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商业 - 金融

梅勒迪斯•惠特尼:美国州级财政状况比预期更糟糕

Shawn Tully 2011年06月09日

此人直言不讳,看跌市政债券,如今她又拿出了更多证据,力证美国很多州的财政问题远比我们已被告知的情况更为严重。

    梅勒迪斯•惠特尼正在向共同基金、银行和政客们发出新的警告:美国州级财政状况远比你想象的糟糕,至少比你一直以来愿意告诉投资者和(最终要承担这一后果的)纳税人的情况要严重。在本周一致客户的一份新报告中,惠特尼搜集了迄今为止看来最详尽的州级预算和债务数据。

    她的结论是未来需要通过加税或大幅削减社会服务的方式来压缩的赤字规模远高于官方数据所示,而包含一切债务的总负债水平也远远超过官方估算。

    惠特尼去年底在《60分钟》(60 Minutes)节目中预测,未来五年将有数千亿美元的市政债券出现违约。这一颇有争议的预测遭到了来自各方的批评,其中尤以华尔街为甚;市政债券是华尔街的一大利润来源。

    如今,惠特尼在接受《财富》 (Fortune)采访时表示,她当时只想做一个大致的预测。“我从未试图准确预测违约规模,但我一直相信在整个周期中都将出现不同程度的市政债券违约。我当时是想指出,州级债务问题对于美国经济是一大负面因素,其重要性仅次于美国房地产市场。”

    不管你是否同意她的观点——她从评级机构等处得到的支持依然甚少——她给出的数据以及这些数据所呈现的风险确实令人生畏。

    惠特尼的最新报告甚至比去年引发这场争议的分析更为详尽。报告涵盖了全美25个最大的州,其中包括新增的亚利桑那州、内华达州、康涅狄格州和威斯康辛州等10个州。麻烦的源头在于支出。2003年以来,州级政府已将每年的支出预算从1.5万亿美元提高至近2.2万亿美元,增加了7,000亿美元,但税收收入仅增加不到4,000亿美元或3,000亿美元,仅为1.4万亿美元。事实上,在整个经济衰退期间,支出保持飙升,而2007年的销售税、所得税和营业税等税收收入却总体持平。

三大问题,无解决方案

    但46个州都有责任平衡每年预算。那么当税收收入存在36%的缺口时,它们将如何实现收支平衡呢?而且,在大幅加税变得越来越困难之际,这一缺口在持续扩大。州级政府的额外收入有三项来源。首先,联邦政府根据经济刺激方案或《美国复苏与再投资法案》(American Recovery and Reinvestment Act)大幅增加了对州政府的资助。2009年以来, 《美国复苏与再投资法案》拨款和合同达到了4,800亿美元,填补了总赤字的1/3还多。但最后一批经济刺激方案援助资金将于本月到期。

    即便联邦资助力度空前加大,州级政府的额外收入仍然需要依赖另外两大来源——但此类做法已越来越难复制。很多州都动用了政府应急资金。2010年州级政府动用此类现金达90亿美元,其中康涅狄格州用尽了全部14亿美元准备金,而宾夕法尼亚州则动用了7.55亿美元应急资金。

    第二,州级政府大幅增加了一般义务债券的发行,融资用途是企业所竭力避免的——即用长期债务偿付营运费用。这些债券无一例外,都以州税收收入为担保。2000年,州级政府发行了670亿美元的一般义务债券;去年发行额更是高达1,480亿美元。虽然惠特尼承认这类证券不太可能出现违约,但未来仍是一个巨大的负担。理由是,固定利率支出在州预算中的占比日益扩大,势必挤压其他支出占比。

    如今,偿债支出已占到内华达州预算的半数,占到密歇根州的40%。在亚利桑那州、加利福尼亚州、康涅狄格州、俄亥俄州和伊利诺伊州,这一比例现在也超过了20%。

    第三,也是最大的问题是养老金支出,不仅增加了当前的现金支出,也人为地低估了当前州级政府的应支出水平。即便设定养老金支出最低额度,它们仍然挤压了其他支出,因为养老金成本上升实在太快了。由此,未来的加税和缩减支出幅度必将远远高于宣称的数字。目前,各州的养老金都存在系统性缺口。如今,未来债务的覆盖率是77%,大大低于2000年时的103%。如果每年足额支付养老金成本,州级政府将需要每年增加支出超过7,000亿美元,占当前年支出额的40%多。

