Illinois suffered a blow when the State Supreme Court ruled that public employee retiree health benefits are enshrined in the state constitution and may not be adjusted via legislation. Illinois has lost an important tool for reducing $56 billion of unfunded retiree health care liabilities and $100 billion in unfunded pension liabilities. These unfunded retiree costs outstrip the state’s $33 billion of net tax supported debt.
The state of Illinois had two milestone events recently. The legislature passed a long-awaited pension reform and the state treasurer issued $350 million of taxable general obligation (GO) bonds. The Bond Buyer reported on the GO offering:
Numerous public pension plans across America are in horrendous shape. The employee plan of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, funded at an alleged 7 percent of assets, is functionally broke. Other public plans, like that of Charleston, West Virginia, have 24 percent of the assets needed to meet future promises to retirees.
Now that three California towns have declared bankruptcy in the past few weeks, the mainstream media is abuzz with headlines of imminent doom for state and local governments. Adding fuel to the fire were Warren Buffett’s comments on Bloomberg TV about how cities may find it easier to declare bankruptcy after seeing others do it:
Like U.S. Treasury debt, muniland securities have been hot, hot, hot. Investors have been piling into municipal bonds for about 16 consecutive months. At first, demand was driven by investors who were attracted to the high yields in the wake of Meredith Whitney’s predictions of default, which scared retail investors out of the market between November 2010 and February 2011. Demand then accelerated as the Federal Reserve kept interest rates at artificially low levels, driving investors out of Treasuries and into riskier assets. Steady municipal bond mutual-fund flows, coupled with the reinvestment of muniland proceeds into new bond issues, has also helped keep demand elevated.