The news in pension land is sobering to say the least. Sadly, there are too many examples to cover in one blog post but taxpayers, participants, creditors and regulators are trying to understand the nature of the money trail that has, for some plans, led to trouble writ large. Consider what’s going on in Puerto Rico right now.
In addition to a just missed payment of more than $400 million, Governor Padilla told C-Span viewers on May 6 there is no money to pay roughly $800 million due on July 1 2016 to senior bondholders. As he explains, debt service has gone up faster than what he calls revenue inflows. Elsewhere, Nick Brown of Reuters writes at length about gross underfunding of the municipal pension plans in “Puerto Rico’s other crisis: impoverished pensions” (April 7, 2016). Despite multiple reforms introduced in 2013, funding remains perilously low. Keith Brainard, head of research for the National Association of State Retirement Administrators, is quoted as saying: “With about $1.8 billion in assets to pay $45 billion in liabilities, the 96 percent combined shortfall is among the biggest of any U.S. state pension this century, and probably the biggest ever for pensions ‘of this size and scale’.”
Bad economics is more than a numerical exercise. Real people are impacted. Plan participants, taxpayers and investors all have a stake in what happens next. As I wrote on March 19 in “Puerto Rico: Pensioners Versus Bondholders,” many individuals who own debt issued by this U.S. territory are themselves retirees or saving for retirement.
Should contagion occur, the cost of capital for other municipal borrowers will almost surely increase as frightened investors demand higher yields. Worse yet, some lenders may say “no” to certain new debt, leading to possible tax hikes at the local level. There is a trickle down effect when credit risk heads upward. See “Muni Market Shrugs at Puerto Rico Default, but Next Time Could Be Different” by Bernice Napach (Think Advisor, May 2, 2016).
Whatever you think of the Puerto Rico situation and proposed solutions, the clock is ticking for many cities, counties, states and countries that have not adequately funded their pension plans. Capital markets are paying attention. There is a lot at stake.