Category Archives: Debt

The Public Pension Crisis

Government workers at all levels are likely to have pension plans but there is a big question about the plans’ ability to pay.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), 92% percent of full-time government employees like teachers and police officers are eligible for pensions, known as “defined benefit plans.”

According to the BLS about 22% of workers in the private sector have pensions, down from 42% in 1990.  In the private sector, retirement plans are much more likely to be 401(k) plans, known as “defined contribution plans.”  Part of the reason for this is that some large companies, like General Motors, accrued huge pension liabilities over the years that they were unable to pay.

Since the Federal Government can print money, federal employees are not worried.  However, states and municipalities depend on their tax base and can’t print money.  That’s where the problem comes in.  Some estimates claim the unfunded liability of public pension plans exceeded $3 trillion dollars.

According to Governing, the city of Chicago’s has an unfunded pension liability of almost $20,000 per capita.  Other cities are somewhat better off, but no big city has a fully funded pension account.  Dallas and Denver, for example are on the hook for between $8,000 and $9,000 per resident.  It’s difficult to even measure the amount of indebtedness because political leaders really don’t want to discuss it.

The problem has been exacerbated by rate-of-return assumptions that are unrealistic.  Most pension funds assume that their assets will grow at rates of seven to eight percent per year indefinitely, a virtual impossibility in this age of low interest rates and sluggish growth.

What does that mean for public employees?   They may want to cast a wary eye on Puerto Rico and some cities in California who have gone into default.  As a wise man once said, “something that can’t go on forever, won’t.”  A little planning ahead won’t hurt.

Whether you are a public employee or work in the private sector we welcome your inquiries.

 

 

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Negative Interest Rates – Searching for Meaning

We have mentioned negative interest rates in the past.  Let’s take a look at what it means to you.

Central banks lower interest rates to encourage economic activity.  The theory is that low interest rates allow companies to borrow money at lower costs, encouraging them to expand, invest in and grow their business.  It also encourages consumers to borrow money for things like new homes, cars, furniture and all the other things for which people borrow money.

It’s the reason the Federal Reserve has lowered rates to practically zero and kept them there for years.  It’s also why the Fed has not raised rates; they’re afraid that doing so will reduce the current slow rate of growth even more.

But if low rates are good for the economy, would negative interest rates be even better?  Some governments seem to think so.

Negative interest rates in Japan mean that if you buy a Japanese government bond due in 10 years you will lose 0.275% per year.  If you buy a 10 year German government bond today  your interest rate is negative 0.16%.   Why would you lend your money to someone if they guaranteed you that you would get less than the full amount back?  Good question.  Perhaps the answer is that you have little choice or are even more afraid of the alternative.

Per the Wall Street Journal:

There is now $13 trillion of global negative-yielding debt, according to Bank of America Merrill Lynch. That compares with $11 trillion before the
Brexit vote, and barely none with a negative yield in mid-2014.

In Switzerland, government bonds through the longest maturity, a bond due in nearly half a century, are now yielding below zero. Nearly 80% of Japanese and German government bonds have negative yields, according to Citigroup.

This leaves investors are searching the world for securities that have a positive yield.  That includes stocks that pay dividends and bonds like U.S. Treasuries that still have a positive yield: currently 1.4% for ten years.  However, the search for yield also leads investors to more risky investments like emerging market debt and junk bonds.  The effect is that all of these alternatives are being bid up in price, which has the effect of reducing their yield.

The yield on Lithuania’s 10-year government debt has more than halved this year to around 0.5%, according to Tradeweb. The yield on Taiwan’s 10-year bonds has fallen to about 0.7% from about 1% this year, according to Thomson Reuters.

Elsewhere in the developed world, New Zealand’s 10-year-bond yields have fallen to about 2.3% from 3.6% as investors cast their nets across the globe.

Rashique Rahman, head of emerging markets at Invesco, said his firm has been getting consistent inflows from institutional clients in Western Europe and Asia interested in buying investment-grade emerging-market debt to “mimic the yield they used to get” from their home markets.

Clients don’t care if it is Mexico or Poland or South Korea, he said, “they just want a higher yield.” ….

Ricky Liu, a high-yield-bond portfolio manager at HSBC Global Asset Management, said his firm has clients from Asia who are willing for the first time to invest in portfolios that include the highest-rated junk bonds.

How and where this will end is anybody’s guess.  In our view, negative interest rates are an indication that central bankers are wandering into uncharted territory.  We’re not convinced that they really know how things will turn out.  We remain cautiously optimistic about the U.S. economy and are staying the course, but we are not chasing yield.

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How is the US Treasury managing the nation’s debt?

With interest rates at or near historic lows a lot of people are taking advantage of low rates to re-finance their debts.  Is the US Treasury taking this opportunity to lock in low rates?  Not really.

Here is First Trust’s commentary on the issue.

Instead of imposing strict fiduciary rules on Wall Street, banks, investment houses, and financial advisors, the government should apply similar rules to the managers of the federal debt. This is particularly true because unlike the private sector – which faces tough market competition every day – the debt managers at the Treasury Department have a monopoly.

These federal debt managers have been flagrantly violating what should be their fiduciary responsibility to manage the debt in the best long-term interests of the US taxpayer.

Despite a roughly $19 trillion federal debt, the interest cost of the debt remains low relative to fundamentals. In Fiscal Year 2015, interest was 1.2% of GDP and 6.9% of federal revenue, both the lowest since the late 1960s. To put this in perspective, in 1991 debt service hit a post-World War II peak of 3.2% of GDP and 18.4% of federal revenue.

In other words, for the time being low interest rates have kept down the servicing cost of the debt even as the debt itself has soared.

You would think that in a situation like this, with federal debt set to continue to increase rapidly in the future, that the government’s debt managers would bend over backwards to lock-in current low interest rates for as long as possible.

But you would be wrong. The average maturity of outstanding marketable Treasury debt (which doesn’t include debt held in government Trust Funds, like Social Security) is only 5 years and 9 months. That’s certainly higher than the average maturity of 4 years and 1 month at the end of the Bush Administration, but still way too low given the level of interest rates.

The government’s debt managers have a built-in bias in favor of using short-term debt: because the yield curve normally slopes upward, the government can save a little bit of money each year by issuing shorter term debt. In turn, that means politicians get to show smaller budget deficits or get to shift spending to pet programs.

But this is short-sighted. The US government should instead lock-in relatively low interest rates for multiple decades, by issuing more 30-year bonds, and perhaps by introducing bonds the mature in 50 years or even longer.

At present, we find ourselves in the fortunate situation of being able to easily pay the interest on the federal debt. But this isn’t going to last forever. If the government locks-in low rates for an extended period it would give us time to catch our breath and fix our long-term fiscal problems, like Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security.

There’s no reason this has to be a partisan issue. The government’s debt managers should just treat the debt like it’s their own. If the government is determined to hold many others to a stricter standard, it should lead by example.

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