    而且这些数据还不包括未来的医保支出,该项支出列入一个鲜为人知的类别——其它离职后福利(Other Post Employment Benefits,简称OPEB)。大多数州级政府直接从收入中支付OPEB成本。大多数州都没有累积真正能获得收益的资金以支付未来的OPEB成本。新泽西州、纽约州、康涅狄格州和伊利诺伊州的OPEB债务都是即付式,完全没有资金储备。由于此类成本不可避免地膨胀,将给州级预算带来更大压力。

债务的巨大阴影

    惠特尼还呈现了一幅极为黯淡的州级债务前景。各州有两类债务完全由税收收入支撑。一是表内债务,二是表外债务。第一类是用于支付工资和当前费用的一般义务债券。这些都是投资者完全可以看到的。但更大的麻烦是表外养老金和OPEB债务投下的巨大阴影。事实上,2008年以前,州级政府甚至都无需公布OPEB数据,由于州级政府一般都大大高估退休基金未来的回报率,养老金数据被持续低报。

    正如惠特尼所示,这些表外数据难以置信地达到了所有表内总负债的三倍,总计2万亿美元。债务负担正在迅速增长;过去一年,养老金缺口扩大了50%。

    自然,有些州的财务状况要比其他州健康得多。惠特尼说,印第安纳州堪称“模范公民”,而加利福尼亚州和新泽西州由于税率太高,已经没有多少空间,也没有多少政治意愿来增加收入。由此出现了惠特尼所说的“州际套利”,即税负低、经营环境好的州(如德克萨斯和北卡罗来纳)从那些财政状况不佳的州吸引了大批企业和工人。危险在于,这种趋势仍在蔓延,从而可能形成恶性循环——由于税基萎缩,弱州进一步削弱;而强州却受益于审慎的财政政策。

    州际套利的危害可能会扩大第二类市政债券(即收入债券)的违约规模。惠特尼依然认为一般义务债券的风险甚小,州级政府根本不会违约。财政灾难论认为存在风险的是为补贴住房、收费公路、土地收购和养老院等具体项目提供资金的收入债券。这些债券由项目本身现金流支持,没有州级政府担保。因此一旦现金流不及利息支出所需,这些证券就面临重组——而持有这些债券的投资者将付出高昂代价。而且,如今收入债券的规模大大超越一般义务债券,总计2.7万亿美元,而后者仅为1.4万亿美元。

    惠特尼指出,福罗里达州已发行的市政债券90%是收入债券,很多与房地产相关。这些房地产相关证券是最脆弱的。只有时间能告诉我们,惠特尼在《60分钟》节目中所说的“数千亿美元”数据会不会成为现实。但她的报告显示,在投资者和政客们担心的所有问题中,州级财政的混乱状况是最危险、也最容易被忽视的因素之一。

    Meredith Whitney is issuing a fresh warning to mutual funds, banks, and politicians: The state of state finances is far worse than what you think, or at least than what you've been willing to tell the investors and taxpayers who will eventually carry the burden. In a new report released today to her clients, Whitney summons what appears to be the most comprehensive set of data ever assembled on state budgets and debt.

    Her conclusion is that the future deficits that need to be closed, either by new taxes or draconian cuts in social services, are far bigger than the official numbers show, and that debt levels, when all liabilities are counted, vastly exceed the official estimates.

    Late last year on 60 Minutes, Whitney predicted hundreds of billions in defaults on municipal bonds in the next five years. That controversial call was widely condemned, especially on Wall Street, where the muni market is an enormous profit spinner.

    Now, Whitney tells Fortune she never meant to make more than a general forecast. "I never intended on framing the scale of defaults as a precise estimate, but I continue to believe that degree of municipal defaults will be borne out over the cycle. I meant to point out that the state debt problem is a massive headwind for the U.S. economy, second in importance only to housing."

    Whether you agree with it or not -- and she's still getting little support from rating agencies or anywhere else -- the numbers she's assembled, and the risks they pose, are daunting.

    Whitney's latest report is even more thorough than last year's analysis that started the uproar. It covers 25 of the largest states, adding ten new ones to the list, including Arizona, Nevada, Connecticut, and Wisconsin. The problem starts with spending. Since 2003, state governments have raised annual outlays from $1.5 trillion to almost $2.2 trillion, or $700 billion, yet tax receipts have risen only $400 billion or $300 billion less, to $1.4 trillion. In fact, spending kept surging all during the recession, while income from sales, income and corporate taxes went totally flat in 2007.

