Death Watch Illinois: Despite Massive Stock Market Rally, Illinois Pension Liabilities Go Up, and Up, and Up
Illinois Pension Problems Mount
Illinois' unfunded liabilities have risen ten out of the last eleven years. The only exception was 2011. This was despite massive rallies in financial markets every year since 2009.
One out of every five tax dollars goes to pensions, but that's nowhere close to enough to stem the tide.
Illinois has the worst funded pension plans in the nation. Those plans are a mere 42% funded in aggregate.
That bleak estimate understates the problem because it assumes 8% annualized returns going forward. Those returns are not going to happen.
I expect 0-2% returns at best, and most likely negative real returns for seven to ten years.
Still No Budget
In October, Moody's cut Illinois debt to one step above junk, specifically citing pensions as the "greatest challenge". Lower ratings have driven up borrowing costs. In turn, rising borrowing costs mean less money to spend elsewhere.
The new year is less than a week away, but Illinois still does not have a budget.
As 2015 draws to a close, Illinois marks half a year without a budget. No spending plan has driven up borrowing costs, sunk its credit rating, and perhaps worst of all, exacerbated the state's biggest problem: its underfunded pensions.
Home to the least-funded state retirement system in the nation, Illinois has $111 billion of pension debt, which breaks down to more than $8,000 per resident. Partisan gridlock has produced the longest budget impasse in Illinois history. The stalemate has not only weakened state finances, it has kept lawmakers from finding a fix for those mounting liabilities.
It's been seven months since the Illinois Supreme Court rejected the state's solution. Justices threw out the 2013 restructuring that took six attempts over 16 months to pass, despite one-party rule at the time. The measure was projected to save $145 billion over 30 years by limiting cost-of-living adjustments and raising the retirement age.
Illinois enters 2016 snarled in partisan bickering as Governor Bruce Rauner, the state's first Republican chief executive in 12 years, and the Democrat-controlled legislature can't agree on annual appropriations, much less an overhaul of a retirement system that must withstand an inevitable legal challenge. The state constitution bans reducing worker retirement benefits.
In July, Rauner laid out a plan to create a tiered system to cut retirement liabilities. At the time, he said it would save taxpayers billions of dollars. The proposal, which included a measure to allow municipalities to file for bankruptcy protection, was never introduced, according to Catherine Kelly, his spokeswoman.
Illinois hasn't sold bonds since April 2014, a record borrowing drought. The spread on its existing debt has widened. Investors demand 1.8 percentage points of extra yield to own 30-year Illinois bonds, the most among the 20 states tracked by Bloomberg. When the spread climbs, that's reflecting that investors think the problem is getting worse, said Richard Ciccarone, Chicago-based chief executive officer of Merritt Research Services.
"What's the root cause of why we're in the problem we're in?" Ciccarone said. "It's down to the pensions."
Illinois is like a patient in the emergency room, said Paul Mansour at Conning, which oversees $11 billion of munis, including Illinois securities.
Death Watch Illinois
Illinois is terminal. Pension cancer is too deep and has spread too far to save the patient. The state is bankrupt morally, politically, and monetarily.
However, there is no provision for state bankruptcy (something US Congress needs to address). Regardless, what cannot be paid won't.
Illinois cancer is not just at the state level. The cancer permeates cities far and wide.
The Chicago Board of Education is already dead whether the coroner or Mayor Rahm Emmanuel makes the announcement or not.
Tax hikes won't help the dead or dying. Instead they will cause the healthy and able to flee.
Many Illinois cities lay in a bankruptcy coffin, but the current law will not let the coroner make that announcement.
The best way to ease municipality pain is to pass a law allowing municipal bankruptcies. Such a bill would let terminal cities and taxing bodies move to hospice to die in peace. That's something the Illinois legislature can and should address.
Illinois Republicans, I have a question: Where the heck is that bill?
Corrupt politicians in bed with union officials have hollowed out the state beyond repair. Let's not pretend otherwise.
Illinois needs a fresh start:
- Bankruptcies at the municipal level
- A new constitution that allows pension cuts at the state level
- Right to work laws
- End of collective bargaining of government employees
- End of prevailing wage laws
- Tax reform, especially property tax reform
- Workers' compensation reform
- Unemployment insurance reform
Until we see those changes, the state will lay on the death-bed slowly bleeding workers and businesses in a fate worse than death by bankruptcy or default.
Sobering Pension Assessment
As noted above Illinois pension plans are 42% funded, and that's with projected returns of 8%. If returns average 2% or even 5%, liabilities and under-fundings will soar.
Unfortunately, history suggests 0% is more likely. Here's further discussion of what to expect and why.
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