Date and Time of upcoming event: 3:00 PM ET Tuesday, January 24, 2023 (60 Minutes)
The U.S. Congress passed legislation on December 15, 2022 that includes requirements for the Securities and Exchange Commission to adopt data standards related to municipal securities. The Financial Data Transparency Act (FDTA) aims to improve transparency in government reporting, while minimizing disruptive changes and requiring no new disclosures. The University of Michigan’s Center for Local State and Urban Policy (CLOSUP) has partnered with XBRL US to develop open, nonproprietary financial data standards that represent government financial reporting which could be freely leveraged to support the FDTA. The Annual Comprehensive Financial Reporting (ACFR) Taxonomy today represents general purpose governments, as well as some special districts, and can be expanded upon to address all types of governments that issue debt securities. CLOSUP has also conducted pilots with local entities including the City of Flint.
Attend this 60-minute session to explore government data standards, find out how governments can create their own machine-readable financial statements, and discover what impact this legislation could have on government entities. Most importantly, discover how machine-readable data standards can benefit state and local government entities by reducing costs and increasing access to time-sensitive information for policy making.
Marc Joffe, Public Policy Analyst, Public Sector Credit
Stephanie Leiser, Fiscal Health Project Lead, Center for Local, State and Urban Policy (CLOSUP), University of Michigan’s Ford School of Public Policy
Campbell Pryde, President and CEO, XBRL US
Robert Widigan, Chief Financial Officer, City of Flint
Viewers of Berkshire Hathaway’s 2022 Annual Meeting recently learned that some public pension funds feel strongly about how the corporations they own stock in should be governed. At the Berkshire meeting, a group of three pension systems offered a series of shareholder resolutions, all of which were rejected. While there may be instances where it is reasonable for public pension funds to try to influence corporate decision-making, the pension funds should determine whether proxy fights can appreciably enhance the value of their assets before picking a fight.
Pension funds and other institutional investors sometimes withhold their support for corporate-endorsed board candidates and submit resolutions. But changing the outcome of corporate elections is typically an uphill battle. According to ProxyPulse, only 2.2% of corporate board candidates failed to obtain majorities during the 2021 proxy season. Sullivan & Cromwell found that only 9% of shareholder proposals submitted were ultimately ratified.
In comparison, the prospects for shareholder resolutions being adopted appear to be improving. ProxyPulse found that the mean share of votes for shareholder proposals increased from 34% in 2017 to 40% in 2021. The threat of a shareholder proposal passing may also be encouraging boards to go ahead and adopt some recommended policies.
Between January 1, 2020, and April 30, 2022, pension funds filed 81 forms with the Securities and Exchange Commission in which they disclosed shareholder solicitations, accounting for over 10% of all such disclosures filed during this period. Shareholders who send letters to other shareholders asking them to vote against recommendations of management in their proxy statements disclose the fact that they have done so on SEC Form PX14A6G.
Organizations incur long-term financial obligations in forms other than bonds and the U.S. federal government is no exception. Some common types of financial obligations include pension and retiree health care costs for veterans, civilian federal employees, and the general public (through Social Security and Medicare benefit commitments). Looking at the federal government’s balance sheet as of 2021, public holdings of U.S. Treasury securities make up less than one-quarter of total federal liabilities. Unfunded entitlements, like Medicare and Social Security, account for the most at 59% of obligations.
Overall federal obligations have now surpassed $300,000 per American. While substantial in their own right, the debt obligations of state and local governments across the country are dwarfed by the various categories of federal debt.
Tardy federal budgets are nothing new in Washington. According to the Tax Policy Center, Congress has only completed the budgetary process in a timely fashion, which requires passing all 12 appropriations bills prior to October 1, four times since fiscal year (FY) 1977. The last time Congress’ budgetary process worked as expected was FY 1997, more than two decades ago.
When the budget does not pass on time, Congress must pass a continuing resolution (CR) to avoid a government shutdown. Since continuing resolutions typically maintain departmental funding at prior-year levels, they do not signal the policy choices ultimately made in the budget process. As a result, federal managers must begin the fiscal year without a clear direction as to whether they should be increasing or decreasing staff and non-employee operational expenditures. If a federal agency or department ultimately receives a significant funding increase or funding cut in the final appropriations bill, managers may have insufficient time to respond efficiently.
While federal budgeting has been broken for some time, the situation in 2022 is especially bad. Over five months into the budgetary year, the House Rules Committee produced a 2,741-page omnibus budget bill in the wee hours of March 9, just hours before the bill’s scheduled vote on the House floor.
On Feb. 3, 2022, the state of California finally produced its audited financial statements for its fiscal year that ended June 30, 2020. The filing, known as an annual comprehensive financial report, was over a year late and came with an unpleasant surprise in the form of a qualified audit opinion.
State and local governments are normally expected to produce financial statements within six-to-nine months of the fiscal year’s end. California has now missed the nine-month municipal bond market filing deadline for three consecutive years. And, with less than two months to the deadline for its fiscal year 2021 financial reports (for the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2021), another late filing seems inevitable.
