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Could a Moody’s methodology change push Illinois into junk status?

Friday, Dec 15, 2017

* Pensions & Investments

Moody’s Investors Service is seeking comments from market participants on proposed changes to its methodology for states’ general obligation credit ratings, which would include an increased emphasis on states’ debt and pension obligations.

Under the proposed changes, debt and pension obligations will have a 25% weight on state credit ratings, up from 20% currently. The individual state’s economy, another factor in Moody’s ratings, will also have a 25% weight, up from 20%. Governance will fall to 20% from 30% and finances will be maintained at 30%.

The debt and pension factor “is critical because debt and pension obligations are the primary long-term liabilities that states have,” Moody’s said in an announcement on the proposed changes Tuesday. “As these liabilities grow, states face rising expenses to pay debt and pension benefits. High fixed debt service and pension costs can crowd out other budgetary priorities and force states to raise taxes in order to meet them. Debt and pensions can curtail a state’s budgetary flexibility and heighten the risk that it will seek to deleverage through a debt restructuring.”

The Illinois Policy Institute’s news service notes this potential change and concludes it “could make Illinois the first state whose bonds fall to junk status.”

* More

Fitch Ratings agency put out their 2017 State Pension Update this week. It shows that Illinois’ pension crisis is the worst in the nation at more than $151 billion. That’s $60 billion more than second worst New Jersey’s liability.

“Six states have long-term liability burdens that Fitch considers elevated [in excess of 20 percent of personal income],” the report said, “with Illinois carrying the highest liability burden at 28.5 percent of personal income.”

Fitch Senior Director Doug Offerman said taxpayers should care because the burden takes up more than 28 percent of all personal income in Illinois, “which is essentially a proxy for the wealth level, the resource base of a given government.” […]

“For the last several years the [pension] increases did grow faster, and I would say do crowd out other spending that might have otherwise taken up organic revenue growth,” [Fitch Ratings Senior Director Karen Krop] said.

- Posted by Rich Miller        

55 Comments
  1. - Perrid - Friday, Dec 15, 17 @ 10:01 am:

    And I’d like to remind everyone that the pension debit, the unfunded liabilities, is supposed to, as in is planned, to go up until 2028. That’s from the payment schedule Rich posted the other day. Another decade before we actually start chipping away at it. I’m very much against diminishing a pension people have spent decades planning for but this can kicking is not sustainable. I get I’m preaching to the choir but I gotta vent a little. They need to figure something out, by which I’m mostly thinking raising revenue, unless you want more cuts somewhere else.


  2. - Lucky Pierre - Friday, Dec 15, 17 @ 10:04 am:

    Paging Speaker Madigan, do you read the news?

    Time to work “cooperatively and professionally” , with the Governor and the Democratic Senate, for the good of the entire state not just your special interests, on solving our unsustainable pensions that is causing a budget crisis and population loss from Illinois.

    Care to weigh in JB? Of course not, just talk about Donald Trump.


  3. - Phenomynous - Friday, Dec 15, 17 @ 10:04 am:

    We might actually be in better shape. Yes, we would get a 5% weight increase on pension obligations, but we would lose 10% weight in governance. It might just work out for us.


  4. - anon2 - Friday, Dec 15, 17 @ 10:08 am:

    In case Illinois bonds are reduced to junk bond status, is there any chance that Gov. Rauner would take responsibility for what happens on his watch? After all, candidate Rauner claimed that Gov. Quinn was responsible for the credit downgrades on his watch.


  5. - Bigtwich - Friday, Dec 15, 17 @ 10:11 am:

    “is there any chance that Gov. Rauner would take responsibility”

    You have not been paying much attention in recent years.


  6. - Grandson of Man - Friday, Dec 15, 17 @ 10:13 am:

    Hopefully the reduction of the bill backlog by almost half will help.

    Along with whatever spending reductions are needed, I believe we really need to shift the tax burden and have the wealthy pay more. This is an existential need, apparently, as we teeter on the brink of fiscal ruin.

    I support taxing public employee pensions over $50,000, as we need the revenue.

