Photo by shellybychowskishots

“How did you go bankrupt?’” Bill asked.
“Two ways,” Mike said. “Gradually and then suddenly.”

– Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises

Chicago and Illinois are in dire financial straits as a result of decades of financial mismanagement. While not yet technically bankrupt, Chicago and Illinois are headed into a bankruptcy-like restructuring of their financial obligations at some point within ten years. I have formed this opinion without any inside knowledge of Chicago or Illinois politics. My view is based on math and an understanding of the power of compound interest.

What Happens to Chicago as it Approaches the End of the Road?

If you are a saver and an investor, the law of compound interest is a wondrous phenomenon. With compound interest, your net worth grows over time as you generate income on your invested capital which you can then reinvest to generate even more income.  It’s particularly important to save early in your life, so that time and the compound interest has more time to grow before your retirement.

If you are a significant debtor, as Chicago and Illinois are, the law of compound interest is a toxic force which can drive you into bankruptcy just as soon as its lenders stop providing the financing. Moreover, compound interest can be particularly toxic if a municipality mismanages their finances for decades, which Chicago and Illinois have, in my opinion.  With compound interest, debts and pension deficits compound over time until they eventually become unmanageable.

After many years, the debt level and pension obligations of Chicago and Illinois have already become so large that there is I don’t believe there’s any way out, short of a miracle (such as a Federal bailout).  Moreover, as time goes on, these liabilities will continue to compound and grow larger, making the cost of an ultimate resolution even larger for all stakeholders involved.

Brief Overview and Quantification of the Financial Problem for Illinois and Chicago

For Illinois, the state currently had $28 billion in general obligation (GO) bonds, $15 billion of unpaid bills, and, most importantly, an unfunded pension liability which grew to $133.5 billion on June 30, 2018. Governor Pritzker recently signed a budget law which is supposedly balanced, but the budget balances only by shortchanging Illinois pensioners by avoiding an actuarial $4.9 billion pension payment.

Illinois currently has a credit rating just above junk. Reflecting the decline in the financial position of the state, Illinois has been downgraded 21 times since 2009.  This makes it more difficult and more expensive for Illinois to issue debt.  Moreover, there’s an increasing risk that eventually the bond market will decide that Illinois isn’t worth financing at any price that the state can afford.

Unlike Illinois, Chicago’s bonds are already junk rated (Ba1) by Moody’s. Relatedly, the deep junk bonds of the Chicago Board of Education, are rated B2.  The pension systems of Chicago and the Chicago Public School system are also deeply underfunded, by $42 billion.

As a result of these increasingly costly obligations, a larger and larger share of the budget for both the state of Illinois and the city of Chicago are going towards pension payments.  For example, according to Illinois Policy Institute, Illinois pension expenses have risen from 4% of the budget in 1990 to 27% in 2018. This is why taxes are rising at the same time that services are declining.

Here is how the vicious cycle is currently working:

  1. Debts are rising exponentially.
  2. Pension underfunding levels are also increasing exponentially.
  3. Because of #1 and #2, interest payments and pension obligations are consuming a larger portion of state and city budgets.
  4. Because of #3, taxes and fees keep rising, while service levels keep declining.
  5. Because of #4, taxpayers are leaving the city and state, making the financial problems even worse.

It’s obviously not a pretty picture. It’s easy to blame current politicians for the current mess, but the truth is that everyone is doing their best to sort through a bleak and impossible-to-fix financial mess.

How Are You Going to be Affected by This?

The fiscal quagmires in Chicago and Illinois will cause significant problems for many people:

  • If you are a resident or business owner in Chicago or Illinois, this could affect your taxes and your property value. Services will also keep declining, which could mean fewer police officers and larger classroom sizes.
  • If you are a current or former employee of the city of Chicago or the state of Illinois, this could affect your job, your salary, and your pension.
  • If you are a municipal bond investor who bought Chicago and Illinois muni bonds due to the juicy yields they provide, this could affect your ability to get 100% of your principal back.
  • If you are a municipal bond insurer, you might have a significant financial obligation if Chicago or Illinois default on their bonds.
  • If you are one of the cities and states across the country with similar pension problems as Chicago, this could raise the interest rate that you have to pay for the bonds that your municipality issues.
  • If you are a S. policymaker, this could create financial instability that might hurt the fragile U.S. economy.

In short, this is a problem will directly or indirectly affect many people.

