Tag: municipal governments

As Central Falls Falls

The New York Times has an article today on the plight of Central Falls, Rhode Island, a 19,000-population industrial city that may declare bankruptcy under the fiscal weight of $80 million in pension obligations for police and fire officers. Unlike some coverage of municipal fiscal woes, this one does not dance around the way some of the problem originates in misguided labor policy:

The city, just north of Providence, is small and poor, but over the years it has promised police officers and firefighters retirement benefits like those offered in big, rich states like California and New York. These uniformed workers can retire after just 20 years of service, receive free health care in retirement, and qualify for full disability pensions when only partly disabled.

“Promised” is a word of art here, because the city wasn’t really making all of these concessions on a voluntary basis, as its negotiator explains:

state law called for binding arbitration, which for many years was a clubby process that emphasized comparable benefits all across the state more than any city’s ability to pay.

“Binding” arbitration, just to be clear, does not mean that the city agreed beforehand to settle disputes with the unions by way of arbitration; it means that state law imposed an arbitrator’s edict whether city managers ever signed up for the arbitration route or not. It thus differs from the contractually specified arbitration upheld lately in consumer contexts by the U.S. Supreme Court in AT&T v. Concepcion, a decision assailed by many of the same politicos who see no problem with genuine mandatory arbitration in the labor context.

The crisis in municipal finance wrought by binding public-sector arbitration and related laws comes as no surprise to readers who remember Cato’s excellent 2009 study “Vallejo Con Dios: Why Public Sector Unionism Is a Bad Deal for Taxpayers and Representative Government” by Don Bellante, David Denholm, and Ivan Osorio. (The California city of Vallejo declared bankruptcy in 2008 following the failure of negotiations with police and fire unions over unsustainable compensation.)

One point the otherwise thorough Times article omitted: many politicians in Washington have worked for years to impose a Central-Falls-like legal climate on states and localities lucky or farsighted enough to have avoided one in the past. During last fall’s lame duck session, then-Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) tried to push through the truly appalling Public Safety Employer–Employee Cooperation Act, which not only would have forced police and fire unionization on reluctant states and localities but also provided that in case of impasse (quoting Heritage) “States would have to provide a dispute resolution mechanism, such as binding arbitration.” And the misnamed Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), a priority of President Obama during his first years in office, would have imposed binding arbitration on the private sector. Central Falls may now be hurtling toward the waterfall, but how many other communities are just one political shove away from plunging into the same fiscal rapids?

Mismanaged States Blame Messenger

Mismanaged municipal and state governments around the country are finding a new target to blame for their own self-inflicted wounds:  the growing market for credit defaults swaps (CDS) on municipal debt.

A municipal credit default swap would be a derivative that pays off in the event of default by a specific state or a default on one of said state’s debt instruments.

As reported in today’s Wall Street Journal, a handful of state treasurers are demanding information from Wall Street firms on who exactly is “betting against” these states.

It should come as no surprise, except to state officials, that the major buyers of these CDS are the very bondholders investing in their state.  In fact the availability of municipal CDS will likely increase the demand for municipal debt.  Just speaking for myself, there’s no way I’d buy debt issued by California if I couldn’t at least hedge some of that credit risk

Of course states complain that “betting on a default creates a perception of risk,” as if there wasn’t already a widespread perception of risk to investing in municipal debt of certain states.  The states also express concern that adverse movements in the price of CDS could impact their credit ratings, and hence their cost of borrowing.  Given the slow speed of which credit ratings moved on sub-prime mortgage debt, I am not sure that cities and states have much to worry about rating agencies being “too aggressive”.  If these states had even a small understanding of how markets work, they’d understand the rating is just one element that goes into pricing.  Witness the large spread in yields of similarly rated debt.  No rating, or credit default swap price for that matter, is going to fool investors into believing that many American local and state governments are just anything other than mini versions of Greece.