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CTBA responds to Fitch Ratings

Monday, Dec 10, 2018

* From Fitch Ratings’ “Illinois: What Happens Next” report…

The governor-elect’s plans regarding pension liabilities focus more on possible adjustments to the state’s funding schedule, rather than on any steps to seek employee consent for or constitutional changes to allow for accrued benefit changes, or shifting costs to school districts or public universities as proposed by the incumbent. When asked about his pension proposals during the campaign, the governor-elect suggested stepping up the statutory payment to a level-dollar amortization that would potentially mean higher annual contributions in the near- compared to the systems’ level percentage-of-payroll amortization under current statute. He did not provide extensive details on where the necessary funding would come from. Fitch notes that the current statutory contribution remains inadequate relative to the level recommended by actuaries to ensure full funding over time.

So far so good.

* Onward…

One possibility, advocated by the also progressive-leaning Center on Tax and Budget Accountability (CTBA) in Illinois, is to use pension obligation bonds (POBs) to partially fund stepped-up pension contributions for several years. The proposal also calls for re-amortization of pension liability with a new funded ratio target of 70% by 2045, versus the already comparatively weak 90% statutory funding target (also by 2045) under the current statutory ramp-up. The CTBA’s executive director was recently appointed as one of 17 members of the governor-elect’s budget and innovations transition committee.

Fitch has previously noted that issuance of POBs is generally neutral to negative for an issuer’s credit quality. If POB proceeds are deposited with a pension trust, while actuarial contributions continue to flow uninterrupted from annual budgetary resources, the issuance of POBs offsets unfunded liability and has little immediate impact on the issuer’s overall long-term liability burden.

However, the CTBA proposal to use proceeds for budget relief by offsetting an annual pension contribution is viewed by Fitch as deficit financing. Such situations result in the issuer’s bonded debt increasing without necessarily a corresponding decrease in its net pension liabilities, a factor that may negatively weigh on the credit ratings.

* I asked the CTBA’s Daniel Kay Hertz for a response…

CTBA agrees that using POBs to “offset an annual pension contribution”—ie, to replace funding that would normally be coming from tax revenue—is irresponsible. That was one of the upshots of our Crain’s editorial in August.

But I think it’s not right to say the POBs in the reamortization plan are “offsetting an annual pension contribution.” Those POBs are *in addition to* the amounts paid with tax revenue as scheduled under current law. In other words, CTBA’s reamortization plan doesn’t create false savings by substituting tax-funded spending with debt-funded spending; it uses all of the POB proceeds to directly increase contributions to the pension systems as a bridge to the level-dollar amortization contributions.

As for the 70% funded ratio target, two things. First, and most importantly, by putting more money in the pension systems up front, CTBA’s reamortization plan actually increases the funded ratio *faster* than the current ramp through about the mid-2030s. That’s crucial in the short term because it gives the pension systems more breathing room in the increasingly likely case of a recession. In the longer term, it’s important because it means that, fifteen years from now, if the state decides it wants and is in a position to increase its funded ratio target for 2045, *it will be in no worse, and maybe a better, position to do that than under the current ramp*. Because, again, the funded ratio is actually higher under the CTBA reamortization than under the current ramp through the mid-2030s.

Second, while pushing the pension systems’ funded ratios higher is important, it needs to be weighed against the state’s capacity to raise revenue and fund crucial public services. Our view is that the current ramp—which achieves a 90% funded ratio in 2045 by calling for annual contributions approaching $20 billion at the end of the schedule—is just not sustainable without unrealistic, and intolerable, revenue increases and service cuts.

In large part because of the pressure created by pension debt in the ramp, Illinois’ real per capita General Fund spending on current services has already declined by more than 20% since FY2000, including a 50% cut to higher education. We understand that a 70% funded ratio target isn’t ideal in the abstract, but in the actual circumstances Illinois finds itself in, we believe it is part of a plan that responsibly stabilizes the pension systems while creating room for the state to meet other obligations that Illinoisans depend on.

