“I’ll never grow up, never grow up, never grow up, Not me!”
– Peter Pan, Lyrics from play
“I knew Peter Pan and you’re no Peter Pan.”
– Vice-Presidential candidate Lloyd Bentsen, (sort of), 1988
“Top Illinois Democrats have agreed to push a plan that would temporarily boost income taxes by 75 percent and double cigarette taxes,” harked CBS Chicago on January 6, 2011. The proposed plan would increase Illinois’ personal income tax rate from 3 percent to 5.75 percent for the next three years. After that, it would drop back to 3.25%. So they say.
Illinois is a state in which the legislators have so betrayed the taxpayers that a lifetime on Devil’s Island would be too good for them. For instance, the liability of the four state pension plans is calculated at $151 billion or $280 billion, depending on the assumptions used. The $280 billion figure is analytically controversial but deductively compelling given the efforts to deny and confuse bondholders and the public alike respecting the coming collapse of the municipal bond market.
Springfield, the capital of Illinois, is a nice town. As state capitals go, it is strikingly uninhabited with a population of 110,000 (and falling, but not as fast as its benefit obligations are rising). Farm country starts about three blocks from the state house. Illinois has more representation in its capital than any other state.
The politicians raised pension benefits faster than poker bids in Macau. Presumably, they have boosted their own benefits faster than the state’s public servants, who, once they retire, no longer pay one cent for health insurance.
Clay ducks would have done better at funding promises than the elected representatives. There are $70 billion of assets to support the $280 billion of pension obligations (See The Liabilities and Risks of State-Sponsored Pension Plans in which Professors Novy-Marx and Rauh lay forth their provocative and engaging argument).
Illinois borrows from the bond market each year to pay benefits, a total of $16 billion since 2007. Bondholders have been paid $550 million (on the first $10 billion) for funding this pyramid scheme. In other words: Illinois taxpayers have paid a $550 million late-fee that, if there were justice in this world, would be paid by the Illinois legislators.
These legislators – and this is true across the country, not just Illinois – cannot conceive of a time when there will be no buyers of bonds to pay benefits that the politicians failed to fund. By borrowing to meet current payments, the “top Illinois Democrats” have fostered the national charade of limitless taxing authority. State General Obligation (G.O.) bonds are backed by the “full faith and credit” phrase, stamped on their offerings. Wall Street research would have it that a G.O. bondholder can take that phrase to the bank. It is from this precipice that bondholders hang by their fingernails.
Goldman Sachs research chips in: “[G]eneral obligation debt is backed by a state or local government’s pledge to raise taxes to service that debt if necessary.” Barclay’s wrote to its California-averse clients that the state is obligated “in good faith to use its taxing power as may be required for the full and prompt payment of debt service.”
There are four problems here.
First, the State of Illinois had accumulated over $5 billion of unpaid bills by the end of 2010. Electricity to the governor’s mansion will be cut off if the politicians don’t grow up.
Second, the authority to raise taxes to meet bond payments often does not work. The most recent instance is the State of Oregon. In early 2010, voters increased tax rates on high earners and businesses to fill a $700 million deficit. Civil servants danced in the streets: “We’re absolutely ecstatic,” said Hanna Vandering, a physical education teacher from Beaverton and vice president of the statewide teachers union. “What Oregonians said today is they believe in public education and vital services.” (The Oregonian, January 26, 2010) On December 16, 2010, the state of Oregon had received one-third less than was expected from windfall tax receipts. Those Oregonians who weren’t talking while Hanna Vandering was spouting decided they would rather leave town than contribute to this scandalous love-in between legislators and public unions.
Third, the authority and inclination of courts to issue a writ of mandamus (ordering state officials to raise taxes) is not a topic discussed in brokerage firm research. It is hereby suggested to municipal bondholders who are recipients of such reports to ask why this is so. There have been many decisions in which the court concluded it did not have the authority (or inclination: because efforts, such as in Oregon, are generally unsuccessful) to demand tax increases. The decisions are too varied to discuss here. (See, as a start, Tax Increases in Municipal Bankruptcies, Kevin A. Kordana, Virginia Law Review, volume 83, No. 6, pp. 1035-1107.) Readers may recall that states cannot file for bankruptcy. This is true, but an insolvent body that reneges on its obligations to bondholders will sit in the dock. Municipal decisions are the obvious precedents for the courts.
Fourth, a Sword of Damocles hovers over all transactions and contracts in the United States today: who still trusts the “full faith” of any government body? And, this is the worst situation of all: politicians who think they can fly.
Frederick J. Sheehan,
For Markets and Money Australia
Editor’s Notes: Frederick J. Sheehan is the author of Panderer to Power: The Untold Story of How Alan Greenspan Enriched Wall Street and Left a Legacy of Recession and “The Coming Collapse of the Municipal Bond Market.”