The ratings firm Moody’s Investors Service this week upgraded Illinois’ credit rating one notch to Baa2, a level two notches above junk. It’s a major turnaround given that just one year ago Illinois faced the prospect of becoming the first state to ever be rated junk. In mid-2020, shutdowns ravaged the state’s tax base, Sen. Don Harmon asked for a $42 billion bailout from Congress and the state projected billions in multi-year budget shortfalls.
What changed so dramatically in such a short period of time? Ignore the claims by Illinois lawmakers of their heroic acts of “balanced budgets,” “fiscal discipline” and the like. Even if those claims were true – and they are not – they couldn’t by themselves create such a swing in Illinois’ short-term fortunes.
Credit, instead, the massive $138 billion in federal funds from the multiple COVID relief and stimulus packages – as compiled by the Committee for Responsible Federal Budget – that are now flooding Illinois’ public and private sectors. Those billions have significantly reduced the probability of a bond default – which is ultimately what Moody’s really cares about.
Illinois received its first credit rating upgrade in 23 years on Tuesday when Moody’s Investors Services raised the state’s rating one notch, citing “material improvement in the state’s finances.”
Although the upgrade still leaves Illinois bonds rated just two notches above so-called “junk” status, Gov. JB Pritzker said it marked a turning point for the state, and he credited the General Assembly and members of his own administration for bringing greater fiscal discipline to the state’s budget.
House Bill 2451 eliminates a formula based on birth date that provided lower pension COLAs to certain retired firefighters. As a result of the new law, all retirees that are considered “Tier 1” members of the FABF will now receive a 3% COLA annually on their pension, with no cumulative cap. Before House Bill 2451, retired firefighters in Tier 1 would have received a 1.5% COLA, subject to a 30% cumulative cap, if born on or after January 1, 1966. Members of the FABF receive Tier 1 benefits if hired before January 1, 2011, while those hired on or after January 1, 2011 receive less generous Tier 2 pension benefits.
One potentially advantageous effect of House Bill 2451 is that it forces immediate recognition of 3% COLAs for Tier 1 members. The state law governing Chicago firefighter pension COLAs has been amended on several occasions in the past to alter the birth date that would determine eligibility of a Tier 1 retiree for a 3% COLA versus a 1.5% COLA. The most recent such change occurred in 2016, when the law was updated to provide a 3% COLA to all Tier 1 firefighters born before January 1, 1966, compared to January 1, 1955, before the change. That change, in addition to several other provisions, triggered a roughly $227 million (4.5%) increase to the actuarial accrued liability reported by the FABF as of the December 2016 actuarial snapshot.
Anybody who’s been following Chicago knows the last thing the city needs is more debt. Chicagoans are being swamped by pension debts, already the biggest per-capita burden of any major city in the country. By signing the new legislation into law, Pritzker has shoved more debt onto ordinary Chicagoans.
Not surprisingly, Moody’s has called the action “credit negative…because it will cause the city’s reported unfunded pension liabilities, and thus its annual contribution requirements, to rise.”
Two important facts to note about the city’s pension shortfalls. First, Chicago officially says its four city-run pension funds – police, fire, municipal and laborers – are short by some $31 billion. But Moody’s puts the number at nearly $47 billion using more realistic, market-based assumptions.
Second, those debt numbers don’t include the Chicago Public Schools. When you add its $23 billion (Moody’s, 2018) pension shortfall, the total burden on Chicagoans for Chicago-only debts jumps to $70 billion. Divvy that between Chicago’s 1.04 million households and you’re talking about $67,000 in debt each. And that number far underestimates the real household burden considering nearly 20 percent of the city’s population don’t have the means to contribute a dime to that pension shortfall.
The recently signed American Rescue Plan designated about $7.5 billion of new money directly for the state’s government. Tens of billions of more federal dollars indirectly help the Illinois budget by assisting higher education, K-12 schools and municipalities. Direct aid to people and businesses also kept tax revenue flowing at far higher rates than initially projected.