* I had earlier asked Hertz to explain the group’s idea…

So basically the challenge with replacing the ramp with the level-dollar reamortization is that, while the level-dollar saves a lot of money over the whole 2019-2045 period, it requires higher payments for the first eight years.

Our suggestion, essentially, is that in each year where the level-dollar payment is higher than the ramp payment (as currently projected), we fill the gap with a POB, to avoid facing a cliff of either new revenue just for pension contributions or service cuts. So if in a given year the level-dollar payment is $1 billion over what the ramp would have called for, the state would issue $1 billion in POBs. Since the level-dollar payments are higher than the ramp payments for the first eight years, that means we’re talking eight years of POBs, which add up to a total of $11.2 billion.

The period over which we pay off those POBs is 30 years, at (in our model, using a very high 6.5% interest rate) between $900 million and $1 billion per year when all of them have been issued.

Then there’s the question of the freed up revenue from the old POBs that are coming off the books in the next year or so. In our model, we see that revenue—nearly $1 billion a year—as money that should be redirected from paying debt service on POBs to directly supporting the pension systems, and so we use that as well to boost the state’s annual contributions.

* Is there arbitrage involved?…

No. There may very well be some arbitrage benefit, but that isn’t really the point. The point is to be able to immediately get annual contributions to the pension funds up to the amount called for by the level dollar plan.

In a “pure” version of reamortization, you just make that full payment from tax revenue, and the state would be forced to either immediately raise a sizable amount of additional funds or cut spending. The POB idea is to ease that transition so there aren’t big shocks on either side.

And to be clear, making the full payments with tax revenue would save more money, looking just at the pension systems, than easing the transition with POBs. But a) the POB version still saves $67 billion between 2019 and 2045 in our estimates, and b) the POB version may be more realistic, given that the state has many other crucial services it needs to fund. In other words, we don’t think it’s a great idea for the state to find the money to make the level-dollar contributions by further slashing higher education funding or human services.

- Posted by Rich Miller        

43 Comments
  1. - Sue - Monday, Dec 10, 18 @ 10:57 am:

    The problem with POB’s is two fold - (1)since a much larger amount of funding becomes available you are essentially market timing and hoping the market is supportive. Gradual contributions is much more conservative and avoids a market blow up like we are experiencing presently. (2)- if you issue a POB you are converting a voluntary contribution into a firm contractual repayment obligation. If the State hits a bumpy revenue situation you can always defer a pension contribution- you have no such latitude to defer a bond repayment. If the State truly wants to accelerate its pension amortization- raise taxes or reduce spending somewhere else. NJ’s recent POB was really ill timed and there is no assurance another Illinois POB won’t be either


  2. - Rich Miller - Monday, Dec 10, 18 @ 10:59 am:

    ===since a much larger amount of funding becomes available you are essentially market timing and hoping the market is supportive===

    The exact same could be said if the state used GRF money to make the increased contributions.

    One way or another, the bill has to be paid.


  3. - Anonymous - Monday, Dec 10, 18 @ 11:02 am:

    Finally! Someone has an actual plan to address the problem. Since this issue first really heated up, almost a decade ago, the debt has only grown with no one doing anything but whining. Good on governor elect.


  4. - Sue - Monday, Dec 10, 18 @ 11:02 am:

    Rich - not suggesting the payments are to be avoided- just suggesting that giving the various Systems 10 billion at once might not work out so well. The bond returns on the 2003 POB were slightly beneficial but by no means a homerun. There is a reason Buffett recommends dollar average investing.


  5. - Rich Miller - Monday, Dec 10, 18 @ 11:05 am:

    ===10 billion at once might not work out===

    It’s not 10 billion at once. Read it.


  6. - Not a Billionaire - Monday, Dec 10, 18 @ 11:08 am:

    Fitch says 90% is weak ?


  7. - Sue - Monday, Dec 10, 18 @ 11:16 am:

    Thanks - having read the suggestion- what they are encouraging is essentially accelerating payments in part with POB obligations rations. Still think it’s crazy to convert a soft IOU into a hard and fast state obligation. At some point the State’s ability to make the ramp payments is going to hit the political reality of not being able to raise taxes that high. Isn’t if better to have a political problem then a bond default? Maybe just maybe the feds will step in a relieve the State from it’s guarantee problem or the Supreme Court will acknowledge the impossible situation the State is in and afford some relief?


