Detroit’s Real Crisis: Interest Rate Swaps

Detroit is suffering from a massive debt of $18 billion, forcing hard decisions about how to pay the debt. Selling off its public art is one option. Massively slashing its pensions for public workers is another, albeit cruel, option. The problem is that the $18 billion figure is, to use a highly technical term, bullshit (boldface mine):

In a corporate bankruptcy, the judge takes stock of a company’s total assets and liabilities because the company can be liquidated and all its assets sold to pay down its debts. However, municipal bankruptcies are inherently different because they do not contemplate the liquidation of a city. Municipal bankruptcies are about cash flow—a city’s ability to match revenue against expenses so that it can pay its bills. Under Chapter 9 of the United States Bankruptcy Code, a municipality is eligible to file bankruptcy when it is unable to pay its debts as they come due.

This means that Detroit is bankrupt not because of its outstanding debt, but because it is no longer bringing in enough revenue to cover its immediate expenses. According to the city’s bankruptcy filing, the emergency manager projects a $198 million annual cash flow shortfall for fiscal year (FY) 2014 (though, as explained below, the portion of this amount that is related to pension fund contributions is an estimate that requires deeper analysis). To get out of bankruptcy, the city needs to address this annual shortfall—whether it is $198 million or a smaller number—not its total outstanding long-term debt.

Well, that’s interesting. Operating expenses have already been cut by 38 percent from 2008 levels (a total decrease of $418 million). What about those moocher retirees with their damn healthcare and pensions? Well:

The city’s pension contributions in particular did not play a role in pushing it into bankruptcy because they did not contribute materially to the increase in the city’s legacy expenses that added to the cash flow shortfall. While the city’s healthcare contributions did increase, this was largely because of rising healthcare costs nationally, not because the city’s benefits were too generous. In fact, a comparative analysis of Detroit’s retiree benefits shows that its pension and healthcare benefits are in line with those of other comparable cities.

If it’s not greedy geezers, then who could it be? Blah people? Nope (boldface mine):

The biggest contributing factor to the increase in Detroit’s legacy expenses is a series of complex deals it entered into in 2005 and 2006 to assume $1.6 billion in debt. Instead of issuing plain vanilla general obligation bonds, the city financed the debt using certificates of participation (COPs), which is a financial structure that municipalities often use to get around debt restrictions. Eight hundred million dollars of these COPs carried a variable interest rate, which the city synthetically converted to a fixed rate using interest rate swaps.

These swaps carried hidden risks, and these risks increased after the Federal Reserve drove down interest rates to near zero in response to the financial crisis. The deals included provisions that would allow the banks to terminate the swaps under specified conditions and collect termination payments, which would entitle the banks to immediate payment of all projected future value of the swaps to the bank counterparties. Such conditions included a credit rating downgrade of the city to a level below “investment grade,” appointment of an emergency manager to run the city and failure of the city to make timely payments. Projected future value balloons in low, short-term rate conditions. This is because the difference between the fixed swap payments made by the city and the floating swap payments projected to be paid by the banks increases. Because all of these events have occurred, the banks are now demanding upwards of $250-350 million in swap termination payments.

These swap deals were particularly ill-suited for a city like Detroit, which had been hovering on the edge of a credit rating downgrade for years. Because the risk of a credit downgrade below “investment grade” was so great, the likelihood of a termination was imprudently high. The banks and insurance companies were in a far better position to understand the magnitude of these risks and they had at least an ethical duty to forbear from providing the swaps under such precarious circumstances. The law recognizes special duties that sophisticated financial institutions owe to special entities like cities in providing complex financial products. A strong case can be made that the banks that sold these swaps may have breached their ethical, and possibly legal, obligations to the city in executing these deals.

Interest rate swaps? You mean the same chicanery that, in Massachusetts, led the MBTA to propose hiking fares for disabled people (the RIDE) in order to pay the fees on those same swaps? Inconceivable.

Instead of making it possible to gut the workers’ pension, just wipe out the interest rate swaps:

The emergency manager’s plan to pay the swap termination fees outside of the bankruptcy process should be abandoned. The bank counterparties should be made to bear the consequences of the original swap transaction, and they should be pushed to forego their projected profit (the measure of the termination payment), given the large profits they have already earned as a result of the unusually low interest rates that resulted from the financial crash. The emergency manager should also press for prorated rebates on the premiums for insurance on the swaps. And, if necessary, the state should be enlisted to guarantee the city’s swaps to avoid payment of termination fees. The termination fees will become smaller as interest rates rise over time, which they are likely to do.

Never happen, though it should.

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