In fact, federal money from the American Rescue Plan alone dwarfs the revenue lost to the state because of COVID and the lockdowns by a stunning 1665%, according to a Tax Foundation estimate.
It should be noted, however, that federal cash has been showered on the entire nation, where it needs it and not. The State of Wisconsin, for example, is getting $3.2 billion in direct money from the American Rescue Plan even though the state has a budget surplus. We are still waiting for a comprehensive analysis of all recent federal aid to determine whether Illinois got more than its fair share. Surprisingly, nobody seems to have offered one yet that includes all units of government and private sector assistance.
The state assumes the pension funds will continue to earn an average of nearly 7 percent a year, while Moody’s lowered its assumptions for 2020 to just 2.7 percent: “the FTSE Pension Liability Index, a high-grade corporate bond index Moody’s uses to value state and local government pension liabilities, fell to 2.70% as of June 30, 2020, from 3.51% the prior year.”
Moody’s also reported that the asset-to-payout ratio for the state’s funds are now equal to about seven years’ worth of payouts.
Despite the record increase in pension expenditures in the past several decades, Illinois’ pension system remains the nation’s worst by multiple measures. According to Moody’s Investors Service, Illinois’ pension debt was equal to 500% of the state’s revenues in fiscal year 2018 and almost 30% of the entire state economy, both the highest rates in the nation. At the same time, Illinois’ credit rating has been in precipitous decline and now sits at the lowest credit rating in the nation.
As pension debt continues to increase, so do required pension contributions. Pension contributions now consume 26.5% of the state’s general funds budget, up from less than 4% during the years 1990 through 1997.
State and local government pension systems are increasingly dependent on investment returns, and at risk of increasingly volatile results, as funding levels remain depressed and systems increasingly start to pay out more than they take in, according to a new report from Moody’s.
The credit-ratings agency anticipates higher volatility and lower returns across asset classes in 2021 compared to 2020, even as many pension sponsors have spent the past few years lowering their assumed returns from previous loftier targets that they rarely hit.
“With persistently low interest rates for high-grade fixed-income securities, public pension systems continue to rely on highly volatile equities and alternatives to meet return targets, posing a material credit risk for some governments,” the Moody’s analysts wrote.
U.S. property insurers are bracing for claims for damage from collapsing roofs, bursting pipes and lost business as Texas takes stock of its losses from a winter storm that has crippled its electrical grid.
Insurers’ losses could stretch into billions of dollars, said Moody’s analyst Jasper Cooper.
Insurers in Texas, the second-largest property insurance market among U.S. states, are used to grappling with historic storms, such as Hurricane Harvey in 2017.
But this winter storm is unique because of its grip across the state. It crippled the electric grid and left hundreds of thousands of homes without power for four days.
The public pension system lost $1 trillion, a 21 percent loss for the fiscal year, following the COVID-19 lockdowns in March. In turn, these losses have added an overwhelming amount of stress on our public pension systems, as state and local pensions were already facing a $4.1 trillion shortfall. Public pension liabilities are on track to increase to $1.62 trillion this year, up from $1.35 trillion in 2019. These numbers are alarming as many governments now have less capacity to defer cost hikes or take mitigating actions because their non-asset cash flow has greatly declined.
Two of America’s most dire pension plan systems are in California and Illinois, two of the country’s largest states with large numbers of workers in defined contribution plans. In California, the economic effects of the virus are evident on the already strained public pension system. At the end of the first quarter, the California Public Employees’ Retirement System, reported that their asset value had dropped 10.5 percent since June 2019 — a loss of $35 billion. Matters have only gotten worse in Illinois and could soon hit a level of catastrophe if aid does not come forth. Moody’s estimates that Illinois’ pension liability will rise from $230 billion in 2019 to $261 billion in 2020.
Author(s): Kevin O’Connor
Publication Date: 28 January 2021
Publication Site: Institute for Pension Fund Integrity