    The gubernatorial election will be about two totally different visions and plans for improving the state. The Rauner way is to bulldoze Madigan and public employee unions to clear the way for some serious austerity. The Democrat will support a progressive income tax and very possibly marijuana legalization.


  7. - Anonymous - Friday, Dec 15, 17 @ 10:15 am:

    ===Hopefully the reduction of the bill backlog by almost half will help.===

    The *interest* on the pension debt is $9.1B a year.


  8. - cdog - Friday, Dec 15, 17 @ 10:21 am:

    Vulture capitalist love carrion.

    Makes you wonder about Big Money’s hoped for end game for Illinois.


  9. - Chris Widger - Friday, Dec 15, 17 @ 10:23 am:

    This state needs a grand bargain:

    1) We have to amend the state constitution to remove the pension protection. It’s literally a question of survival.

    2) Pensions have to be taxed like ordinary income.

    3) While we’re amending the constitution, we have to allow a progressive income tax. Again, it’s literally a question of survival.

    4) We have to stop our swings and misses on meatball pitches. We no longer have the moral authority to restrict casinos–we need the revenue. We no longer have the luxury of waiting to legalize marijuana; we need that (modest) tax revenue now.

    We need strong and brave politicians to compromise and push these ideas. That isn’t very likely, so we need the state to crash sooner rather than later so that we can sooner realize the gravity of the situation and get on the right track.


  10. - Chris Widger - Friday, Dec 15, 17 @ 10:25 am:

    ==The Rauner way is to bulldoze Madigan and public employee unions to clear the way for some serious austerity. The Democrat will support a progressive income tax and very possibly marijuana legalization.==

    The former is probably right; the latter almost certainly is not. Hard to blame Democrats, as they need to win an election before they can get in office, and a progressive income tax is not an election winner. The state will not institute or seriously debate a progressive income tax until well after the state is ruined beyond hope of recovery, no matter which party is in power.


  11. - SSL - Friday, Dec 15, 17 @ 10:31 am:

    Not only is Illinois the worst in the nation, it is the worst by 65% more than the second worst. To achieve that takes an epic level of greed and incompetence. Congratulations to our legislative leaders on driving such performance.

    Why would any business or individual move to this state, when it is obvious that taxes are going to need to increase significantly while at the same time the standard of living decreases due to required service cuts.

    Happy Holidays.


  12. - Retired SURS Employee - Friday, Dec 15, 17 @ 10:32 am:

    - We have to amend the state constitution to remove the pension protection. It’s literally a question of survival. -
    How many times must it be noted that amending the Constitution will only effect future employees?


  13. - Oswego Willy - Friday, Dec 15, 17 @ 10:32 am:

    ===1) We have to amend the state constitution to remove the pension protection. It’s literally a question of survival.===

    Pensions that already exist, abc that obligation will still be owed. The debt isn’t going anywhere.

    ===2) Pensions have to be taxed like ordinary income.===

    You want to end protected pensions, (heavy of the heaviest lifts) and then couple that with taxing pensions?

    You know why this hasn’t been offered as a real solution? Who in their right mind will do both? Where o where is the compromise?

    You wavt to ding seniors, and then ding public employees for the state not properly funding pensions?

    “You may want to sit out a few plays.”

    Then..,

    ===3) While we’re amending the constitution, we have to allow a progressive income tax. Again, it’s literally a question of survival.===

    With the first two as part and parcel, how do expect this to be received?

    We’re going to tax your pensions, then we’re going to raise the tax “again” from 0 to now a progressive income tax that may effect you too?

    You find electeds or campaigns willing to go all three there..,


  14. - Retired SURS Employee - Friday, Dec 15, 17 @ 10:33 am:

    *affect


  15. - LilLebowskiUrbanAchiever - Friday, Dec 15, 17 @ 10:33 am:

    I’m sure we’ve been scoring very low on the Governance provision. I’m guessing we’re doing much better in that regard after the reasonable Republicans rejected Governor Junk.


  16. - Bigtwich - Friday, Dec 15, 17 @ 10:35 am:

    “I support taxing public employee pensions over $50,000, as we need the revenue.”

