reserve program from the general fund to bond proceeds.  “As a result, the state bond funding for new construction, renovation and deferred maintenance is constrained by the annual debt capacity.”

As Finance Policy Director Dan Hix reminded SCHEV at its monthly board meeting today, the state has little capacity this year to issue new debt without jeopardizing its AAA bond rating. While some money may be available for higher-ed capital projects, he said, it won’t be much.

The practical consequence of state funding policy, Hix said, has been to compel colleges and universities either to generate their own maintenance funds by raising tuition or to simply put off maintenance projects. He offered no estimate of the size of the deferred maintenance liability.

Bacon’s bottom line: The Commonwealth of Virginia is constitutionally mandated to submit balanced budgets. But as I have blogged in the past, there are many forms of hidden deficit spending. One is unfunded pensions. Another is deferred maintenance. I was unaware before today that there was an issue with the condition of colleges’ buildings & grounds. But I’m not surprised. Deferring maintenance is one of the oldest fiscal tricks in the books — I lay odds that the practice dates back to Nebuchadnezzer and the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. Given the stress of higher-ed finances, no one would be surprised that it occurs here in Virginia as well.

While we have a sense of how much the state has short-changed its colleges and universities, we don’t know how many institutions sucked it up and found the money to conduct needed maintenance projects, and how many put off the spending for the next guy to worry about. Perhaps that’s an issue that boards of visitors could dig into. If not, maybe the bond rating agencies will find the practice of interest. One way or another, Virginia’s higher-ed system could be building up a big hidden liability.

Thank You, GASB, for Bringing Tax-Break Transparency to Local Government

How to blow a hole in your tax base without really trying.

Every year, local governments across Virginia publish a voluminous document called a Comprehensive Annual Financial Report (CAFR) that describes their fiscal condition, detailing revenues, expenditures, debt, and growth in the tax base. This year, CAFRs should include a new data point: revenue foregone due to business tax incentives.

Few localities have bothered to compile and report this information before. But the Government Accounting Standards Board (GASB) issued a directive that requires state and local governments to disclose any taxes being abated, the dollar amount of the tax breaks, and any other commitments made by the government as part of a tax-abatement agreement. This “statement 77” goes into effect for financial statements beginning after Dec. 15, 2015. The data should begin surfacing in 2016 annual reports being submitted this year.

The accounting issue has become an issue because tax giveaways have become so ubiquitous. By one estimate, reports a Land Lines magazine article on GASB 77, state and local governments spent $45 billion in tax incentives in 2015, including $12 billion in property tax abatements. According to another estimate, total business incentives have tripled since 1990.

Many state and local governments have been addicted to tax incentives as a tool for recruiting businesses and capturing the tax revenue they generate. Here in Virginia, local governments reap real estate property taxes, machine & tool taxes, BPOL (business professional and occupational license) taxes, and a share of sales taxes paid by businesses in their borders. Many are willing to forego some of those tax revenues in order to capture a business and the balance of the revenue it will pay.  While Virginia localities haven’t gone to the extremes of some regions — the Land Lines article highlights the Kansas City metropolitan area and Franklin County, Ohio — tax exemptions are widespread.

For purposes of calculating a jurisdiction’s fiscal health, it is critical to get a handle on its real estate property tax base, which accounts for about 30% of all local revenue nationally. Local governments typically track the impact of non-profit and tax-exempt hospitals, universities and state facilities within their borders. Excessive reliance upon exemptions for corporate citizens also can hollow out a locality’s tax base, but that information is not readily available to citizens.

Few observers would advocate abolishing all tax incentives. Attracting a cornerstone facility such as an automobile assembly plant can generate tax revenues even after abatements, draw suppliers to an area, boost worker productivity, spark the creation of new training programs at local colleges and universities, and recruit top technical and managerial talent in a positive feedback loop. But all too often, incentives are handed out to everyone as businesses learn to play the game. A huge challenge for economic developers is gauging whether a business prospect is seriously considering relocating to other localities and needs the incentive as a tie-breaker or if it is just seeking to extract a subsidy for a decision it has already made.

Tax exemptions also raise equity issues. Why should newcomer companies get better tax treatment than businesses that have demonstrated a commitment to a community and paid taxes all along? From a social justice perspective, how much money is being diverted from priorities such as schools and infrastructure for all? From a free market perspective, could localities use the money to reduce tax rates for everyone?

