Category Archives: Finance

A Free Market Alternative to Payday Lenders

sasha_orloffby James A. Bacon

Most everyone recognizes that payday lenders create a poverty trap for poor and working class Virginians. While the lenders do provide a valuable service by extending short-term loans for emergency situations, the annualized interest rates are extremely high, and borrowers often find themselves rolling over their loans from month to month at considerable expense. On the other hand, half the U.S. population has a FICO score below 680, meaning they can’t be approved for credit by most banks. Say what you will about payday lenders, they aren’t as bad as Vito the Loan Shark. Even payday lenders don’t break borrowers’ kneecaps when they fall behind on their payments.

That’s why I have always opposed legislated restrictions on the lending of payday lenders. Taking away poor peoples’ only credit alternative, as unpalatable as it may be, may satiate the outrage felt by crusading social reformers, but it doesn’t actually do the poor people any favors. If the social reformers want to help, I have long suggested, perhaps they should get into the business themselves and provide a better deal.

Well, it appears that someone is doing just that.  LendUp, a lending institution backed by Silicon Valley money, has introduced a new approach to extending credit to the poor. The company came to my attention because it is opening an East Coast office in Chesterfield County to serve Eastern and Central time zones. The description provided by the Richmond Times-Dispatch article and the company website shows how the combination of innovation and competition is the best social reform one could ask for.

“We started LendUp because the traditional banking system wasn’t working for more than half of Americans and the payday market was fraught with abusive practices,” LendUp CEO and co-founder Sasha Orloff said in a statement. The RTD explains how the company works:

The company provides short-term loans to consumers with low credit scores through its LendUp Ladder product….

The process is handled entirely online — not at a store like most payday lenders operate — and decisions are usually made within five minutes, the company said on its website. If approved, consumers could have money in their account in about 15 minutes.

The company offers a single payment loan of between $100 and $250 that has to be repaid in seven to 30 days. It also offers an installment loan of between $260 and $500 that requires two payments and a credit check.

Annualized interest rates still can amount to 250%. LendUp offers the same justification as payday lenders: “Some customers do not pay us back and, like insurance, the interest covers what we lose.”

The difference is that LendUp allows borrowers to earn points to get larger loans at lower interest rates over time by making on-time payments, taking free financial education courses and referring friends to LendUp. The business model is built upon improving borrowers’ financial literacy, helping them build their credit scores, and ultimately charging them lower rates.

Ironically, although LendUp is locating its East Coast office in Virginia, the Old Dominion is not one of the states listed on the company’s website where the service is offered. The RTD article offered no explanation why that would be. Perhaps the company has more regulatory hoops to jump through here. If the social reformers want to accomplish some good, perhaps they could lend LendUp a hand.

Stick It to the Hedge Fund Managers!

VRS_management_fees2
by James A. Bacon

One of the voices urging reform of the Virginia Retirement System (VRS) is a semi-retired University of Virginia economics professor, Edwin T. Burton III, who served 18 years on the board. He argues that the VRS pays too much in management fees to outside investment firms that pursue labor-intensive strategies and should rely on low-overhead funds that index stock and bond markets.

In fiscal 2016, the VRS generated a 1.9% return but lagged the 3.99% return on the S&P 500. The year before, the VRS generated a 4.7% return compared to a 7.4% return for the S&P. “We haven’t come close” to the 7% rate of return assumed by the VRS in reaching its calculation of $22.6 billion in unfunded liabilities, he told Michael Martz with the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

Getting a higher rate of return is the best way to boost the financial health of the state retirement fund. Of course, that’s easier said than done. Everyone would like to boost returns on their financial investments, but very few investment managers have outperformed the market consistently. While pension funds can tinker with their portfolios, shifting funds between stocks, bonds, real estate, private equity and hedge funds, often chasing yesterday’s hot categories, they can’t control their returns. But they can control how much they pay outsiders to generate those returns.