    To avoid equal protection problems you would need to tax all pensions.


  17. - G'Kar - Friday, Dec 15, 17 @ 10:35 am:

    ==This state needs a grand bargain:

    1) We have to amend the state constitution to remove the pension protection. It’s literally a question of survival.==

    As has been pointed out time and time again by people who understand these things, amending the constitution will do nothing to diminish the pension debt. Likewise, Tier II pensions give the state more money than pensioners will take out.


  18. - Oswego Willy - Friday, Dec 15, 17 @ 10:36 am:

    - SSL -, lol, keep up, please.

    ===Congratulations to our legislative leaders on driving such performance.===

    Rauner, in 2014…

    ===“Illinois’ credit rating has been downgraded 13 times under Pat Quinn and now, because of his failed leadership, our state’s economy and finances are still broken. Pat Quinn put special interest politics ahead of Illinois workers. We need to change direction before it’s too late.” – Rauner campaign spokesperson Mike Schrimpf […]===

    Governors own, they always do. Ask Schrimpf and Candidate Rauner.

    “You’re welcome.”


  19. - RNUG - Friday, Dec 15, 17 @ 10:38 am:

    == I support taxing public employee pensions over $50,000, as we need the revenue. ==

    It will have to be all pensions over that amount, not just public employees; otherwise you are looking at an unequal treatment issue.

    And if you exempt Social Security, you need to figure out how to treat public employees that were barred by the State from participating in Social Security; otherwise you will also have an unequal treatment issue.

    From a legal perspective, better to tax all retirement income with a large exemption per retiree. If you want to avoid taxing Social Security, then set the exemption to the average SS payment in the State.


  20. - RNUG - Friday, Dec 15, 17 @ 10:42 am:

    == The state will not institute or seriously debate a progressive income tax until well after the state is ruined beyond hope of recovery, no matter which party is in power. ==

    Seems to be one of the themes of the Governor’s race … with Democrats for it and Rauner opposed to it.


  21. - @misterjayem - Friday, Dec 15, 17 @ 10:43 am:

    Possible constitutional solutions should be restricted to those solutions that are not constitutionally impossible.

    It’s literally a question of survival.

    – MrJM


  22. - David - Friday, Dec 15, 17 @ 10:49 am:

    Only way out is for the tax reform package to allow for state restructuring of pension debt. Problem solved.


  23. - Robert the 1st - Friday, Dec 15, 17 @ 10:51 am:

    Lots of state tax retirement but exempt Social Security. No unequal treatment issue.


  24. - Just Visiting - Friday, Dec 15, 17 @ 10:59 am:

    =Pensions that already exist, abc that obligation will still be owed. The debt isn’t going anywhere.=

    Ask Detroit pensioners how that worked out, IL Constitution or not. If you are in a state pension system and you are more than 10 years way from retiring and you do not have a non-state retirement savings plan you better start one. I bet in 10 years pensioners will be getting 70 cents on the dollar. If they are lucky.


  25. - Grandson of Man - Friday, Dec 15, 17 @ 11:00 am:

    “From a legal perspective, better to tax all retirement income”

    Sorry, I didn’t realize I was unfairly targeting one group of people. I support taxing all pensions over $50,000 per year, as a matter of trying to get more revenue and having to avoid austerity elsewhere.

    “a progressive income tax is not an election winner”

    A version of it, the millionaire surcharge, was proven to be very popular. If a progressive income tax is sold as something greatly needed—which many, including myself, believe—it could very well work in an election. Rauner and Trump are tied together with their so-called plutocratic agenda. It’s the Democrat’s vision vs. the Rauner-Trump vision of big income and power gains by the wealthiest.


  26. - Chicago Cynic - Friday, Dec 15, 17 @ 11:01 am:

    Governor Junk here we come? Ugh.

    “Hopefully the reduction of the bill backlog by almost half will help.”

    Reducing the bill backlog by replacing short term debt with long term debt does not reduce your debt. So no, it won’t help.