  8. - City Zen - Monday, Dec 10, 18 @ 11:17 am:

    He really talked around the reasoning behind the 70% funding.


  9. - Rich Miller - Monday, Dec 10, 18 @ 11:22 am:

    ===Maybe just maybe the feds will step in a relieve the State===

    1) Desperate hope is not a plan;

    2) You are delaying the inevitable.


  10. - DuPage - Monday, Dec 10, 18 @ 11:30 am:

    Borrowing money at lower interest rates to pay off high interest pension debt is a very good idea. It should have been done back when the interest were at their lowest, a few years ago.


  11. - Annonin' - Monday, Dec 10, 18 @ 11:35 am:

    Fitch is the other “raters” nowadays they want 100% funding. Never forget these dudes gave us the 07-08 depression 9we like to call it the Bush-Cheney depression) so why anyone gives them any attention is nuts. These guys are offering Single B ratings on subprime auto loans and mutual funds are buying them.
    A better course of action is likely a dedicated revenue source. The downside is the outrage by citizens more taxes for these “generous” pensions.
    Pay means pay.


  12. - Norseman - Monday, Dec 10, 18 @ 11:45 am:

    There needs to be a thorough analysis before adopting any plan. The CTBA plan sounds promising, but it needs to be vetted by other experts to ensure it will be effective.


  13. - Thomas Paine - Monday, Dec 10, 18 @ 11:51 am:

    === He really talked around the reasoning behind the 70% funding. ===

    You’re 40 with two young kids, and you’re only socking away about half of what you should for retirement.

    Given your current paycheck, setting aside all that you should for your retirement each month would mean setting aside nothing for your kids’ college, or dropping your health insurance coverage, or eating dog food.

    So, you start saving 78% of what you should for your retirement, hoping that once your kids are school-age your wife can return to work part time, or you will land that big promotion. Instead of foolishly abandoning your health coverage, going on an Alpo diet, or sacrificing your children’s future.

    This is the real reason that IPI and The Tribune hate the pension reamortization plan. It releases the hostages. Without being able to play the sick and the poor against the unions, they feel they lose all leverage to push through their massive retirement privatization program.

    This has always been about forcing every public employee into a private 401(k) plan managed by a private sector profiteer.


  14. - JS Mill - Monday, Dec 10, 18 @ 11:55 am:

    =Maybe just maybe the feds will step in a relieve the State from it’s guarantee problem or the Supreme Court will acknowledge the impossible situation the State is in and afford some relief?=

    So, Sue, you shoot down the CYBA suggestions (although most of your posts . were misinformed until Rich told you to go back and read the whole thing) and your solution is to stiff people and you call that relief?

    1. In terms of dollars how much “relief” do you think you will receive and how ill that offset the economic loss to the state?

    2. You do realize that this “relief” which is really theft is deferred compensation for services provided right? And you are cool with that happening to yourself too right?

    Hertz offers some smart solutions that are well thought out. I especially agree with the 70% funding level.

    As it stands, through all of the challenges and malfeasance the pensions have hovered in the 40% funded range for nearly 50 years. Even moving to 50% would be a huge improvement .


  15. - Uh, OK - Monday, Dec 10, 18 @ 12:10 pm:

    I missed this gem: “But a) the POB version still saves $67 billion between 2019 and 2045 in our estimates, and b) the POB version may be more realistic, given that the state has many other crucial services it needs to fund. In other words, we don’t think it’s a great idea for the state to find the money to make the level-dollar contributions by further slashing higher education funding or human services.”

    So, this is all about underfunding the pension systems by $67 billion and not “saving” $67 billion. Call this what it is, another attempt to underfund the pensions of public servants.


