The big pension liability adjustment

The Government Accounting Standards Board voted Monday to toughen pension reporting standards, a slight accounting change that has significant repercussions for muniland. Reuters’ Lisa Lambert reports how data that was formerly buried in the footnotes of financial statements will have to be made more prominent:

State and local governments will have to post their net pension liability – the difference between the projected benefit payments and the assets set aside to cover those payments – up front on financial statements, under the changes.

“The pension liability will appear on the face of the financial statements for the first time. That’s going to create the appearance of a weaker financial position,” said Robert H. Attmore, GASB chairman, who said the board intended to “peel back the veil so things are more transparent and there’s more information for policy makers.”

In addition to providing taxpayers and municipal investors with easier access to data, the GASB changes also stipulate the method by which future returns are calculated for pension funds that are underfunded. This will likely make many pension funds appear less healthy as they will have to use projected rates of return that are more sober.

For several years state and local governments have been making adjustments to retiree benefits in an effort to square up their pension plans. A consortium of government associations, led by the National Council of State Legislatures, has published a fact sheet so the public has a balanced view of the health of the pension system. It highlights how the majority of governments have already made changes to pension plans:

State and local government hiring will never recover

Throughout the recovery, public-sector employment figures have been dismal. Even though recent data suggests that government job losses might have peaked, there is an ugly accounting change looming that could prove a permanent deterrent to a large rebound in government hiring.

The accounting change is being driven by the Government Accounting Standards Board (GASB) and relates to pension liabilities. Governments will soon be required to report their pension liabilities alongside their other liabilities, like long-term debt, on their financial statements. Currently governments are allowed to bury their unfunded pension liabilities in the footnotes of their financial statements. When they calculate their financial ratios, they are also not required to include future liabilities owed to retirees.

With pension costs expected to take up larger and larger amounts of tax revenues, politicians will have no excuse to ignore their ballooning pension problems. What has long been an unpleasant fact for budget officers will soon become a very visible sign to government officials, the public and investors that pension burdens are very heavy and that adding employees means long-term fiscal burdens that many governments don’t have the fiscal space to take on.

Insurers have “manageable” muniland risk

Insurers have “manageable” muniland risk

Meredith Whitney has made many assertions about muniland, but the only one that I had not heard from others before she stepped onto the national stage was her contention that insurance companies would be forced to sell their municipal bonds into a declining price spiral. She alleged this would collapse muniland, so it’s very interesting to see Moody’s assess the risk for insurance industry. From Property Casualty 360:

Property and casualty insurers remain the most exposed sector among financial institutions to volatility within the municipal-bond market, holding about $355 billion in municipal bonds, but the overall level of risk should be manageable, Moody’s says.

In a Special Comment, Moody’s says municipal bonds represent 60 percent of the industry’s equity capital base, as measured by policyholders’ surplus. This figure is down from the prior year, when the industry held about $370 billion in municipal bonds, representing about 70 percent of policyholders’ surplus.

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