The Stockton City Council yesterday approved a petition for bankruptcy, the largest of a city in U.S. history. Municipalities all over the country are in fiscal distress, but few are actually declaring bankruptcy. What went so badly wrong in Stockton, and what lessons can other cities learn?
First, Stockton had a huge property bubble, with median home prices rising 200 percent between 2000 and 2006. This flooded the city’s coffers with property tax revenues. Assuming the trend would continue, officials signed employee contracts that proved unaffordable. The city even agreed to a “heads you win, tails we lose” pay structure tied to the city’s tax receipts: In strong revenue years, workers got 7 percent raises, but even if revenues declined, they got 2.5 percent raises.
Making matters worse, says the think tank, in 2007 Stockton issued $125 million in pension obligation bonds. As in other jurisdictions that tried to “fix” their pension problems with bonds in the last decade (see Woonsocket, Rhode Island), this backfired: The assets Stockton bought with the bond proceeds declined in value, and the city is stuck with both a pension liability and a bond liability. And that pension liability has been a major driver of the city’s insolvency.
And a national lesson: Nobody, anywhere, should ever issue pension obligation bonds! Let’s think for a moment about what these really are. They are commonly described as a way of exchanging a pension liability for a bond liability. But really, when a city issues pension obligation bonds, it gets a bond liability and keeps its pension liability -- plus it gains an asset that offsets the bond liability. Typically, the jurisdiction invests the bond proceeds in an equity-heavy portfolio, which may lose value, but the bond liability remains fixed.
If that sounds a lot like buying stock on margin to you, that’s because it is.