People are less likely to ask those questions if they have no idea how much money local governments are leaving on the table. Transparency is good. GASB’s reporting requirement will make the information available in localities’ annual reports. Now it’s up to citizens to ferret out that information and make something of it.

Uh, Oh, Look Who’s “City B”

The city of Richmond is “City B,” the unnamed locality, which, along with Petersburg, Bristol and two unnamed counties, was noted by the Auditor of Public Accounts as in severe fiscal stress, reports the Richmond Free Press. While State Auditor Martha S. Mavredes has not identified Richmond publicly, the city’s name is included in a report that has circulated widely within government circles.

That classification, which was based on 10 financial ratios taken from localities’ Comprehensive Annual Financial Reports (CAFR), might come as a surprise to investors in Richmond’s AA rated bonds. But the city’s score under Mavredes’ methodology has plummeted in the past two years from 50 in fiscal 2014 to 13.7 in 2016. The weekly did not provide the data behind the scores.

The low rating is all the more astounding given the fact that the city is not an aging mill town like Petersburg and Bristol, but has a diversified economy with strong government and finance sectors, and has enjoyed extensive real estate re-development, a growing population and an expanding tax base. The main warning sign has been the inability of city administrators to consistently meet deadlines for publishing their CAFR.

A Better Model for Lending to the Poor

LendUp office in Chesterfield County. Photo credit: Richmond Times-Dispatch.

It’s time to introduce into the public lexicon a distinction between “social justice warriors” and “social justice entrepreneurs.”

Social justice warriors (or SJWs, as they are known short-hand on some conservative blogs) seek to remedy the conditions of the poor and downtrodden through political action, typically calling upon government to wield its power and money to fix some perceived institutional wrong.

Then there are social justice entrepreneurs. Instead of seeing government as the answer, they look to private action: creating new business and not-for-profit models to help the poor. The entrepreneurs don’t agitate, they don’t wave placards, and they don’t frequent protest rallies. They go out and change peoples’ lives for the better.

Regular readers of this blog know that I have no patience with SJWs, most of whose “remedies” are counter-productive, if not outright destructive. By encouraging the poor to buy houses they can’t afford, take out higher-ed loans for degree students never complete, and shutting down lenders-of-last-resort like payday lenders, SJWs have worsened the plight of the poor — all for the most noble of motives, of course.

California-based LendUp Global Inc., is an example of a social justice enterprise that has the potential to help ameliorate the lives of millions of poor people — without a single dollar of government funding. The company, which has established its first East Coast office in Chesterfield County, was recently profiled by the Richmond Times-Dispatch. I base the following account upon that article.

Sasha Orloff had worked in finance, including an internship at the Grameen Foundation, a global nonprofit co-founded by Nobel laureate Muhammad Yunus that provides micro-financing for poor people in developing countries.  His experience there inspired him and his stepbrother Jake Rosenberg, who had worked in technology at Yahoo! and an online gaming company. They conceived the idea of tapping the emerging FinTech industry to make small loans to an estimated 100 million Americans, mostly poor with low credit ratings and income volatility, who cannot get loans from traditional banks. In early 2016, LendUp raised $150 million in venture capital with the goal of becoming a better small-loan provider.

As with payday lenders, LendUp’s interest rates are extremely high on small, short-term loans. A $250 loan repayable within a month would carry a finance charge of $44, equivalent to an annualized interest rate of 214 percent. Interest payments must cover the transaction costs of making the loans, after all. They also reflect the increased risk on non-payment by low credit-score borrowers. 

As Rosenberg acknowledges, “There is a subset of the population that actually needs payday loans, and for this population, banks cannot readily serve them for a wide range of reasons.”

“Yes, payday loans are expensive. The real problem is there is no other options,” he says. “The average borrower is getting ten [payday loans] a year, and they have no pathway to a better product. The key thing is, we’ve tried to create a model where we win when the customer wins. … We do that by trying to incentivize behaviors that are constructive to the consumer’s financial life. If they do those things, they get access to more, the cost goes down, and the amount of capital they can get goes up.”

LendUp offers customers a “ladder” out of the indebtedness trap. The company provides financial, advising customers on how to improve their credit rating and qualify for lower cost debt. Borrowers can win points by paying back loans on time. As they prove themselves, they can work from payday-like loans to installment loans of up to $1,000 with lower interest rates.