    And yes, I know it’s politically unpopular, but we must tax retirement income above a certain threshold. We’re one of the only states that doesn’t do it and it makes no sense. I will be negatively effected by most of the tax changes I favor (including a progressive income tax and the taxing of retirement income) but it is absolutely the right thing to do for our state.


  27. - RNUG - Friday, Dec 15, 17 @ 11:06 am:

    == Lots of state tax retirement but exempt Social Security. No unequal treatment issue. ==

    But those states did not prevent their employees from participating in SS. That’s where the issue comes in, primarily with teachers … and they are a big enough block they could raise the funds to sue over it.

    Ironically, the State choose a pension over SS for teachers because it was cheaper … but now that may cost the State in the ability to tax their retirement.


  28. - Robert the 1st - Friday, Dec 15, 17 @ 11:10 am:

    SS isn’t a pension, IRA, or 401k retirement vehicle. It’s a mandated program for most workers where high earns subsidize lower earners’ retirement security. Probably why lots of state exempt it from taxes and have no legal issue doing so.


  29. - City Zen - Friday, Dec 15, 17 @ 11:13 am:

    If the new methodology provides more transparency, the junk status it is. And while we’re in the transparency mood, double down and drop the assumed rates from 7% to 6%. Time to call a spade a spade.

    Full transparency. Then and only then will we find a way out of this.


  30. - RNUG - Friday, Dec 15, 17 @ 11:14 am:

    == Only way out is for the tax reform package to allow for state restructuring of pension debt. Problem solved. ==

    If you stretch out the repayment period beyond the current ramp, it costs the taxpayers a lot more money overall. That would be a cash flow / political choice, not really a financial one.

    If you changed it from the current IOU the State owes itself to actually bonding out the pension debt, then you have eliminated the only flexibility the State has left to handle financial downturns and crises.

    Pick your poison …


  31. - Tbone - Friday, Dec 15, 17 @ 11:17 am:

    Legislative initiatives have already addressed future pension liabilities with the creation of Tier 2 and Tier 3 for public employees. Tier 2 and Tier 3 pension systems cost the state drastically less money. As Tier 2 and Tier 3 employees begin to retire, the state’s pension liability will be reduced slowly.

    It was a prudent financial calculation for the state to sell bonds to be paid off at 4% interest in order to avoid the state having to pay 12% in interest penalties on unpaid bills.

    It would also be a prudent business decision to replace the pension ramp with a steady payment 40-year pension repayment plan. This would reduce the state’s annual pension payment obligation and free up cash for other vital state needs.

    Some other perks of this plan: no increase in state income tax, no diminishment of current employees pensions, and no tax on pension income.


  32. - City Zen - Friday, Dec 15, 17 @ 11:18 am:

    ==But those states did not prevent their employees from participating in SS. ==

    RNUG, you’re missing one important point: Folks already paid taxes on their SSI earnings. Pensions and 401k’s are tax deferred whereas SSI is not. That’s a huge difference in how you treat its taxability.

    Please stop hiding behind some perceived inequity if the state exempted SSI from taxation but not other retirement income. Pensioners and 401k/IRA folks would be treated no differently.


  33. - Robert the 1st - Friday, Dec 15, 17 @ 11:20 am:

    And there’s 15 states where teachers/government employees don’t participate in SS. The first one I checked; CA, taxes retirement income but exempts SS.


  34. - Anonymous - Friday, Dec 15, 17 @ 11:20 am:

    Wow, at some point we might need to tax rather than subsidize the casino and liquor industries.


  35. - RNUG - Friday, Dec 15, 17 @ 11:20 am:

    == SS isn’t a pension, IRA, or 401k retirement vehicle. ==

    Actually, SS is part pension, part disability insurance, and part social welfare.

    Back in 1970 most government workers moved to Social Security. Even Illinois did for some of them. However, the fact remains Illinois legally prevented teachers from participating in SS. Had IL allowed it, under your proposal, some of the teachers retirement income would have been exempt from taxes. I think the teachers would have a good case.


  36. - 33rd ward - Friday, Dec 15, 17 @ 11:38 am:

    Colorado home values have skyrocketed.

    How can a state, as broke as ours, ignore the reality-based benefits of legalizing cannabis?

