The See-Saw of Municipal Fiscal Solvency

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eBlog, 12/27/16

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the remarkable turnaround in fiscal fortunes in Detroit—a city unbailed out by the federal government, but now, as Detroit News editorial writer Daniel Howes writes, is “perceptively changing,” albeit, interestingly in light of the President-elect’s choice to be the new Secretary of Education, the state of Detroit’s public schools “burdens an already difficult financial picture.” Then we turn to the challenge of trying (in the frigid Winter no less!) to describe fiscal contagion from the insolvent East Cleveland, before finally trying to escape the cold by journeying south to Puerto Rico to explore the worsening demographic trends and their implications for the changing administrations both in Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico.

Winnerville? Daniel Howes, an editor for the Detroit News, in his editorial “Loserville,” wrote that two years “after Detroit emerged from the largest municipal bankruptcy in the nation’s history, the city America gave up for dead is showing that it is anything but,” writing that vacant space downtown is “is growing increasingly hard to find,” a stark contrast from the city’s first day of municipal bankruptcy when I was specifically warned not to walk from my downtown hotel to the Governor’s Detroit offices to meet Kevyn Orr, the then newly named Emergency Manager. Thus, Mr. Howes writes:

He tempered his column by noting that violent crime continues to be an issue in parts of the city—and that neighborhood revitalization “lags the pace set by downtown,” adding that the “exodus from Detroit Public Schools burdens an already difficult financial picture,” albeit writing that Detroit’s makeover is “a process, not a destination with guaranteed arrival,” indeed, comparing it the comparable (and related) comeback of the auto industry—albeit with the profound difference that the latter was bailed out—something Detroit was not, noting: “Detroit’s automakers, effectively a ward of the federal government at the outset of the Obama administration, are closing an eight-year span their leaders used to re-engineer companies that tottered on the edge of collapse on Election Day 2008…Eight years later, at least two of Detroit’s three automakers — as well as many of its suppliers—are emerging as players to be reckoned with in both the traditional car and truck business as well as the emerging mobility space. Loserville? Hardly…The creation of the American Center for Mobility at Willow Run and the Michigan Legislature’s move to enact the most far-reaching autonomous-vehicle laws in the country underscore the state’s bid to become the nation’s epicenter of mobility development and testing.”

Loserville? Fiscal Contagion? Just as the flu can be contagious, so too municipal fiscal distress does not necessarily stop at municipal borders. So it is that a growing number of residents of Forest Hill, a twenty-five acre historic neighborhood spanning parts of Cleveland Heights and East Cleveland, Ohio, founded by John D. Rockefeller and a seeming stark contrast from the virtually bankrupt East Cleveland, are upset by the increasing number of long-abandoned homes in both municipalities: assessed property values are tanking, and there is increasing apprehension at the seeming inability of the municipality to provide even basic services. There is also a sense that East Cleveland’s possible merger with Cleveland will not happen soon enough (if ever) to help Forest Hill’s issues: incorporating as a village would take cooperation from both cities, several voter elections, and the approval of Cuyahoga County. Similarly, there are no answers to the questions of where tax dollars would come from to hire police, firefighters, and provide basic, essential public services. Ironically, the neighborhood hosts municipally influential citizens—or at least formerly so, including East Cleveland’s recalled Mayor Gary Norton, the city’s new mayor Cheryl Stephens, and former Mayor Ed Kelley. The silence of the State of Ohio must weigh heavily on their hopes for the New Year.

Unfeliz Navidad? Puerto Rican demographer Raul Figueroa released information this morning that if the current demographic trends in the U.S. territory continue, by 2020, citizens older than 60 will—for the first time ever—surpass the number of those under 18, writing that between July of 2015 and July of this year, some 60,000 island residents had departed—and that this year marked the first in which the number of deaths exceeded the number of births. He noted increasing apprehensions of an increasing schism for the young generation—whose most productive members have “established themselves outside of the U.S. territory” and are forming families there, while their counterparts who have stayed behind are, increasingly, becoming caught up in criminal activities. Thus, he wrote, “Only a significant reduction in emigration or increase in immigration could reverse this demographic trend…it will be necessary to search for a strategy to permit and facilitate strategies to create employment opportunities.” Indeed, island economists like Elías Gutiérrez and José Alameda have expressed apprehension that the island is converting into a “gueto” of the poor and aged, likening it to a “Greek tragedy.” Mr. Gutiérrez added that the middle class has receded on “every front.” He noted, too, that the increasing demographic imbalance will increase the public pension imbalance: as the young flee, fewer will be paying in, while the number of retirees will continue to grow.

The demographic pressures on the island’s fiscal challenges come as soon-to-depart Puerto Rico Gov. Alejandro García Padilla released more pessimistic figures for the next decade—as he cast increasing doubt with regard to the viability of a negotiated debt solution—explaining that his updated projection of Puerto Rico’s financial shortfall over the next decade would be $8.8 billion worse than its forecast of just two months ago, when he had submitted a 10-year fiscal plan to the PROMESA Puerto Rico Oversight Board—a plan in which the government had projected that if the government stayed on its then current fiscal course—its so-called “Baseline”—it would be short some $58.7 billion, that is, in an ever accelerating state of debt. Moreover, in a revision released yesterday, that figure had increased by nearly $10 billion to $67.5 billion—the deficit reduction target the outgoing administration estimated it would have to achieve in reductions to achieve a balanced budget by 2026. That is, the debt situation has reached such an extreme that even were all its $35 billion in debt service to be magically eliminated, the island would still be overburdened with debt.

The newly released baseline also uncovers a related fiscal challenge which the new one does: what are the fiscal implications on Puerto Rico’s economy? The government’s new baseline projects government spending cuts would lead to a more negative nominal gross national product trajectory over the next decade, with the nominal, annual GNP shrinking by 1.03 percent instead of the previously projected growth from the October plan—even as the revised assumptions about economic growth and inflation added some $3.4 billion to the new baseline compared to the October baseline. The tab? The revised projections over the next decade project $232 billion in government spending, but only $165 billion in revenue—with the difference to be bridged by unspecified budget cuts.

The revised projections come as the PROMESA Oversight Board has commenced its discussions with creditors as part of its mission, similar to a chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, to achieve a negotiated and consensual debt cut under Title VI of the new PROMESA law. But, to Gov. Padilla, the increasingly deteriorating fiscal and economic projections over the next decade mean that “that a comprehensive restructuring under Title III (the debt restructuring title) of PROMESA is inevitable.” Yet this all comes in the midst of changing administrations in Washington, D.C. and against an encroaching deadline: under the new federal law, creditors’ rights to sue have only been suspended until the middle of February. Ergo, Gov. Padilla’s office notes: “If Puerto Rico does not seek Title III protection before the termination of the claims on February 15, 2017, the government will run out of money and essential services will be severely affected.”