Public Pensions’ New Quandary: Coping With Geopolitical Turmoil

Link: https://www.governing.com/finance/public-pensions-new-quandary-coping-with-geopolitical-turmoil

Excerpt:

Arguably, trustees and investment teams need a serious conversation with portfolio managers who are overweight in companies and countries that could foreseeably lose favor and stock exchange value. To ground that dialog, some form of risk analysis is required. One protocol could be as primitive as routinely identifying which major corporate equity and debt holdings in a system’s portfolio have cost and revenue exposure of more than 10 or 15 percent in such potentially at-risk regimes, and prodding managers to trim down those geopolitically vulnerable positions unless there is a clearly compelling undervaluation thesis. Another sensible approach would be to require underweighting of major companies relative to a benchmark index, based on their percentages of autocrat-nation revenues.

Ultimately at a fiduciary level, if a pension fund’s total worst-case exposure to all earnings and income derived from autocratic nations is an insignificant fraction of its total portfolio, the composite risk is probably not worth losing sleep over, on purely financial grounds. But politics could still enter the theater stage for pension boards that ignore this issue.

Pension consultants and risk advisers have a new role to play in this dialog. ESG investing is now under fire, so a healthy ESG+G discussion is especially timely. If nothing else, informed advisers can help investment teams and trustees identify where their portfolios might contain a blind-side risk that hasn’t received enough attention.

Author(s): Girard Miller

Publication Date: 10 May 2022

Publication Site: Governing

The Fed Is ‘Normalizing.’ Here’s What Public Financiers Need to Know.

Link: https://www.governing.com/finance/the-fed-is-normalizing-heres-what-public-financiers-need-to-know

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Excerpt:

Of the $8.3 trillion of liquid marketable securities in the Fed’s portfolio (see the chart below), 37 percent are overnight repos and Treasury securities maturing in one year or less, 26 percent are T-notes maturing in one to five years, and another 30 percent are mortgage-backed securities issued by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which pay down principal and interest monthly. So all it takes to pull back the excessive monetary stimulus left over from the COVID-relief era is to let such holdings roll off in 2022-24 without replacing them with new purchases. Operationally, it’s really not rocket science — it’s just a matter of conviction and messaging. Unlike the rising stairstep expected in the Fed’s overnight rates, its bond portfolio runoff won’t make nightly news headlines; it’s like watching paint dry. In this regard, doing nothing is actually doing something quite constructive on the inflation front, despite the lack of fanfare.

What would be the impact on interest rates? Little doubt they must go higher, barring an exogenous shock like a global virus lockdown or a Ukraine-war flight-to-safety. The key question is really how much higher, and how fast. My best guess is that markets have recently discounted about one-third of the potential move higher in long-term rates.

Author(s): Girard Miller

Publication Date: 15 Feb 2022

Publication Site: Governing

Will the OPEB Ostriches Ever Run Out of Excuses?

Link:https://www.governing.com/finance/will-the-opeb-ostriches-ever-run-out-of-excuses

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Excerpt:

As one stalwart finance officer once told me, “Our pension funds basically sucked up all the new revenue we’d been hoping to set aside to properly fund OPEB.” Those and other priorities for spending each incremental revenue dollar continued to crowd out the opportunity to institute consistent actuarial funding for OPEB benefits; the path of least resistance for policymakers who lack foresight and a sense of fiscal responsibility has been to keep kicking the can.

So it is that between 2015 and 2019, the state and local sector had clearly sorted itself into three classes of employers: (1) those who had trimmed or modified their OPEB commitments and liabilities to sustainable levels, (2) those who had begun actuarial funding of an OPEB trust fund, and (3) those doing nothing and leaving the problem to their successors and future taxpayers.

Author(s): Girard Miller

Publication Date: 18 Jan 2022

Publication Site: Governing

Do We Really Need States to Be Bankers?

Link:https://www.governing.com/finance/do-we-really-need-states-to-be-bankers

Excerpt:

In 1919, the state of North Dakota established its own bank as a public institution. It’s the only one of its kind in the nation, having operated successfully for a full century through the Great Depression and a dozen recessions. Nine other states tried to follow suit in the following decades, only to fail and close their banks’ doors. Founded to provide capital in a farm-centric economy that was underserved by large regional financial institutions that charged double-digit interest rates for ag loans, the Bank of North Dakota has served as an inspiration and touchstone to political populists, anti-bank politicians and easy-money advocates.

…..

