The Demographic Divide: A Police State of Mind

The Demographic Divide: A Police State of Mind

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Fake news is so old.

How else did, “I am prepared to veto any bill that has as its purpose a federal bailout of New York City to prevent a default,” become, “DROP DEAD” way back in October, 1975? Oh, those hellbent headline writers. Whatever will they think of next? Besides, the Daily News headline worked wonders, if infuriating die hard New Yorkers was the objective.

The insult so unhinged one William Martin Joel that he soon found himself saying goodbye to Hollywood and headed back to his native New York by way of a Greyhound bus on the Hudson River Line. Had the songwriter and singer we’ve all come to know and love as Billy Joel not been on that bus, he’d have never been inspired to pen the classic New York State of Mind, an anthem to the City only Sinatra himself can claim to have bested in his time.

So thank you, President Ford for refusing to treat the “insidious disease.” At least that’s how he characterized New York’s profligate spending ways. Without the media’s dramatization of Ford’s ire, the world would have been robbed of some of the most poetic lyrics ever written. And, by the way, a feasible blueprint for the years to come as some budget-strapped cities run their tills dry.

In the unique case of New York City in the late 1970s, federal assistance accompanied fiscal reforms. The details of the détente should thus be de rigueur study materials for the judicial and legislative arms of so many at-risk municipalities nationwide.

At the risk of feigning any pretense of legal expertise, municipal bankruptcies come down to the limitations of the federal government’s power to provide relief to ‘units of states,’ whether they be cities, counties, taxing authorities, municipal utilities or school districts.

Though a variety of other state-led interventions have been successfully deployed, many of us are most familiar with voluntary Chapter 9 bankruptcy filings, permitted by half the states and employing the powers of the judiciary in conjunction with creditor workouts. Jefferson County, Alabama and Stockton, California may ring mental bells. But it is 2013’s record $18 billion Detroit, Michigan Ch. 9 filing that reset precedent on how engaged the bankruptcy courts can be.

Suffice it to say, default via the court system is a lengthy process and most lucrative for the lawyers retained. In relative terms, New York City’s effective default occurred in a New York Minute. After the banks cut off New York City in the spring of 1975, the State created an emergency financial control board and a borrowing entity to provide immediate relief to the city. Rather than “default,” the city declared a “moratorium” on $1.6 billion in obligations, a hotly debated designation. A thorny rose it nevertheless was.

In December 1975, with the financial management wrested out of the city’s control, Congress passed and Ford signed into law legislation allowing the Treasury to extend loans to the city to keep it up and running. Future New York state and city revenues were promised to repay the loans and spending reforms that had been intractable were implemented by force.

Looking back at the 40th anniversary of the extraordinary federal-led intervention, American Enterprise Institute’s Alex Pollock applauded Ford’s staunch stance: “That’s what happens when you run out of money and the music stops. Intensely needed reforms of the city’s spending and financial controls actually did follow.”

Why raise the specter of federal assistance if it’s patently apparent other means can be deployed in today’s modern municipal era? The crush of retiring Baby Boomers will keep Uncle Sam up at night for years as he struggles to keep federal entitlements solvent. Why even consider federal involvement in municipal pensions that are at least backed by some semblance of assets? The answer comes down to demographics.

Forty years ago, Baby Boomer were entering their prime earning years. Opportunity in the land of America was expanding at a rapid clip. The level of education was rising among those entering the workforce vis-à-vis their older counterparts at the same time women were growing the overall workforce (just under half of women worked then; today it’s 70 percent). In the simplest terms, the size of the pie was growing.

Today, roughly 10,000 Boomers exit the workforce every day, which should present an opportunity in and of itself for Millennials to backfill the depleting workforce. Census data tell a different story. In 2016, median personal income for workers aged 24 to 34 was $35,000. In modern dollar terms, that same age cohort was earning $37,000 in 1975.

It’s difficult to square lower earnings with the educational makeup of the labor force. In 1975, 23 percent of young workers had earned a bachelor’s degree. Forty years on, 37 percent have achieved the same. Shouldn’t that improvement have lifted per capita earnings?

It comes down to comparative advantage. Back then, it was easy enough for a younger, better-educated worker to displace an older, less-educated and therefore less-qualified older worker. Today’s workforce is largely educated and intent on working longer; it’s stickier and less tractable. At the same time, the double governors of technological innovation and globalization have reduced the aggregate demand for warm bodies.

