Junk-Rated Chicago Has A Billion Dollar Pension Problem

Last week, Chicago got some bad news from Moody’s. On the heels of an Illinois Supreme Court decision that struck down a pension reform law, the ratings agency cut the city to junk status, triggering some $2.2 billion in accelerated payment rights for the city’s creditors and complicating Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s efforts to refinance nearly a billion in floating rate notes and borrow another $200 million to pay off the accompanying swaps.

The Moody’s downgrade in many ways punctuates what has been a rapid deterioration in state and local government finances across the country, a situation that’s forcing lawmakers to slash budgets and cut funding for a variety of state-funded programs. 

As a refresher, here’s some context on Chicago’s underfunded pension problem:

In downgrading the city, Moody’s said it expected “Chicago's credit challenges will continue, both in the near term and in the long term [as] unfunded liabilities of the Municipal, Laborer, Police, and Fire pension plans grow and exert increasing pressure on the city's operating budget.” That looks to have been an accurate assessment, because as Bloomberg reports, Chicago’s budget gap is set to triple by 2017.

Chicago's budget gap is expected to triple with statutory contributions to pension funds, after the city improved its fund deficit for four straight years to less than $300 million in fiscal year 2015.

 

"Notwithstanding the gains achieved by the city in recent years in addressing its structural budget deficit, the budget gap in coming years is likely to widen from the 2015 level due largely to growing salaries and wages and funding requirements from city pension plans," Chicago bond documents, released yesterday, said. A budget gap of $430.2 million was projected for 2016 and $587.7 million for 2017. However, "statutory obligations to the [police pension fund] and [firemen's pension fund] will, in the absence of legislation modifying the city's contributions to these funds, increase the projected budget gaps for 2016 and 2017 by more than $500 million," the documents said.

 

So Chicago taxpayers, get ready to take one for the team, because as one muni bond analyst told the Chicago Tribune earlier this month, “raising taxes is going to have to be a part of the solution.”

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Incidentally, this is just one more example of the unintended (we hope) consequences of monetary policy gone ZIRP, because when reality forces you to lower the rate of return you can expect on your investment, your unfunded liabilities balloon, and as you can see from the following table, the assumed rates of return for Chicago’s pension funds are nowhere near the risk-free rate meaning, in short, this could get very, very ugly.