Even beyond what we call the “global superabundance of capital,” however, what the advocates and professional literature overlook is the spectacular disruptive growth of “fintech” — financial technology — that is bringing capital to previously underserved communities and businesses. It turns out that the capital markets, big data, artificial intelligence and techno-wizardry are filling in many of the niches that supposedly cry out for public banks. But first, there are two other strategic public policy alternatives of note: “linked deposits” and using pension-fund capital for nonbank lending, or “shadow banking” as it’s termed by its critics.

As a young municipal finance officer, while moonlighting in grad econ classes in the late 1970s, I became enamored of the concept of linked deposits. The idea was that municipalities should invest in time deposits with banks that pledge to make local loans promoting economic development. I’ll never forget speaking on a panel at the state finance officers’ conference and watching the state’s most prominent public funds banker scowl and shake his head in disgust at what struck him as a pie-in-the-sky concept. At the time, that idea went nowhere.

…..

Meanwhile, with interest rates at record low levels, public pension funds have been searching everywhere for ways to get a better return on their fixed-income capital allocations. One of the vehicles that emerged in the past decade has been direct lending through professionally managed portfolios that provide loans to businesses at attractive interest rates.

Author(s): Girard Miller

Publication Date: 7 Dec 2021

Publication Site: Governing

How States Can Gird for the Coming Fights Over Taxing Digital Ads

Link: https://www.governing.com/finance/How-States-Can-Gird-for-the-Coming-Fights-Over-Taxing-Digital-Ads.html

Excerpt:

Maryland’s Legislature recently overrode a gubernatorial veto and enacted a new tax on digital advertising — the first of its kind among the states. It was inevitable that somebody would break the ice. Last August, I explored the revenue implications for states and localities of a federal tax on interstate digital commerce. Globally, the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated business migration to Internet platforms, making this the new frontier for tax policy.

Maryland legislators deserve credit for planting their semi-checkered state flag first, to stake their claim, but they are still far from the finish line. Anti-tax wonks point to a host of possible legal snags that could tie up the Maryland tax for some time. They complain that it’s unduly vague, imprecisely crafted, and invites double taxation. The social media goliaths are already protesting that it’s unconstitutional under the commerce clause, which gives Congress supreme authority to regulate interstate business. To salvage its tax, Maryland may find it necessary to make defensible amendments that can withstand judicial scrutiny. But rather than going it alone, the state could use some help from its peers eyeing digital ad taxes of their own.

States have been called the laboratories of democracy, and rightfully so. However, when it comes to national and international commercial activity that sweeps across state lines through complex multi-party transactions, let’s face it: Heterogeneity and administrative complexity are not desirable outcomes. Fifty separate labs tinkering with different tax formulas will drive companies nuts.

Author(s): Girard Miller

Publication Date: 13 April 2021

Publication Site: Governing

Can Fiscal Alchemy Bolster Public Pension Funds?

Link: https://www.governing.com/finance/Can-Fiscal-Alchemy-Bolster-Public-Pension-Funds.html

Excerpt:

One way to put a quick sheen on pension funds’ balance sheets is to issue municipal bonds at a lower rate of interest than the pension fund is expected to earn. These “pension obligation bonds” (POBs) have a long and checkered history. The first one was sold tax-exempt by the city of Oakland, Calif., in 1985. It stirred up a hornet’s nest at the IRS, which quickly realized that the lower tax-exempt interest rate was subsidized by Uncle Sam in a no-brainer for the pension fund that in theory could just invest in taxable bonds to make a profit, even without risking money in stocks. Congress was prodded to prohibit the use of tax-exempt debt where there is a profit-seeking investment “nexus,” and thus was born a thick book of IRS “arbitrage” regulations. Consequently, POBs must now be taxable, with a higher interest cost.

When interest rates are low, as they are today, the underwriters and many financial consultants come out of the woodwork to pitch their POB deals. The lure is always the same: “Over 30 years, you will save money because history shows it’s almost a certainty that stocks will outperform low bond yields,” even if they are now taxable. I’ve written extensively on the foreseeable cyclical risks of selling POBs when the stock market is trading at record high levels: The underwriters and deal-peddlers will sneak away with their fees from the deal, and public officials will be left holding the bag whenever an economic recession or stock-market plunge drives the value of their pension funds’ “new” assets below the level of their outstanding POBs. The Government Finance Officers Association (GFOA) has long opposed POBs for this reason, among others. POBs make sense to me only when they are issued in recessionary bear markets.

Author(s): Girard Miller

Publication Date: 16 March 2021

Publication Site: Governing