    How can we ask teachers, police and librarians to give up their planned retirement while we still put people in cages for using cannabis?

    I don’t understand Baby Boomers or the world they’re leaving us


  37. - Chicago 20 - Friday, Dec 15, 17 @ 11:47 am:

    And then the other junk bond shoe drops.
    https://www.bondbuyer.com/news/illinois-met-pier-authority-comes-to-market-with-one-junk-bond-rating
    “The deal taps nearly $300 million in additional bonding authority approved in the state’s fiscal 2018 budget package. The authority has $2.6 billion of outstanding convention center expansion bonds. The heavily back-loaded structure that mostly repaid in the final five years…The restructuring is designed “to reduce the likelihood of future draws on state sales tax deposits,” William Daley, Morgan Stanley’s lead banker on the deal…With the refunding, MPEA expects to repay all remaining outstanding state tax draws which totaled $57 million and were taken when its own revenues fell short during the Great Recession. The MPEA collects taxes on hotels, downtown restaurants, auto rentals, and airport taxi rides. Since fiscal 2010, authority taxes have rebounded from a low of $98 million to $150 million in fiscal 2017.”
    Compare that $150 million on MPEA tax revenue against the MPEA Annual Debt Service Requirements which will quickly ramp up to $196,685,245 in FY2019 and then stair step to $347,246,850 in FY2031 through FY2057.

    The State of Illinois will now have $6.264 billion of MPEA bond debt to cover as it stands right now.


  38. - Lucky Pierre - Friday, Dec 15, 17 @ 11:54 am:

    “Please stop hiding behind some perceived inequity if the state exempted SSI from taxation but not other retirement income. Pensioners and 401k/IRA folks would be treated no differently.”

    There certainly is inequity - but it is between the interests of tier one pensioners , which includes most judges and legislators and the rest of the state.

    No wonder why this will never be fixed.


  39. - cdog - Friday, Dec 15, 17 @ 12:09 pm:

    Interesting numbers on the latest “Cogfa” pension report, charts 17, 28, 41.

    Fy 2017 Projected Total Benefit Payout for Sers,Surs,Trs were $11B.

    Fy 2044, same parameters, $25B.

    How does this compare to NJ? I couldn’t find it. I’m curious if our numbers on actual payouts are reasonable in a fair comparison.


  40. - walker - Friday, Dec 15, 17 @ 12:09 pm:

    You might want to rethink through the “restructuring of pension debt” idea. I cannot figure out a way or structure in which it could work for us financially, or really at all. We could change our repayment schedule with out involving a third party and related costs, if we wanted to.

    One of those “sounds good — but …” ideas.


  41. - City Zen - Friday, Dec 15, 17 @ 12:17 pm:

    ==Illinois legally prevented teachers from participating in SS. Had IL allowed it, under your proposal, some of the teachers retirement income would have been exempt from taxes. I think the teachers would have a good case.==

    If teachers were SSI eligible, their entire pension package would be different. First and foremost, service years credit would probably be 1.67 instead of 2.2. The result would be a much smaller pension and reduction in salary for their career based on whatever the SSI rate was back then.


  42. - walker - Friday, Dec 15, 17 @ 12:29 pm:

    mine at 12:09 — of course, RNUG had already answered it better than I ever could at 11:14. I should read before commenting.


  43. - Paleghost - Friday, Dec 15, 17 @ 1:08 pm:

    @chris widger, “Pensions have to be taxed like ordinary income.” First seen you in court. Second to make it fit the legal framework you have to tax all retirement income IE: pensions, 401 disbursments and Social security. Really ? (chuckles to self). How hard is it to get a PO box in a non tax state ? Want to see what a gray panther looks like on the move? You go right ahead and tax retirement income. Lol thank you all end of rant.


  44. - Smalls - Friday, Dec 15, 17 @ 1:42 pm:

    @Just Visiting - It worked out pretty well for Detroit pensioners, all things considered. They only took a 4.5% reduction, so they kept 95.5% of their pensions. The bondholders took the most haircut. Secondly, a city, such as Detroit, can file a bankruptcy, whereas a state, such as Illinois, cannot.

