Joshua Pugh, a writer and contributor to the Detroit News Politics Blog, has written about a topic that is a big one among muniland professionals. That is the question of whether Detroit’s Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr inflated pension liabilities to make the city’s debt appear larger, allowing for more aggressive haircuts for bondholders and pension holders. Pugh points out a Bloomberg Businessweek piece on his personal website:
How much does the city owe? Orr says Detroit has nearly $20 billion in debt and long-term obligations. Pension funds and bondholders have said in the past he’s inflating the numbers. Why would Orr do that? Because the more dire the city’s finances seem, the more aggressive he can be in pushing for concessions. Also, to be eligible for bankruptcy protection, the city must prove that it’s insolvent, meaning it has no way to pay its debts.
In 2004 and 2005, Detroit issued two sets of pension obligation bonds (Certificates of Participation) to fully fund the city’s pensions with an additional $1.5 billion. This is why, when I started looking at Detroit about 18 months ago, the pensions were surprisingly well-funded. Those pension bonds have now been lumped with general obligation bond debt, pension shortfalls (unfunded liabilities) and retiree health care as unsecured debt, which Orr intends to haircut.
The retiree health care value has been carried on Detroit’s books at the level that Orr cites for some time. But the unfunded pension liability has always been listed on Detroit’s financial documents as $650 million, rather than $3.5 billion that Orr claims. The pension shortfall was even listed as $650 million in February by the state’s Detroit Finance Review Team. What happened? Here is Blackrock’s Peter Hayes on the topic:
There is question as to whether the EM’s plan is inflating pension and OPEB liabilities. The unfunded pension liability was adjusted from $650 million reported in 2011 to approximately $3.5 billion—increasing more than five times over two years through unspecified changes to accounting assumptions. This $3.5 billion now represents nearly one-third of the amount Detroit owes to its unsecured creditors, and raises required pension contributions to approximately 100 percent of the city’s $1 billion forecasted budget deficit over the next five years. OPEBs, which were never funded in the past, now have the largest claim at an estimated $5.7 billion.