  16. - anon2 - Monday, Dec 10, 18 @ 12:16 pm:

    === if you issue a POB you are converting a voluntary contribution into a firm contractual repayment obligation.===

    Based upon the State’s notorious track record, it needs the discipline of a “firm, contractual repayment obligation.” Treating the employer’s pension match as a “voluntary contribution” is what got us into the deep hole in the first place.


  17. - City Zen - Monday, Dec 10, 18 @ 12:19 pm:

    ==It releases the hostages.==

    Why not? They’re taking new hostages, strapping them to the bed in the hotel room, then heading down to the casino.

    And you still haven’t answered the 70% funding question.


  18. - Rich Miller - Monday, Dec 10, 18 @ 12:27 pm:

    ===this is all about underfunding===

    Try again.


  19. - Grandson of Man - Monday, Dec 10, 18 @ 12:39 pm:

    The CTBA plan seems like a good idea, because our biggest fiscal problem is pension debt. We should do it in a manner to make the future payments as easy and stable as possible while being effective. We can definitely not do what was just done: playing political chicken and passing no full budgets for two years.

    Paying bills should be a top priority. Fiscal responsibility is good for the business climate.


  20. - wordslinger - Monday, Dec 10, 18 @ 12:46 pm:

    –Fitch has previously noted that issuance of POBs is generally neutral to negative for an issuer’s credit quality.–

    How’s about never missing or being late on a bond payment — ever? And state laws that give bondholders first crack at every state dime, providing exponential coverage?

    How does that fit into credit quality?

    Just recently, the state piled up an extra $10 billion in unpaid bills in just 2.5 years. Thousands of vendors saw oogats for for many, many months. Yet bondholders got paid in full on time, every time.

    Does that factor into credit quality, even a little bit?

    These rating agency guys are grifters of the worst sort. They create an artificial market premium on Illinois debt, and they know it. Institutional investors have to CYA and follow the ratings out the window.


  21. - supplied_demand - Monday, Dec 10, 18 @ 12:49 pm:

    Can we just tax retirement income at 2% and direct it right back into the pensions? Or expand the sales tax to some services and bond that revenue out over 10 years?


  22. - Rich Miller - Monday, Dec 10, 18 @ 1:25 pm:

    ===Can we just tax retirement income===

    Pritzker ran as an opponent of taxing retirement income and used it to bludgeon his two top Dem primary opponents. So, no.


  23. - supplied_demand - Monday, Dec 10, 18 @ 1:38 pm:

    ==Pritzker ran as an opponent of taxing retirement income and used it to bludgeon his two top Dem primary opponents.==

    And the sales tax on services? According to Crain’s, if we match Iowa’s structure, it would generate $3 billion/year. I haven’t been able to find a Pritzker quote on his stance.

    Maybe sales tax is just too much of a third rail. You could expand the base (expand to services), while lowering the overall rate.


  24. - Uh, OK - Monday, Dec 10, 18 @ 2:04 pm:

    How do you only get to 70% funding by 2045 vs 90% under the current funding target? The only answer is by underfunding the pensions by $67 billion.


  25. - Thomas Paine - Monday, Dec 10, 18 @ 2:12 pm:

    @City Zen -

    I am not sure who you think the new “hostages” are in this scenerio.

    The CTBA proposal brings an end to four years of holding the state budget and funding for vital services hostage in order to coerce retroactive changes to the pension system.

    As for “Why 70 percent instead if 90 percent”? I thought I answered that. Let me lay it out:

    1. 90 percent is unnecessary.
    2. 90 percent is unrealistic.
    3. 90 percent would have adverse consequences on our long term footing.
    4. 70 percent is what we can realistically afford and it is better than the current path we are on.


  26. - RNUG - Monday, Dec 10, 18 @ 2:20 pm:

    My only concern, and the one legitimate criticism of POB’s, is the State may not keep up the next 8 years on making their part of the increased pension payments called for by the revised Edgar / Blago ramp. I’m worried the State may instead rely on increasing (not decreasing) POB’s. Given the State’s poor record of fiscal management, that is my one fear.