At the risk of getting buried in the weeds, there are more workers exiting the workforce than there are those joining it. Those making way for the exits are otherwise known as ‘retirees.’ It is at this critical juncture that municipal finance re-enters the picture.

As has been written on these pages, over the past few years, public pensions have been reducing the stated returns they anticipate their portfolios generating on investments. These reduced expectations necessarily trigger the need for higher contributions on the part of state and local governments.

That’s exactly what took place last year. The Census’ 2016 Annual Survey of Public Pensions found that state and local government contributions rose by 6.5 percent to $191.6 billion from 2015’s $179.7 billion. By contrast, earnings on investments, which include both realized and unrealized gains, tumbled 67.9 percent to $49.9 billion from $155.5 billion in 2015.

Meanwhile, the number of pensioners collecting checks marched upwards to 10.3 million people, up 3.3 percent over 2015. The benefits they received last year rose even more, by 5.4 percent to $282.9 billion from $268.5 billion in 2015. And finally, total pension assets fell 1.6 percent to $3.7 trillion from $3.8 trillion the prior year.

In the event you sense you’ve been felled by death by numbers, back out to the big picture. Paid benefits exceeded contributions to the tune of $40 billion in 2016 against the relentless backdrop of an increasing number of Boomers retiring (in 2014, there were 9.9 million receiving benefits).

Microcosm this demographic dynamic to the extreme example of Chicago. In 2015, the latest year for which we have full data, some $999 million was paid out to 29,296 recipients. That compares to the $90 million in investment income generated by the two employee pension funds that year. Back out the timeline a decade – in 2006, these two pensions held a combined $8.5 billion in assets. Since then the two funds have generated $3.1 billion in investment returns but paid out $8.511 billion to retirees.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel recently proposed raising new city employees’ contribution to help fill the gulf of underfunding but Illinois’ Governor quickly vetoed the measure declaring Emanuel was, “trying to fix a drought with a drop of rain.”

Projections suggest that one of the two funds will be cash flow negative by 2023; the other will run short by 2025. If all else remains the same, a big IF with risky asset prices trading at frothy high valuations, property taxes would need to be doubled to cover the coming shortfalls.

Many Cook County taxpayers are forsaking a wait-and-see approach. Chicago was the only large city in America to lose population last year, its resident count dropped at nearly double the rate of 2015.

As convenient as it might seem to excoriate the Windy City, there are plenty of other major cities deep in hock. According to a Moody’s report, though Chicago does indeed top the list, Dallas is the second-most underfunded city followed by Phoenix, two magnets for nomads in search of lower costs of living. Rounding out the top ten list are Houston, Los Angeles, Jacksonville, Detroit, Columbus, Austin and Philadelphia.

In other words, running and hiding in lower tax haven hamlets will be even more challenging in coming years. According to a Milliman report, 2015 marked the first time retirees outnumbered active employees in the nation’s 100 largest public pensions; there were 12.6 million retirees covered by the toils of 12.5 million workers.

Look back no further than 2012 to appreciate how the trend has accelerated; in that year retirees numbered 10.5 million vs. 12.3 million active employees. Absent a surge in state and local payrolls, further fiscal deterioration is poised to persist.

To take the case of the case of the country’s largest pension, the California Public Employees’ Retirement System, in 20 years’ time, retirees supported by the plan will be roughly double the number of active workers. CalPERS won’t be alone in this predicament.

Again, it comes down to the demographic divide that’s opened up since President Ford was in office. In the 1970s, the typical public pension’s active employees outnumbered retirees by a factor of four-to-five times; today that ratio is 1.5-to-1 and continues to fall as Boomers retire in droves and Millennials fail to fill the yawning gap.

After a grisly year that ended with a tally of 4,000 homicides, Chicago has begun to coordinate with federal authorities to control a crime wave driven by gangs’ unencumbered access to firearms. The last thing the city can withstand is further cuts to public service funding. By the same token, taxpayers have already begun to vote with their feet as rising taxes and foundering pensions promise to beget more tax hikes to come.

It’s plain that the last thing any of us want to see is a Police State of any kind. But the growing risk is that the next recession and deflating asset prices could well alter the rules of engagement between federal and state authorities on more levels than any of us care to envision.

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