Moody's Considers Municipal Ratings Changes That Could Push Illinois Into Junk Territory

A few weeks ago, we expressed some level of astonishment that the rating agencies, in their infinite wisdom, decided to bestow an investment grade rating upon a new $3 billion bond issuance by the City of Chicago.  Of course, this wouldn't be such a big deal but for the fact that the state of Illinois is a financial disaster that will undoubtedly be forced into bankruptcy at some point in the future courtesy of a staggering ~$150 billion funding gap on its public pensions, a mountain of debt and $16.4 billion in accrued AP because they can't even afford to pay their bills on a timely basis.  Here are just a couple of our recent posts on these topics:

Alas, as Capitol Fax notes this morning, it seems as though Moody's may finally be waking up to the farce that is their own municipal ratings system and is currently in the process of seeking comments from market participants on proposed changes for states’ general obligation credit ratings, which would include an increased emphasis on debt and pension obligations.  Of course, with their GO rating just one notch above junk, all of those long-only bond funds that have scooped up billions in 'juicy' 4% Illinois paper over the past couple of months should probably take notice.

Under the proposed changes, debt and pension obligations will have a 25% weight on state credit ratings, up from 20% currently. The individual state’s economy, another factor in Moody’s ratings, will also have a 25% weight, up from 20%. Governance will fall to 20% from 30% and finances will be maintained at 30%.

 

The debt and pension factor “is critical because debt and pension obligations are the primary long-term liabilities that states have,” Moody’s said in an announcement on the proposed changes Tuesday. “As these liabilities grow, states face rising expenses to pay debt and pension benefits. High fixed debt service and pension costs can crowd out other budgetary priorities and force states to raise taxes in order to meet them. Debt and pensions can curtail a state’s budgetary flexibility and heighten the risk that it will seek to deleverage through a debt restructuring.”

Illinois

Of course, the proposed changes come just after Fitch put out their 2017 State Pension Update which showed that Illinois’ pension crisis is the worst in the nation with an underfunding of more than $151 billion...or $60 billion more than second worst state: New Jersey.

“Six states have long-term liability burdens that Fitch considers elevated [in excess of 20 percent of personal income],” the report said, “with Illinois carrying the highest liability burden at 28.5 percent of personal income.”

 

Fitch Senior Director Doug Offerman said taxpayers should care because the burden takes up more than 28 percent of all personal income in Illinois, “which is essentially a proxy for the wealth level, the resource base of a given government.”

 

“For the last several years the [pension] increases did grow faster, and I would say do crowd out other spending that might have otherwise taken up organic revenue growth,” [Fitch Ratings Senior Director Karen Krop] said.

Meanwhile, State Senator Dan McConchie (R) noted, as have we on multiple occasions, that people are already fleeing Illinois in droves because of its financial crisis and resulting tax burdens.  “Whether it’s through their property taxes or because of the recent income tax increase, they just can’t afford to [stay here],” McConchie said. “This day of reckoning is fast approaching us. I don’t think we want to wait until the absolute last minute to try and do everything we can to really right the ship.”

Unfortunately, Mr. McConchie, we're afraid your proverbial ship is taking on so much water at this point that it hasn't a hope of surviving the crushing weight of your state's mounting debts...perhaps it's better at this point to simply seek a life raft and follow your constituents to Texas.