The comparison between Illinois and Greece is not an altogether bad one.  For both Illinois and Greece, financial insolvency is eroding civic life in both places.  In some ways, Greece is actually better positioned than Chicago, because Greece owns a couple of ports which are strategically located in the Mediterranean Sea and coveted by China.  Earlier this year, Greece recently sold the Port of Piraeus to China to raise much-needed funds.  Chicago has Navy Pier and Oak Street Beach, which are both great places, but China couldn’t care less about them.

A Framework for Interpreting Future Events as they Unfold

As the finances of Chicago and Illinois continue to worsen at an accelerating pace, it’s important to keep the following five ideas in mind:

#1: Illinois and Chicago policymakers will do their best to kick the can down the road to delay a reckoning.  Politicians do not want to see a bankruptcy on their watch.  Instead, they will continue to provide band-aids, hoping that they will be out of office by the time a default happens.  I don’t believe politicians ever choose to make unpopular decisions until outside forces force the issue, and all of the choices they currently face are unpopular ones.

#2: Two chances exist for a grand compromise fix: slim and none.  In the current partisan environment, Republicans will almost certainly avoid compromises that result in higher taxes, while Democrats will resist any compromises that cut spending.  Also, even if there is a grand compromise, the toxic force of compound interest is too large to stop at this point.

#3: The longer the wait, the worse it will be for all stakeholders in the end.  The delay until an eventual default is bad for almost all stakeholders involved except the political class.  With continued delay…

  • …the pension underfunding situation will worsen, harming pensioners who are counting on Chicago and Illinois to deliver on their promises.
  • …city and state services will continue to decline, which will affect the effectiveness of the schools, public safety, and the quality of life.
  • …more taxpayers will flee the state due to declining services and higher taxes.
  • …and the debt burden of Chicago and Illinois will worsen, as the city and state issue more bonds to push off the inevitable.

#4: There’s a reasonably good chance for a Federal bailout.  The Federal Reserve does not want to create financial instability because the U.S. economy is just too fragile to handle it.  To provide financial stability, the Federal Reserve has already provided capital to support or bail out banks, the housing market, stocks, bonds, and mortgage-backed securities during the past decade.  The municipal bond market is an enormous, $3.7 trillion market, and, according to Bloomberg, the municipal pension under funding situation nationwide is approaching $2 trillion. These figures are easily large enough to get the attention of Congress, the Federal Reserve, and President Trump.

#5: If a default occurs, expect a wealth transfer from creditors to debtors.  Investors in Chicago municipal bonds and Illinois municipal bonds, who are typically high net worth individuals in the highest income tax bracket, will see steep haircuts on their investment principal if a default occurs. Pensioners, which include middle-class retirees, many of whom used to be teachers, policemen, and firemen, should fare much better.

What is the Likely Catalyst for a Chicago Bankruptcy or an Illinois Bankruptcy?

As long as investors are willing to buy the municipal bonds issued by Chicago and Illinois, the dance will continue as the level of financial distress slowly worsens.  To use Hemingway’s terminology, Chicago and Illinois are still in the gradual phase of becoming bankrupt.

The sudden phase of bankruptcy, in all likelihood, occurs when one or more of the following occurs:

  • The economy enters another recession, which would have a detrimental impact on tax revenues.
  • The stock market declines significantly, which would blow a large hole in pension plans that are dependent on 7% annualized investment returns.
  • The bond market decides it doesn’t like risk anymore, which would make it difficult and prohibitively expensive for municipalities with a risky credit profile to issue more debt.

How Does this Affect Your Financial Situation?

I don’t know what your individual financial situation is, so it’s impossible for me to provide specific personalized financial advice.  However, I will provide make some general comments.

  1. If you are a resident of Chicago or a resident of Illinois, it would be prudent to prepare and budget for higher taxes in the future.
  2. If you are a municipal bond investor, you might want to consider investing in municipal bonds outside of Illinois where the risk/reward profile looks more attractive.
  3. If you are a current or prospective investor in Chicago real estate, you should prepare and budget for your property taxes to rise.

Have you factored the fiscal problems of Illinois and Chicago into your financial plan?  Please do not hesitate to reach out to us to discuss.

This information is prepared by Pekin Hardy Strauss, Inc. (Pekin Hardy) for informational purposes only and is not intended as an offer or solicitation for business.  The views expressed are those of the author as of the date of publication of this report, and are subject to change at any time due to changes in market or economic conditions. The information and data in this article does not constitute legal, tax, accounting, investment or other professional advice. Pekin Hardy cannot assure that the strategies discussed herein will outperform any other investment strategy in the future, there are no assurances that any predicted results will actually occur.