Disaster in Detroit

July 19, 2013

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Yesterday, Detroit filed the largest municipal bankruptcy in US history. Today, a Michigan judge ruled that the bankruptcy plan’s move to cut city workers’ pensions violated the state’s constitution.

Cate Long has been leading on this story since the beginning, and has a good breakdown of why Detroit’s bankruptcy case could be different than recent municipal bankruptcies, should it proceed. Until the 2011 derivatives-fueled bankruptcy of Jefferson County, Alabama, she writes, bondholders were treated with kid gloves. “Now the blood has begun to flow,” Long writes.

As Felix wrote last month after looking over Detroit’s Proposal for Creditors, that blood will come partially from unsecured debtholders and their insurers. All such debtholders are being treated equally under the plan put forth by Detroit’s Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr. That means holders of unlimited general obligation bonds, typically considered to be the safest in this category of muni debt, will likely get the same deals as holders of unsecured debt. (Detroit’s two biggest unsecured debtors are city retirement funds). This move irked more than a few commentators — including SIFMA and Bloomberg View, which said the plan risks “violating the trust that underlies the $3.7 trillion market in municipal debt”. (The muni market slumped after Detroit’s filing, but it’s still unclear if it’ll set any precedent outside of Michigan.)

Then there are Detroit’s retirees, who, Felix writes, may be getting the worst of this deal. UBS and BofA will get 75 cents on the dollar in a reported deal with Detroit, the WSJ says, while retirees could get just pennies on the dollar. BlackRock, Jason Windawi, and Long have all questioned whether Detroit’s emergency manager is inflating how big the city’s pension problems are: accounting changes caused the city’s unfunded pension liabilities to balloon to $3.5 billion from $650 million over two years, BlackRock says. (This wouldn’t be the first time Detroit’s pension math had been manipulated. More on that multi-decade farce here).

Still, Long writes, “Detroit’s pensions are not, on the surface, excessive.” Neither, says Alec MacGillis, is the auto industry to blame. The larger problem, as Matt Yglesias says, is demographic. Detroit’s population has been cut in half to 700,000 since 1970, steadily destroying the city’s tax base. And MacGillis notes that Detroit encompasses 139 square miles — enough to fit all of Boston, Manhattan and San Francisco in its borders. That land isn’t an asset, he writes: rather, it’s a resource-draining curse. — Ryan McCarthy  

On to today’s links:

Why everybody loves Tesla – Bloomberg Businessweek

JPMorgan is nearing a record $500M fine and a top exec may get off without punishment – DealBook

New Normal
Labor force participation is not coming back – NYT

Primary Sources
The SEC charges Steve Cohen with failure to supervise – SEC
SAC claims the charges have “no merit” – Reuters

Dolce & Gabbana stores “Closed for Indignation” after tax evasion convictions – Reuters
Having a photographic memory is great! Except for those haunting childhood memories – Slate

“John Helmick loves to buy homes reeking of cat urine” (He’s a house-flipper) – Bloomberg

Worst Sentence Ever?
“Yet the nightmare cast its shroud in the guise of a contagion of a deer-in-the-headlights paralysis” – Economist

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