California gets a little lovin’

By Cate Long
February 1, 2013

The state of California received some good news this week when credit rating agency Standard & Poor’s upgraded the state’s long-term rating to “A” on its $73 billion in general obligation (GO) bonds (a single A rating is four notches below AAA). It’s certainly a feel-good moment for Governor Jerry Brown and other public officials. The municipal bond market has been anticipating the state’s improving credit position for the last year, as you can see in the chart above. It shows that the extra interest cost (over the AAA gold standard) on the state’s bonds has declined in the last year. The Golden State is getting some sunshine in muniland.

A single “A” rating is not great for a state, especially one as large as California, which has substantial debt to service and relatively volatile tax receipts. Among the positive praise that Standard & Poor’s gave the state, there were also reminders of the risks that the state faces in achieving real fiscal stability. These risks include lawmakers loosening their fiscal restraints and restoring the social spending that had been cut during the fiscal crisis. Translation: Politicians will revert to promising more than they can afford. S&P explains (requires free registration):

But another part of the answer likely rests with state lawmakers. Given that fiscal restraint has been a crucial ingredient to the state’s strengthening financial position, we think the budget process itself contains some risk.

After implementing significant program cuts in consecutive years, we anticipate there could be political pressure to restore services that would entail higher costs and could undermine the state’s nascent fiscal balance. We also believe there is potential for windfall-like PIT [personal income tax] collections through the early months of 2013, reflecting robust capital gains from 2012. Initial January tax receipt data suggest a surge of PIT collections may already be underway. A temporary flood of revenue could embolden lawmakers that may already prefer to add back to state programs.

The California budget is now balanced on a knife’s edge and the general economy must keep growing for it to remain in balance. U.S. Fourth quarter 2012 GDP growth of negative 0.1 percent is not supportive of keeping the California budget stable. S&P again:

Alternatively, a faltering economy — the other main threat to the state’s improving situation — could open a new fiscal gap, requiring another round of austerity.

But even if the economy does its part, spending restraint will likely remain crucial in order for the state to achieve the fiscal results suggested by the governor’s four year forecast.

As I wrote several weeks ago in Over-selling California’s recoverythe state has a big chunk of money that it has borrowed from the state’s special funds to prop up the general fund. These monies must now be restored. S&P steps through it:

Notably, the governor’s plan goes beyond maintaining general fund balance and envisions paying down $28 billion in existing budget liabilities (the projected balance at June 30, 2013 on the state’s so-called “wall of debt”). We believe that eliminating these liabilities according to the governor’s schedule is important because the last of the higher tax rates under Proposition 30 will expire in December 2018.

These are existing short-term liabilities that have to be addressed before the big Kahuna of unfunded pension and retiree health care costs can be tackled in addition to the long term debt of the state. From S&P (emphasis mine):

As it is, the budgetary debts undermine the state’s ability to tackle other long-term impediments to credit quality — such as its retirement liabilities. In particular, the state’s pension system for teachers (CalSTRS) is chronically underfunded from an actuarial standpoint. At some point it will likely require higher contributions from the state. The budget liabilities generally, and the $11 billion of payment deferrals in particular, crowd out such uses of revenue. In effect, the backlog of deferrals means that a significant share of current year spending goes to paying for prior year expenses.

Finally, here is S&P’s long term view of California:

We expect that the range of possibilities for the state’s credit rating would extend higher once it is free of this inflexibility.

Cheers to California for its positive step forward, but a lot more austerity lies ahead for the state. Can legislators show restraint?

 

Further:

Red State: California’s Budget Voodoo

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