On May 9, California Governor Gavin Newsom released a revised version of the state’s fiscal 2020 budget, which includes a substantial increase in minimum funding levels for K-12 public schools and community college districts, a credit positive. The new budget also benefits K-12 schools with the state agreeing to kick in added funds to help school districts with pension payments to the California State Teachers’ Retirement System….
Source: Matthew Butler, Joshua Grundleger, Emily RaimesMoody’s, Sector In-Depth, State government – US, April 9, 2019
Recent actions by states signal growing recognition that as pension burdens — unfunded liabilities and annual costs — escalate for K-12 school districts, state assistance will likely need to increase. California (Aa3 positive), Indiana (Aaa stable) and Oregon (Aa1 stable) all recently proposed budget legislation that would boost school funding by making increased payments to teacher pension plans on behalf of districts. The proposals call for one-time contributions to the pension plans rather than recurring pension contribution support on behalf of local districts like Colorado (Aa1 stable) and Michigan (Aa1 stable) have recently committed to provide. Additional states are likely to increase funding for teacher pensions,reflecting the growing credit risks underfunded plans present.
Source: Thomas Aaron, Timothy Blake, Moody’s, Sector In-Depth, April 11, 2019
Pensions and retiree healthcare pose a credit risk for some of the largest mass transit enterprises. Transit enterprises with material unfunded liabilities face budget challenges that can limit capital reinvestment, contribute to rising debt loads and/or lead to lower service levels.
Source: J. Adam Cobb, ILR Review, Volume: 72 issue: 3, May 2019
From the abstract:
Whereas research on corporate governance typically attends to the conflicting interests between shareholders and executives, in practice executives must frequently adjudicate the demands of multiple stakeholders. To investigate how executives cope with the divergent interests of workers and shareholders, the author examines how much firms claim they will earn on the assets in their defined benefit (DB) pension plans. In a DB arrangement, employees forgo wages in the present in order to receive postretirement income, and they rely on executives to properly fund and manage plan assets. Executives, however, can increase the amount they expect the firm to earn on plan assets, which increases firm earnings in the current period but may undermine workers’ retirement security if expectations do not match actual returns over time. The author shows that the influence and interests of employees and shareholders as well as the decision-making schemas of the CEO affect whether executives exercise this discretion.
The U.S. Treasury department’s move last month to allow private companies to pay lump-sum pension payments to retirees and beneficiaries, instead of monthly payments, is good news for companies that do not want to be saddled with long-term pension obligations – particularly for private sector employers who have underfunded pension plans.
However, lump-sum pension payments may not work out well for retirees who opt for them. While a debate has ensued on the merits and risks of lump-sum pension payments for employees, there are also wider concerns about the long-term impacts on the entire economy when retirees do not have sufficient financial resources to support themselves. Those concerns are assuming a new importance because of the rapid growth of the so-called gig economy with temporary workers and freelancers who don’t enjoy employer-sponsored retirement benefits.
The Treasury department’s latest move reverses an Obama-era pledge to bar employers from offering lump-sum payments. The fear was that those receiving a lump-sum payment might be shortchanged and also might be tempted to spend the money sooner. Around 26.2 million Americans receive pensions right now, though that number has been declining as businesses favor 401(k) plans instead…..
Source: S&P Global Ratings, March 11, 2019
Other postemployment benefit (OPEB) underfunding of obligations is pervasive across U.S. state and local governments, and costs are likely to continue to rise rapidly. Although, compared with pensions, these obligations may have some more flexibility in how they’re provided, we recognize that funded levels are almost universally lower than those of pensions and could quickly become a challenge to budgets if not addressed. With the implementation of Governmental Accounting Standards Board (GASB) Statements Nos. 74 and 75, many governments are seeing large new OPEB liabilities on their balance sheets that are growing due to insufficient contributions (see “Credit FAQ: New GASB Statements 74 And 75 Provide Transparency For Assessing Budgetary Stress On U.S. State & Local Government OPEBs,” published March 14, 2018, on RatingsDirect). In response, governments are looking to OPEB obligation bonds (OOBs) as a way to address funding concerns. Depending on the circumstances surrounding the OOB, issuance could have rating implications.
Source: S&P Global Ratings, February 19, 2019
(Editor’s note: This publication marks the start of a series of short comments on credit matters of interest in the municipal retirement space. This first “Pension Brief” follows up on our publication one year ago surveying pension reform initiatives across the states (“Recent U.S. State Pension Reform: Balancing Long-Term Strategy And Budget Reality,” Feb. 9, 2018). ….)
…. To face persistent and growing pension challenges, some U.S. state and local governments have looked to develop creative solutions to help mitigate expanding liabilities and bolster wanting asset levels. ….
Source: S&P Global Ratings, February 22, 2019
S&P Global Ratings believes that Illinois’ (BBB-/Stable) executive budget proposal precariously balances the current budget, but punts measures to address fiscal progress to future years. It prioritizes service solvency at the expense of lower pension contributions and does not make meaningful progress toward tackling the $7.9 billion bill backlog or projected out-year deficits….
Source: Thomas Aaron, Timothy Blake, Moody’s, Sector In-Depth, February 20, 2019
Equity market losses in late 2018 will translate into larger than expected pension cost hikes in 2021 for many governments because of equity-heavy investment allocations within their pension systems’ assets. Despite the long-term investment focus of US public pension systems and favorable returns in the past two fiscal years, recent market losses highlight the uphill credit challenge facing governments that rely on high-return/high-risk pension assets to cover a large portion of their pension benefit promises.
Fixed costs — the combination of debt service, pension contributions and retiree healthcare— continue to rise for many US state and local governments. While retiree benefits (pensions and healthcare) will continue to drive this trend, the growth level is heavily dependent on unpredictable factors such as pension investment performance and workforce demographics. Debt service costs, on the other hand, are largely stable and unlikely to increase materially,continuing the trend of the last decade. Still, total fixed costs create budgetary challenges for some governments, potentially affecting their ability to deliver core services, a dynamic also known as “crowd-out” risk…..