Wall Street Journal
The Hidden State Financial Crisis
My latest research into opaque state financial statements suggests taxpayers will be surprised by how much pensions are underfunded.
By MEREDITH WHITNEY
MAY 18, 2011
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Next month will be pivotal for most states, as it marks the fiscal year end and is when balanced budgets are due. The states have racked up over $1.8 trillion in taxpayer-supported obligations in large part by underfunding their pension and other post-employment benefits. Yet over the past three years, there still has been a cumulative excess of $400 billion in state budget shortfalls. States have already been forced to raise taxes and cut programs to bridge those gaps.
Next month will also mark the end of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act’s $480 billion in federal stimulus, which has subsidized states through the economic downturn. States have grown more dependent on federal subsidies, relying on them for almost 30% of their budgets.
The condition of state finances threatens the economic recovery. States employ over 19 million Americans, or 15% of the U.S. work force, and state spending accounts for 12% of U.S. gross domestic product. The process of reining in state finances will be painful for us all.
The rapid deterioration of state finances must be addressed immediately. Some dismiss these concerns, because they believe states will be able to grow their way out of these challenges. The reality is that while state revenues have improved, they have done so in part from tax hikes. However, state tax revenues still remain at roughly 2006 levels.
Expenses are near the highest they have ever been due to built-in annual cost escalators that have no correlation to revenue growth (or decline, as has been the case recently). Even as states have made deep cuts in some social programs, their fixed expenses of debt service and the actuarially recommended minimum pension and other retirement payments have skyrocketed. While over the past 10 years state and local government spending has grown by 65%, tax receipts have grown only by 32%.
Off balance sheet debt is the legal obligation of the state to its current and past employees in the form of pension and other retirement benefits. Today, off balance sheet debt totals over $1.3 trillion, as measured by current accounting standards, and it accounts for almost 75% of taxpayer-supported state debt obligations. Only recently have states been under pressure to disclose more information about these liabilities, because it is clear that their debt burdens are grossly understated.
Since January, some of my colleagues focused exclusively on finding the most up-to-date information on ballooning tax-supported state obligations. This meant going to each state and local government’s website for current data, which we found was truly opaque and without uniform standards.
What concerned us the most was the fact that fixed debt-service costs are increasingly crowding out state monies for essential services. For example, New Jersey’s ratio of total tax-supported state obligations to gross state product is over 30%, and the fixed costs to service those obligations eat up 16% of the total budget. Even these numbers are skewed, because they represent only the bare minimum paid into funding pension and retirement plans. We calculate that if New Jersey were to pay the actuarially recommended contribution, fixed costs would absorb 37% of the budget. New Jersey is not alone.
The real issue here is the enormous over-leveraging of taxpayer-supported obligations at a time when taxpayers are already paying more and receiving less. In the states most affected by skyrocketing debt and fiscal imbalances, social services continue to be cut the most. Taxpayers have the ultimate voting right—with their feet. Corporations are relocating, or at a minimum moving large portions of their businesses to more tax-friendly states.
Boeing is in the political cross-hairs as it is trying to set up a facility in the more business-friendly state of South Carolina, away from its current hub of Washington. California legislators recently went to Texas to learn best practices as a result of a rising tide of businesses that are building operations outside of their state. Over time, individuals will migrate to more tax-friendly states as well, and job seekers will follow corporations.
Fortunately, many governors are addressing their state’s structural deficits head on. Unfortunately, there is a lack of collective appreciation for how painful this process will be. Defaults in a variety of forms by states and municipalities are already happening and more are inevitable. Taxpayers have borne the initial brunt of these defaults by paying higher taxes in exchange for lower social services. And state and local government employees are having to renegotiate labor contracts that they once believed were sacrosanct.
Municipal bond holders will experience their own form of contract renegotiation in the form of debt restructurings at the local level. These are just the facts. The sooner we accept them, the sooner we can get state finances back on track, and a real U.S. economic recovery underway.
Ms. Whitney is CEO of Meredith Whitney Advisory Group LLC.