Sunday, May 2, 2010

Multistate Debt Crisis

"California, New York and other states are showing many of the same signs of the debt overload that recently took Greece to the brink--budgets that will not balance, accounting that masks debt, the use of derivatives to plug holes, and armies of retired public workers who are counting on benefits that are proving harder and harder to pay. And states are responding in sometimes desperate ways, raising concerns that they, too, could face a debt crisis. ... Connecticut has tried to issue its own accounting rules. Hawaii has inaugurated a four-day school week. California accelerated its corporate income tax this year, making companies pay 70 percent of their 2010 taxes by June 15. And many states have balanced their budgets with federal health care dollars that Congress has not yet appropriated. Some economists fear the states have a potentially bigger problem with their recession-induced budget woes. If investors become reluctant to buy the states' debt, the result could be a credit squeeze, not entirely different from the financial strains in Europe, where markets were reluctant to refinance billions in Greek debt. ... California's stated debt--the value of all of its bonds outstanding--looks manageable, at just 8 percent of its total economy, But California has big unstated debts, too. If the fair value of the shortfall in California's big pension fund in counted, for instance, the state's debt burden more than quadruples, to 37 percent of its economic output, according to one calculation. ... Unstated debts pose a bigger problem to states with smaller economies. ... State officials say a Greece-style financial crisis is a complete nonissue for them, and the bond markets so far seem to agree. All 50 states have investment-grade ratings, with California the lowest, and even California is still considered 'average,' according to Moody's Investors Service. The last state that defaulted on its bonds, Arkansas, did so during the Great Depression. ... Some states have taken even more forceful measures to build creditor confidence. New York State has a trustee that intercepts tax revenues and makes some bond payments before the state can get to the money. California has a 'continuous appropriation' for debt payments, so bondholders know they will get their interest even when the budget is hamstrung. ... In fact, New Jersey and other states have used a whole bagful of tricks and gimmicks to make their budgets look balanced and to push debts into the future. ... Some economists think the last straw for states and cities will be debt hidden in their pension obligations", my emphasis, Mary Walsh at the NYT, 30 March 2010:

Why shouldn't Connecticut have its own accounting rules? Doesn't Zimbabwe Ben? Who cares what state officals or the rating agencies say? NY's trustee does nothing for me. His existence is purely cosmetic. Do you still want to own muni bonds?


W.C. Varones said...

I demand a German bailout for our states. After all, we're bailing out Greece for them.

Anonymous said...

Confidence gets a shake here and there... bit by bit all this paper seems worth less...

The debt pyramid. Getting bigger, bigger, bigger.