    @David - States are not allowed to restructure any kind of debt, it is not part of the bankruptcy code. The likely way to change that is to have a federal constitutional amendment that would amend the contracts clause of the constitution, which would allow states to file bankruptcy. This would have to be ratified by the other states, and I don’t see the other states taking up this issue.


  45. - Illinois resident - Friday, Dec 15, 17 @ 1:52 pm:

    Legalize cannabis and make more tax revenue, build up industry and jobs, and reduce law enforcement cost. Not the only solution but a big step in the right direction.


  46. - Demoralized - Friday, Dec 15, 17 @ 2:21 pm:

    ==reduce law enforcement cost==

    That’s an odd one. Reduce costs how?


  47. - former southerner - Friday, Dec 15, 17 @ 2:30 pm:

    I expect Illinois resident is referring to removing the time spent investigating/enforcing cannabis laws in addition to the associated crimes that go with having to purchase products illegally. Similar to why we continue to repeat our failed experiment during the prohibition era.


  48. - Demoralized - Friday, Dec 15, 17 @ 2:32 pm:

    Well duh. Thanks for the smack on the head. Friday thinking skills on my part I guess.


  49. - wordslinger - Friday, Dec 15, 17 @ 2:38 pm:

    Perhaps Moody’s or IPI could paint a reasonable scenario in which the state would default or even be late on a GO debt payment.

    Can’t happen (and has never happened). The bonds are covered by law by an irrevocable continuing appropriation. They get paid first, before anything else, and revenues provide exponential coverage to debt service. The risk of default is zero.

    As bizarre as it is, the rating agencies don’t actually rate “risk.” They rate the state’s fiscal practices compared to other states, which may or may not have anything to do with outstanding debt risk. In this case, there is no relationship.

    That is, when they’re not just making up crazy stuff, like AAA subprime MBS. Emails revealed in court filings showed that the rating agencies had no clue as to the actual value of the bonds’ underlying value or the ability of the debt to be serviced. Yet they got AAA ratings, anyway, because it was a fat new product for the rating agencies.


  50. - Anonymous - Friday, Dec 15, 17 @ 3:00 pm:

    Teachers have NO option to save for their retirement other than the state pension fund. You cannot opt for a 403B or IRA instead of the state fund—well, you can save for your own IRA after your TRS deduction.

    I got a shock, when, at the age of 22 and my first teaching job I was “missing” 8% of my paycheck from what I contracted to work for. Surprise! That 8% went to TRS. No choice.


  51. - RNUG - Friday, Dec 15, 17 @ 3:23 pm:

    == a city, such as Detroit, can file a bankruptcy ==

    Some states allow municipalities to file for bankruptcy, some don’t, some allow it with permission from the State. In Illinois, a city must get permission from the State first in order to file bankruptcy.


  52. - Pundent - Friday, Dec 15, 17 @ 3:26 pm:

    It’s beyond me why people would blame the pensioners for the State’s (and by extension our) inability to properly fund the pension obligation. But soon enough this issue will hit home for many others. The federal tax cut that will soon occur will be the impetus to eliminate or curtail our own “unsustainable” retirement income obligation.


  53. - Lucky Pierre - Friday, Dec 15, 17 @ 4:12 pm:

    Who is blaming the pensioners other than those in the legislature who have passed unbalanced budgets for decades and overpromised pay and benefits the state is unable to pay for?


  54. - CivilSpk - Friday, Dec 15, 17 @ 4:21 pm:

    As much as people would like not to admit it all public employee groups have a strong hand in the pension problem. They contributed dues to lobby for sweeteners and un-affordable increases in spending in order to bump salaries. The firefighters just recently lobbied for increased benefits.

    Everyone needs to help solve the problem and own up to their role.


  55. - ste_with_a_v_en - Friday, Dec 15, 17 @ 4:24 pm:

    Does anyone who receives a pension support the idea of taxing it to help raise revenue to pay for it? Seems like the most obvious yet least likely solution.


Sorry, comments for this post are now closed.


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