Three big problems, no solution

    But 46 states are obligated to balance their budgets each year. So how are they bringing receipts in line with spending when taxes fall 36% short of revenue? And remember, this gap is growing despite big tax increases that are becoming more and more difficult. The states are getting that extra money from three sources. First, the federal government enormously increased aid to the states under the stimulus or American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Since 2009, the ARRA has delivered $480 billion in grants and contracts, padding over one-third of their combined deficits. But the last stimulus dollars expire this month.

    Even with a historic increase in federal assistance, the states have relied on two additional measures to plug the remainder of the shortfall -- measures that will be harder and harder to repeat. The states tapped "rainy day" funds or surpluses reserved for emergencies. Their governments used $9 billion of that cash in 2010, with Connecticut totally exhausting its $1.4 billion in reserves, and Pennsylvania tapping its emergency savings for $755 million.

    Second, the states have immensely increased their issuance of General Obligation bonds that fund what corporations strive to avoid -- paying operating expenses with long-term debt. Those securities are backed exclusively by state tax revenue. In 2000, the states issued $67 billion in GO securities; last year, they raised $148 billion from those bonds. While Whitney acknowledges that this class of securities is unlikely to see defaults, they still place a huge burden on the future. The reason: Fixed interest expenses are absorbing a bigger and bigger share of state budgets, leaving a shrinking portion for everything else.

    Today, debt service absorbs half of Nevada's budget, and 40% of Michigan's. In Arizona, California, Connecticut, Ohio and Illinois, the share now exceeds 20%.

    The third and biggest problem, pension costs, both increases current cash expenses and artificially understates what the states should be spending today. Even by putting the minimum into their pension funds, they're still crowding out spending for everything else because the costs are rising so fast. Hence, it ensures that future tax increases and spending cuts will be far greater than advertised. The states are systematically underfunding their pensions. Today, they cover 77% of their future liabilities versus 103% in 2000. If they fully paid their annual pension costs, the states would need to increase spending by over $700 billion a year, or over 40% of their current outlays.

    And those figures don't include future spending on health care costs, falling into a little-known category called OPEB or Other Post Employment Benefits. Most states simply pay these OPEB costs directly from revenues. No actual income-generating funds, accumulated for the future, back them in most states. New Jersey, New York, Connecticut and Illinois are all pay-as-you go states with totally unfunded OPEB liabilities. As those costs inevitably swell, they will apply even more pressure to state budgets.

Giant shadow of debt

    Whitney also presents a startlingly bleak picture of state debt. States have two types of liabilities that are fully backed by tax revenues. One is on-balance sheet, and the other is excluded from the states' books. The first type is the General Obligation bonds that fund salaries and current expenses. Those are fully visible to investors. But the bigger problem is the giant shadow cast by the pension and OPEB liabilities that are absent from balance sheets. In fact, states weren't even required to report the OPEB number at all until 2008, and the pension figure is consistently understated because states generally far overestimate future returns on their retirement funds.

    As Whitney shows, these off-balance sheet numbers are an incredible three times the size of all on-balance sheet debt, totaling $2 trillion. The load is rising quickly; the unfunded pension burden has jumped 50% in the past year.

    Naturally, some states are far healthier than others. Indiana, says Whitney, is a "model citizen," while California and New Jersey already face such high tax rates that they have little room, or political will, to raise more revenue. The danger is a continuation of what's already happening, what Whitney calls "state arbitrage," in which the low-tax, business friendly venues such as Texas and North Carolina keep drawing companies and workers from the fiscally-challenged states. That could cause a vicious cycle where the weak get even weaker as their tax bases erode, and the strong reap the rewards from fiscal prudence.

    The damage from state arbitrage could increase the scale of defaults in the second type of municipal securities: Revenue Bonds. Once again, Whitney sees little threat to General Obligation bonds because states simply won't default. What the fiscal calamity calls in doubt is Revenue Bonds that back specific projects such as subsidized housing, toll roads, land acquisitions, and nursing homes. Those bonds are supported by the cash flows from the projects themselves, and they aren't guaranteed by the state governments. So if the cash flows fall short of the interest payments, they need to be restructured -- at a big cost to the investors who own them. And the revenue bonds now dwarf general bonds in total volume, totaling $2.7 trillion, versus $1.4 billion for the GOs.

    Whitney points out that Florida has issued 90% of its municipal offerings in revenue bonds, many tied to real estate. Those real estate-related securities are the most vulnerable. Only time will tell if the "hundreds of billions" figure Whitney ventured on 60 Minutes will materialize. But her report shows that of all the problems investor and politicians are worried about, the mess in state finances is one of the most dangerous, and certainly the most overlooked.

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