    If thus idea is adopted, I hope the POB issuance will be locked down at specific maximums for each of the next 8 years.


  27. - Anonymous - Monday, Dec 10, 18 @ 2:23 pm:

    supplied_demand

    You did mean all retirement income –IRAs, 401ks, Railroad retirement, Social Security………right?


  28. - SAP - Monday, Dec 10, 18 @ 2:45 pm:

    Pay more of the pension debt now so that required payments are lower in later years? I’ve never seen government do that, but it sure sounds like a good idea to me.


  29. - supplied_demand - Monday, Dec 10, 18 @ 2:49 pm:

    ==You did mean all retirement income –IRAs, 401ks, Railroad retirement, Social Security………right? ==

    I sure did, not sure what you are trying to imply. Most states tax this income and it wouldn’t be hard to come up with an exemption floor to avoid taxing seniors living hand-to-mouth.

    https://www.thebalance.com/state-income-taxes-in-retirement-3193297

    “Alabama, Hawaii, and Illinois exempt nearly all retirement income. They exempt 100 percent of Social Security, military pensions, government pensions, and certain types of private pensions. Only Mississippi and Pennsylvania exempt all retirement income, including 401(k) and IRA distributions.”

    We are among the friendliest states for retirement income and we still hear people bemoan retirees moving to Florida/Arizona. Minnesota has no retirement income exemption and all their retirees haven’t fled. How much would that structure raise in Illinois?


  30. - Sue - Monday, Dec 10, 18 @ 2:53 pm:

    Grandson- Pension payments were fully paid each year Rauner has been G. You shouldn’t really bring up “balanced budgets”- Illinois hasn’t had a true balanced budget in like 30 years. It’s smoke and mirrors to call what Madigan Et al have called balanced budgets


  31. - Sue - Monday, Dec 10, 18 @ 3:01 pm:

    JS- calling the State’s past pension contributions “theft” is really off base. No annuitant has ever failed to receive 100 percent of their pension entitlement. Moreover- our Supreme Court May have told the State it can’t revise pension programs for existing members- it has never ruled the State has a statutory obligation as to annual contributions. State payments in terms of amounts are totally up to the legislature. Public Plans unlike ERISA plans are governed by. “Voluntary” payment scheme in terms of how much States pay in on an annual basis. Theft is taking someone else’s property without the legal right to do so. Please explain where there has been a theft


  32. - Sue - Monday, Dec 10, 18 @ 3:12 pm:

    Supplied- ok Illinois doesn’t tax retirement income- But we are the highest taxed property owners in the entire 50 States along with unconscionable sales taxes. The income tax at 5 is now pretty ACA rage given a host of States have Zero income tax. Moving to tax retirement income given the already high tax burden imposed on Illinois residents in all likelihood would result in even more folks deciding to leave


  33. - RNUG - Monday, Dec 10, 18 @ 3:26 pm:

    == Pension payments were fully paid each year Rauner has been G ==

    Payments were made as required by the Edgar ramp schedule. That does not mean the full actuarially required payment was made; that would have been about $1.5 - $2.0B.

    Note: As G, Quinn also made all the ramp scheduled payments.


  34. - RNUG - Monday, Dec 10, 18 @ 3:31 pm:

    $1.5 - $2.0B more.


  35. - City Zen - Monday, Dec 10, 18 @ 3:50 pm:

    @Thomas Paine -

    “the Congressional Budget Office says a public pension system should be at least 80 percent funded…gets Illinois’ five pension systems approximately 80 percent funded by FY2045, putting them on a sustainable path toward fiscal health.”

    Ralph Martire, “POINT: How should we fix the Illinois pension system?” March, 2018

    Why the sudden pivot? Many here were defending 80% not too long ago, now that’s vanished? What’s the over/under for when the new target is 60%? When do we get rid of GASB?

    What do the American Academy of Actuaries, NASRA, or the ratings agencies that use pension funding as a component of their metrics have to say about this plan? Well, Fitch already told us.


