A new study published by Pioneer Institute finds that issuing pension obligation bonds (POBs) to refinance $360 million of the MBTA Retirement Fund’s (MBTARF’s) $1.3 billion unfunded pension liability would only compound the T’s already serious financial risks.
With POBs, government entities deposit revenues from bond sales into their pension funds and use the money to make investments they hope will deliver returns that outpace borrowing costs.
“Virtually every study of POBs finds that timing and duration of the bond issues are critical,” said E.J. McMahon, author of “Rolling the Retirement Dice.” “Bonds floated at the end of a bull market are the most likely to lose money, and that makes this idea a wrong turn at the worst possible time.”
If investments don’t meet a pension fund’s assumed rate of return, it could be left with debt service costs in addition to the pre-existing unfunded liability. In 2015, the Government Finance Officers Association bluntly warned that “State and local governments should not issue POBs.” It reaffirmed its guidance last year.
The big takeaway from the GFOA’s Rethinking Revenue project is that the modern economy is shifting the tax burden toward those who can least afford it. Now, the association and its partners are launching pilot programs to test some of the ideas the project has explored.
One will target the inequities built into relying on fees and fines and the GFOA is inviting governments to apply for a pilot project testing segmented pricing as a potential solution. Instead of a one-size-fits-all fine, segmented pricing is designed around a user’s ability or willingness to pay. For example, a $100 speeding ticket for someone who earns just $500 a week is a much larger financial burden than it is for someone who earns $2,000 a week. So for the lower-income transgressor, the fine is lowered to $50. It still stings, but it’s much more likely to get paid.
Shane Kavanagh, GFOA’s senior manager of research, said they’re looking for around five places to test this idea and that the tested revenue source would have to be large enough (such as traffic fines) and also be one that the government has had difficulty collecting.
It is bad Illinois has the nation’s worst pension crisis, but state politicians have made it worse by using risky debt to delay the day of reckoning, and done so to the point that Illinois now owes 30% of the nation’s pension obligation bonds.
Pension obligation bonds are a form of debt used by state or local governments to fund their pension deficits. Illinois holds $21.6 billion of the nation’s $72 billion pension obligation bond debt.
The theory behind the bonds is that if a pension system can borrow money at a lower rate by selling bonds and earn a higher percentage from investing those funds, then it has realized a net gain using them. The issue is the gamble rarely works out that way, as the Government Finance Officers’ Association points out. Pension obligation bonds place taxpayer money at risk and often leave governments saddled with more debt rather than less. They often do not achieve a high enough return to justify their use.
Illinois’ five statewide retirement systems hold $144 billion in debt, according to official state reporting based on optimistic investment estimates. But Moody’s Investors Service says the true debt is $317 billion, which it calculates using more accurate methods common in the private sector.