Pension Obligation Bonds Help Some Governments But Hurt Many More, Says New Report

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New Jersey, Illinois, and California.

Those are the states that, more than any others, have frequently scrambled to pay down their pension obligations by issuing a financial tool called Pension Obligation Bonds (POBs). Over the last three decades, those three states have issued a total of $25 billion worth of POBs in an attempt to ease the heavy burden of their pension systems’ on state finances.

But what are POBs, and do they work as advertised? A new report from the Center for Retirement Research sheds light on that question and suggests that POBs may not be beneficial, after all. But first, what exactly is a POB? From Governing:

The tool, called Pension Obligation Bonds (commonly referred to as POBs), allows governments to issue taxable bonds for the purposes of putting money toward or fully paying off the unfunded portion of a pension liability. The proceeds from the bond issue go in the pension fund. The theory is that the rate of return on the investment will be greater than the interest rate the government pays to bond investors so that the transaction is favorable to the government; it makes money off the deal.

The concept is simple enough. And, in theory, it’s pretty clever. But in practice? Well, let’s just say timing is key. And many state and local governments have failed to get the timing right. It has cost them dearly, as Liz Farmer summarizes:

The report noted that the governments more likely to issue POBs are ones that have pension plans that represent “substantial obligations.” The governments have large outstanding debt and are short of cash. However, rather than necessarily relieving such governments of financial pressures, the bonds actually create a more rigid financial environment. Issuing bond debt to pay off a long-term obligation like a pension liability turns a somewhat flexible pension obligation into a hard and fast annual debt payment. Thus, “governments that have issued a POB have reduced their financial flexibility,” the study says.

POBs’ net returns (what the investment has earns after making bond payments) has varied, depending on when the bonds were issued. According to the center’s research, the net rate of return has averaged in the low, single digits for most years (the 30-year average is 1.5 percent). Governments that issued Pension Obligation Bonds in 1998, 1999, 2000 and 2007 actually lost money on their investment. Detroit, for example, issued debt at the peak of the market in the mid-2000s to fund its pension plan and did so using a complicated interest rate swap deal. The result was that the deal went the wrong way for the city. Detroit was still on the hook to pay bondholders and though its pension was well funded, it had even less day-to-day cash to meet its financial obligations. That debt played a key role in Detroit’s decision to file for bankruptcy last July.

Illinois, New Jersey, Detroit—that’s not the kind of company you want to keep if you are a local government trying to curb the burden of pension obligations. Though, the reputation of POBs may not be completely deserved. After all, just because struggling governments use them unwisely doesn’t mean POBs aren’t an effective tool when used the right way.

Although examples are hard to come by, POBs can be used effectively. In 2002 and 2003, Winnebago County and Sheboygan County in Wisconsin issued POBs to the tune of $7 million. They paid a 3 percent interest on that debt, but earned 20 percent returns on investments made with the borrowed money. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always work that way.

You can read the CRR’s full report on POBs here.

 

Photo by Miran Rijavec Stan Dalone via Flickr CC License

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One Response to “Pension Obligation Bonds Help Some Governments But Hurt Many More, Says New Report”

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