Moody’s cracked the whip and downgraded the rating of Chicago’s general obligation bonds to Baa1 from A3 this week. It’s only a one-notch downgrade, but no American city should wear the scarlet letter of BBB. Chicago’s Mayor Rahm Emanuel is seemingly frozen in place and having a tough time addressing the city’s fiscal problems. His behavior belies his famous 2009 quip to never let a serious crisis go to waste.
Moody’s in its rating comment about the city’s $8.3 billion general obligation and sales tax debt seems to think Chicago is in pretty rough shape:
The negative outlook reflects our expectation that, absent a commitment to significantly increase revenue and/or materially restructure accrued pension liabilities to reduce costs, the city’s credit quality will likely weaken. The formidable legal and political barriers to these actions are incorporated in the outlook.
The State of Illinois’s constitutional protection of pension benefits raises the possibility that any attempt to reduce accrued benefits will be litigated by plan members. Ongoing unwillingness to sufficiently increase revenue ensures that annual pension payments will remain a considerable operating stress while continuing to fall well below actuarially sound contributions.
As such, the city’s financial operations will remain structurally imbalanced and the long-term solvency of the city’s pension funds will be exposed to a significant degree of asset return risk.