What is CA’s bankruptcy-pension end game?

What is CA’s bankruptcy-pension end game?

Gray Davis - wikipediaApril 5, 2013

By Wayne Lusvardi

In his absurdist play, “Endgame,” about a chess game where there are few pieces left on the board, Irish playwright Samuel Beckett wrote: “The end is in the beginning and yet you go on.”

And so it may be with the City of Stockton’s — and California’s — absurd public pension and municipal bankruptcy endgame.  The beginning will cast the mold for the end.

It’s only a few days after the ruling by Christopher Klein, the U.S. bankruptcy judge, allowing the Stockton bankruptcy to proceed. So it’s difficult to tell what California’s public pension and municipal bankruptcy end game might look like.  But what does California history tell us?  We may be able to tell something about the future in the legacy of former Gov. Gray Davis and how the California Electricity Crisis of 2000-01 ended up.

The Wall Street Journal says that bond investors will take a loss.  Walter Russell Mead writes that pensions are also likely to be cut. Steven Greenhut sees that “pensions will be protected above all else.” Who knows what will happen?

According to Klein, the “day of reckoning” for the bankrupt City of Stockton will come on the “day of plan confirmation.”

Many are predicting that cities allowed to leave lucrative pension plans untouched — and bondholders wiped out — will face either no credit or ultra-high bond interest rates.  But the bankrupt cities may not care that much.  Here’s plausibly why.

Bigger bond pool on the horizon?

Financially distressed California cities may be hoping that the initial bankruptcy court “day of plan confirmation” in Stockton will leave pension obligations untouched. They may be counting on the state eventually creating a statewide borrowing entity to provide debt financing for public works projects for bankrupt cities.  Instead of the “full faith and credit” of each city, the credit rating of the state would back these bonds.

If California should create a bigger bond pool to aid distressed cities, the federal government also might be pressured to create similar bond pools for struggling states to continue to borrow in the bond markets.

In California, this is likely to mean that wealthier suburbs with good credit ratings are more likely to end up paying higher bond interest rates partly to pay for the unmet pension gap in struggling California cities.  This might be called indirect tax sharing.  Or in this case it might result in a premium on all California cities’ bond interest rates.

By analogy, the solution to your family’s unpayable credit card debt would be raising interest rates on the credit cards of those with good credit reatings.

Gray Davis’ legacy

Something like this happened with the California Electricity Crisis of 2000-01, after Gov. Gray Davis botched the management of the crisis just two years after he signed the pension-spiking bills that now are leading to the municipal bankruptcies. Although Davis’ recall was followed by the disastrous Schwarzenegger administration, it’s worth remembering that voters had good reason to give Gray the boot.

The electricity crisis ended up with Gray Davis panicking and signing long-term contracts at the height of market prices for energy. The state then imposed electricity rate premiums on customers to pay for 58 long-term power contracts totaling $42 billion to essentially amortize the losses from that crisis over some 15 years.

In recent years, California Democratic legislators have been eager to create regional governments to supplant Red-controlled cities and counties.  Proposition 31, which would have created unelected regional Strategic Action Councils to overrule local government, was defeated at the polls last November.  Prop. 31 would have authorized the governor to intervene in the event of a “fiscal emergency” to create such regionalized government entities.

The bond market may take losses now in bankruptcy court only to see bond interest rate premiums paid to bond investors in the future.  This may be why bond insurance companies refused to negotiate with Stockton “in good faith,” according to Judge Klein.

In other words, the end game may be that the cost of bloated city public pension plans will be socialized to all cities in the state through higher bond interest rates.   Should this result, wealthier coastal suburbs might end up disproportionately picking up the tabs for distressed cities.

History repeats

If history repeats itself, look for there to be some mild, mostly symbolic reductions in pension benefits, but with the remaining unmet pension gap to be reflected in higher long-term bond interest rates.

Back in 2010, bond expert Meredith Whitney predicted a wave of municipal bond defaults.  What she could not have foreseen was that, in the moves of a grand chess master, the bond market might end up with losses today for higher interest rates tomorrow.