  36. - Perrid - Monday, Dec 10, 18 @ 4:04 pm:

    @City Zen, yeah, more is better. The current Ramp is just stupid though, politicians back loaded it until it is not feasible to meet the arbitrary goals. There’s little reason for the 2045 date in the ramp, it could get pushed back. Ratings agencies might clutch their pearls, but really there is no harm in doing that, so if you hate the idea of 70% being the goal, let’s have 90% be the goal for 2060. I mean, unless you WANT much higher taxes right now?


  37. - supplied_demand - Monday, Dec 10, 18 @ 4:18 pm:

    @City Zen, it isn’t as cut-and-dry as you are making it seem.

    Fitch disagrees with 80%: “Fitch generally considers a funded ratio of 70% or above to be adequate and less than 60% to be weak”

    American Academy of Actuaries disagrees with 80% as a hard-and-fast rule: “A funded ratio of 80% should not be used as a criterion for identifying a plan as being either in good financial health or poor financial health.”

    https://www.actuary.org/files/80_Percent_Funding_IB_071912.pdf


  38. - City Zen - Monday, Dec 10, 18 @ 4:49 pm:

    ==There’s little reason for the 2045 date in the ramp==

    That 50-year schedule was the result of multiple scenarios run by the actuaries in determining a payment plan. It is anything but arbitrary.

    ==let’s have 90% be the goal for 2060==

    What did you say about arbitrary goals?

    I’ll quote Martire again: “80 percent funded by FY2045, putting them on a sustainable path toward fiscal health.” His own very recent words on re-amortization, not mine.

    Instead of constantly moving the goal posts, why don’t we remove them altogether? Or how about 100% funding by 2491? We’ll call it the Buck Rogers Ramp.

    ==it isn’t as cut-and-dry as you are making it seem.==

    Agreed, pension funding levels are anything but. Most people don’t understand the 80% funding target is intended for plans that assume the appropriate discount rates and expected rate of returns. Since public plans use a discount rate equal to the expected rate of return, technically 100% funding should be the target.


  39. - Rich Miller - Monday, Dec 10, 18 @ 4:56 pm:

    ===We’ll call it the Buck Rogers Ramp===

    Clever.


  40. - Andy S. - Monday, Dec 10, 18 @ 5:26 pm:

    I am neutral on the CTBA proposal. However, I would like to point out one thing that is germane to this discussion. My understanding is that the state will already have to contribute around $9 billion to the pensions in 2019. If the required contribution increases to $20 billion in 2045, that represents a compound annual growth rate of about 3.1%, which is well below the expected growth rate of nominal GDP and the likely natural growth rate in Illinois state revenues under current law. It will be no more burdensome on the state to pay $20 billion in 2045 than it will be to pay $9 billion next year, so why do we need to reduce the target funding level to 70%? I am all in favor of accelerating payments over the next 8 years as the CTBA proposes, but I don’t understand the reduced target.


  41. - thechampaignlife - Monday, Dec 10, 18 @ 9:19 pm:

    Adding to what Andy S said, we need to leverage the power of inflation. Rather than striving for level-dollar contributions in today’s dollars, where the real cost in inglation-adjusted terms declines over time, we should adjust the payment each year for inflation so that it is a consistent percent of the budget. That eases the payments today and ensures that the payments do not ramp up beyond what we are already paying.


  42. - Da Big Bad Wolf - Tuesday, Dec 11, 18 @ 6:54 am:

    ==Please explain where there has been a theft.==

    The individual pensioners weren’t robbed. The pension plan was robbed. If payments are skipped the pension is not only out that money, it’s out of all the money that would have been compounded.


  43. - Truth Teller - Tuesday, Dec 11, 18 @ 2:15 pm:

    After reading all of these posts, I simply ask one question - given that the Illinois Supreme Court has already established that the constitution does protect the benefits of participants, what other funding solution does anyone have to pay for the current ramp? It simply is too large to use current dollars and cost shifting current normal cost has nothing to do with the ramp. There is no way on earth that taxes could increase sufficiently to pay the obligation in the ramp. We are out of choices. The CTBA plan is sound and alleviates the problem, not just a symptom or two.


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