California’s financial reporting performance compares poorly with most other states. According to data from Truth in Accounting, the median U.S. state produced its 2020 annual comprehensive financial report 184 days after the end of its fiscal year. By contrast, California took 583 days, nearly 20 months, to file its annual comprehensive financial report for fiscal year 2020. For added perspective, it is worth noting that the Securities and Exchange Commission gives large corporations just 60 days to produce their audited financials.
According to its most recent actuarial report, the Milwaukee County Employees’ Retirement System (ERS) had a funded ratio of 75.3% and unfunded liabilities of $569 million. The county also has separate retirement plans for mass transit employees and temporary employees, but these plans have relatively small unfunded liabilities.
Milwaukee County ERS’ liabilities grew, in part, because the county did not make its full actuarially determined contributions between 2012 and 2016, according to its most recent Annual Comprehensive Financial Report. During that five-year period, the county’s contributions fell $12 million short of recommended levels.
Since 2015, Milwaukee County’s contributions to ERS have tripled from $19 million to $57 million, as it began to meet and then exceed actuarial recommendations. These contributions exclude debt service the county pays on pension obligation bonds it issued in 2009 and 2013.
Most recently, the U.S. defaulted on Treasury bill payments in 1979 shortly after Congress raised the debt ceiling. According to the Congressional Research Service analysis: “In late April and early May 1979, about 4,000 Treasury checks for interest payments and for the redemption of maturing securities held by individual investors worth an estimated $122 million were not sent on time. Foregone interest due to the delays was estimated at $125,000.” The default was due to technical problems and was cured within a short period of time.
The claim that the United States has never defaulted, despite its frequent repetition, is not strictly true. Officials could make more modest and qualified claims such as “aside from a relatively minor operational snafu, the United States has not defaulted in the post-World War II era.” Such a claim lacks the power of a more sweeping generalization, but at least it’s accurate. If President Joe Biden and Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen want to seem credible, they should avoid making historic statements that are easily refuted by a small amount of Googling. If they cannot be believed about the basic reality of the federal government’s credit history, how can we believe what they say about current policy choices?
The sharp increase in consumer prices this Spring may be a blip but may also be a sign that inflation is returning as a chronic problem. For those of us who can accurately recall the 1970s economy, it is a frightening prospect. Everyone else would benefit from reading contemporaneous news coverage.
Recent events call into question pronouncements of the leading Modern Monetary Theorists who thought that the U.S. could sustain much larger deficits without triggering major hikes in the cost of living. Instead, it appears that the traditional rules of public finance still hold: deficit spending financed by Federal Reserve money creation is inflationary.
Analogies between today’s situation and the 1970s are not quite on target. By the early 70s, inflation was well underway. Instead, we should be drawing lessons from the year 1965, when price inflation began to take off. Prior to that year, inflation seemed to be under control with annual CPI growth ranging from 1.1 percent to 1.5 percent annually between 1960 and 1964 — not unlike the years prior to this one.
Private equity investments underperformed broad US stock indexes for the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2020. Importantly for taxpayers and governments, this underperformance of private equity weighed down public pension system asset returns during a particularly difficult year for investments.
These investment results may mark the beginning of the end of superior private equity returns that have characterized early 21st century institutional investing. If private equity returns have now fallen “back to earth,” many public pension systems can expect heightened scrutiny over their allocations to this asset class and the high investment costs that go with it.
In some cases, state and local governments show net OPEB liabilities, which is the total amount of benefits already promised to retirees, as large or larger than their net pension liabilities. Although the total future cost of retiree health care benefits is smaller than pension benefits, which are intended to replace income, most governments have at least partially prefunded their pension benefits while setting aside little or no money to cover their future OPEB costs. This is often attributable to the strong legal protections granted to public pensions but that largely do not extend to OPEB benefit promises made to workers in most places. Nonetheless, by failing to set aside funds for retiree health benefits as employees accrue them, government employers are burdening future taxpayers with growing debt. The size of the problem is also raising doubts among prospective retirees about whether the benefits promised to them will really be there when they retire.
In this post, I consider two potential strategies for using the temporary increase in governments’ fiscal capacity to address unfunded other post-employment benefit liabilities: (1) prefunding and reforming defined retiree healthcare benefits, and (2) switching employees to defined contribution retiree health care benefits.
The extended period of low interest rates we’re in is not only creating challenges for public pension systems across the nation, but it is also negatively impacting people who are relying on their own savings to fund their retirements.
A common strategy for generating retirement income is to invest savings from an individual retirement account (IRA) or 401(k) into income-producing assets such as corporate bonds. But interest rates on corporate bonds have been falling in recent decades, reaching multi-decade lows in 2020.
However, there are reasons to be skeptical of public pension investment in private equity. While it is true that most private equity benchmarks outperformed the S&P 500 during the 2010s, it appears that public pension system investors did not benefit from this outperformance: their returns on public and private equity holdings were similar. Furthermore, it appears that private equity underperformed in 2020 and may not recover its edge in the decade ahead.
Over a long time period, annual returns on leveraged buyout funds are highly correlated with those of the S&P 500, raising questions as to whether private equity meaningfully adds to the diversification of pension system portfolios.
Pension systems should thoroughly evaluate the downsides of private equity investing before increasing their allocations to this asset class. These disadvantages include illiquidity, challenges in obtaining timely and accurate valuations, high investment costs, and lack of transparency.