Earlier this year, LendUp passed the $1 billion mark in loans provided. It has made more than 3.5 million loans.

Time will tell if LendUp has a profitable business model. But if it does, it should have no trouble attracting capital and expanding. Most likely it will attract competitors, and it will push the payday lending industry to reform itself — either develop a better business model or get dismembered by new tech-savvy, FinTech enterprises.

Interestingly, although LendUp’s East Coast operation is based in Virginia, the company does not offer loans in the Old Dominion. The article does not explain why, but don’t be surprised if there are regulatory restrictions inspired by do-gooders trying to protect the poor from predatory lending.

Bacon Bits: The Latest in Government Ineptitude and Short-Sighted Thinking

It’s Hard to Teach without Teachers. With a week to go before the start of the new school year, the Richmond Public Schools still has about 90 teacher openings, according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Why the shortage, which seems to be a chronic issue? Perhaps the school conditions are so terrible that no one wants to work for the city schools. Or perhaps the school administration is dysfunctional that it can’t execute basic tasks. Whatever the case, I’ve seen no reporting to suggest that any other locality in the Richmond region has a comparable problem.

Hopewell the Next Petersburg? The City of Hopewell is now 21 months behind completing its Comprehensive Annual Financial Report, and that has some City Council members broiling, as reported by the T-D. One city official points to a $51.8 million in year-end cash and investments as proof that the city’s financial position is OK. But an auditor said he had uncovered about 90 instances of money being transferred without documentation — the same practice that preceded Petersburg’s fiscal meltdown.

What Hurricane Harvey Portends for Hampton Roads. Flood damage in the Houston area will run into the tens of billions of dollars. Much of the cost will be covered by an under-priced, under-funded federal flood insurance program that subsidizes construction in flood-prone areas. (Much of the balance will be covered by an under-funded federal government that will have to borrow the money.) According to Politico, about one percent of insured properties have sustained repetitive losses, accounting for more than 25 percent of the nation’s flood claims. So far, Congress has resisted serious reform, but the program is fiscally unsustainable.

Thought experiment: What would happen to Hampton Roads if federal flood insurance charged actuarially sound premiums? What would that do to property values?

A related question: Who insures infrastructure? Presumably rate payers cover the cost of maintaining electric lines. How big is that subsidy? I’m guessing that state and local governments have no insurance for roads and highways. What is that potential exposure? And how about the implicit subsidies for water and sewer service? People who choose to build and live in vulnerable locations — this now effects me, because I now am a co-owner with my brother and sister of the family beach cottage — should pay the full cost of their locational decisions.

Will that ever happen? Probably not.

Bacon Bits: Bristol, Big Ships, and Blue on Blue

Petersburg, Meet Bristol. The City of Bristol has been identified as “City A” in the recent report by the state Auditor of Public Accounts that scored even lower than Petersburg in a rating of fiscal stress, reports the Bristol Herald-Courier. Bristol hasn’t experienced the dramatic budget deficits of its fiscally challenged counterpart on the Appomattox River, but the city of 17,000 on the Tennessee state line is burdened by general-obligation bond debt of more than $100 million stemming from its backing of the failed The Falls commercial center.

Here Come the Big Ships. The CMA CGM Theodore Roosevelt, the largest ship to ever call on an East Coast U.S. port, docked Monday in Norfolk, reports the Richmond Times-DispatchThe vessel, which carries the equivalent of 14,400 containers, made its way to Virginia via the widened Panama Canal, Served by the deepest channels on the East Coast, Norfolk is the logical first stop for a generation of massive new ships; after unloading cargo there, ships rise in the water enough to navigate shallower channels in other ports. As part of a $670 million expansion plan, the Virginia Port Authority is ordering four massive cranes capable of reaching across a vessel that is 26 containers wide.

Blue on Blue. In the aftermath of the fatal white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, city government has descended into vituperative in-fighting almost as anarchic as the protests and counter-protests themselves. The proximate cause is a controversy over who to blame for the police department’s failure (or unwillingness) to intervene to shut down the demonstrations before violence broke out. Did someone order the police to “stand down”? Mayor Mike Signer, City Manager Maurice Jones, and Police Chief Al Thomas are all in major ass-covering mode. Angry citizens shut down a Council meeting. Documents are leaking. Fingers are pointing. Read the latest installment in the Daily Progress here.