In Samuel Beckett’s play, one of the characters asks another with a telescope what can he tell of the future from what is on the horizon of the sea.  The lead waves don’t signal much and the sinking sun looks like nothing but a big zero.  Instead of the black of night coming, all that the man with the telescope can see is, as he exclaims, “Gray…Gray!…GRRAY!!”

Look for California’s pension and municipal banking crises to end up with a very Gray outcome for California’s future.


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  1. The Africanized Swarm of Ted Steele System
    The Africanized Swarm of Ted Steele System 5 April, 2013, 08:27


    Fun speculation.

    One thing for certain is that because of passed pension reform, things look good for the future. In the mean time the econ will return and life rolls on. The end? R

    Reply this comment
  2. The Africanized Swarm of Ted Steele System
    The Africanized Swarm of Ted Steele System 5 April, 2013, 08:28

    Remember, Beckett’s vision of the future improved after he turned the telescope back the correct way.

    Reply this comment
  3. fish
    fish 5 April, 2013, 08:59

    Teddy…your looting continues! l o l!

    Reply this comment
  4. SkippingDog
    SkippingDog 5 April, 2013, 09:52

    Excellent observation, Ted. I love Beckett.

    Reply this comment
  5. The Africanized Swarm of Ted Steele System
    The Africanized Swarm of Ted Steele System 5 April, 2013, 17:31

    Thx Skipper

    Fishy— Who did I loot? I worked 22 years or so for a company I founded? Hmmmm—- I never thought of that as looting. Or do you mean the 10 years I worked for the State in the 60’s? Are you high……….again?

    Reply this comment
  6. sean morham
    sean morham 5 April, 2013, 20:53

    Wair for 2014. The results of the currency conflicts will converge. See Japan this week …to double money in circulation over couple years, This will not end well, . California’s poor will be eating (for food)the wealthier, yes that will include retired public servants and their spawn. Pensions won t mean much when the SNAP folks are munching on your grandchildren. Bank on it………………..

    Reply this comment
  7. fish
    fish 6 April, 2013, 08:41


    Reply this comment
  8. The Africanized Swarm of Ted Steele System
    The Africanized Swarm of Ted Steele System 6 April, 2013, 08:46

    Yes Fishy! LOL OMG!

    Reply this comment
  9. Ulysses Uhaul
    Ulysses Uhaul 6 April, 2013, 10:53

    Spending is good…saving is bad. Look at cd rates. Buy now before inflation finishes you off!

    Reply this comment
  10. The Africanized Swarm of Ted Steele System
    The Africanized Swarm of Ted Steele System 6 April, 2013, 11:18

    Uly is right!And PLEASE don’t forget to——–wait for it——–Pack n Ship! ™

    Reply this comment
  11. fish
    fish 6 April, 2013, 18:04

    The Africanized Swarm of Colossal Business Titans Ted Steele Systema Soviet Fighting Method should know that glossing your posts with your other handle is really poor posting form!


    Do you and..Ulysses talk to each other? When did you first hear Ulysses? Were you in your teens? Does medication make the voices seem less urgent? Does consumption of tobacco help you with the voices…er I mean Ulysses?

    lol…..LOL-lol… lol! Teddy LOL!

    Reply this comment
  12. Ulysses Uhaul
    Ulysses Uhaul 7 April, 2013, 08:45

    Queeg and I are too busy moving doomer’s to respond today.

    Reply this comment
  13. fish
    fish 7 April, 2013, 09:55

    Queeg and I are too busy moving doomer’s to respond today.

    Doin the lords work Ulysses…..err I mean Teddy. The right hand needs to know what the left is doing huh “guys”!

    Reply this comment
  14. The Africanized Swarm of Ted Steele System
    The Africanized Swarm of Ted Steele System 7 April, 2013, 16:08

    Poor “lol” Fish— Not too much to say.

    First he loathes me because he thinks I am a gov employee….then he abhors me because I once owned a business!

    Poor Poor Fish…….. it’s ok little buddy! Don’t let your fellow doomers get you down– rage against the dying of the light!

    Reply this comment
  15. Ulysses Uhaul
    Ulysses Uhaul 7 April, 2013, 21:32

    Teddy go easy on these Walmart Cammie pants wearing types….true and complete happiness comes each and every day helping them Pack and Ship!

    Reply this comment

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