As it happens, the VRS paid $362 million in management fees in 2015, according to its 2015 Comprehensive Annual Financial Report. (The 2016 report is not yet online.) That sum is divvied up between ten major investment categories such as U.S. and foreign equities, fixed-income, real estate, hedge funds and other alternative investments.

Hedge fund managers stick out like a sore thumb — they collected $87 million in management fees. Hedge funds delivered outstanding returns for many years, which justified their sky-high management fees, but they have stubbed their toes in recent years. With some 10,000 funds playing in the sandbox, typically betting on movements of currencies and commodities, competition has squeezed industry profit margins to nothing. After years of sub-par returns, there is no justification for the overly generous fee structure.

VRS also paid exceptionally high fees to “alternative investment” managers and for its “strategic opportunities portfolio.” Taxpayers might wonder if those fees are worth the returns they generate.

Remarkably, the VRS staff, which manages one third of the portfolio, cost one-tenth that of the hedge-fund and alternative-investment managers.  If the entire portfolio were managed that efficiently, management fees would have cost only $81 million in 2015 — a savings of about $280 million! Over the years, that could amount to billions of dollars.

So, why don’t we fire the hedge fund managers?

It gets complicated. First of all, you don’t mind paying higher fees to managers who outperform the market averages. Unfortunately, the VRS annual report doesn’t tell us the performance of its individual funds, and even its discussion of investment categories (stocks, fixed-income, hedge funds) doesn’t match up with the categories listed in its table of management fees. So, there’s no way the public can tell if the management-fee differentials are worth it or not.

Second, you shouldn’t judge a fund manager based on one year’s performance. Even the best can have a bad  year. What most interests me is the internal VRS performance. Does its track record over the years equal that of other fund managers? If so, why we paying the other fund managers?

Third, there is a benefit to diversifying a portfolio. The idea is to limit exposure to wide swings in any single investment category. Strong performance in one category offsets weak performance in another. A pension portfolio that invested only in stocks and bonds would be distressingly volatile.

Still, Professor Burton has a point. The VRS may be paying way more than it needs to. Saving $280 million a year won’t bail out a pension fund with $22.6 billion in unfunded liabilities (probably an optimistic assessment), but it sure would help, creating less pain for Virginia’s public-employee pensioners and taxpayers. The idea is definitely worth a closer look.

Digging into Rate-of-Return Assumptions

vrs_portfolio

by James A. Bacon

House Speaker William J. Howell is rightfully concerned about the long-term health of the Virginia Retirement System. The pension system’s own actuary estimated a year ago that the $68 billion retirement system has unfunded liabilities of $22.6 billion.

On Sunday, the Richmond Times-Dispatch’s Michael Martz described the debate over restructuring the VRS from a defined-benefits system to a defined-contribution system. Today, Martz reports how Howell is questioning the outsized fees paid to outside fund managers, who handle two-thirds of the system’s assets.

“My biggest concern is the unfunded liability and the fact that it’s just going to grow,” Howell said.

Howell has every reason to be concerned. Unfunded liabilities might turn out to be far bigger than the actuary’s estimate. As I have observed many times, the liability is based upon an assumed 7% annual rate of return on the $68 billion portfolio. If the system under-performs expectations, as the VRS has done the past two years, the unfunded liability can grow by tens of billions of dollars. Writes Martz:

For Howell and other lawmakers on the [Virginia Commission on Retirement Security & Pension Reform], however, the retirement system’s recent investment performance has raised questions about whether the 7% assumed rate of return is too optimistic for the longer term, especially with interest rates keeping bond yields low for the foreseeable future. …

The 7 percent return, lowered by the VRS board from 7.5 percent in 2010 is among the lowest in the country for public pension funds, said Katie Selenski, state policy director for the Pew retirement initiative. “At 7 percent, you’re in a good, prudent position.”

Prudent? Not really. The pie chart above shows VRS’s portfolio allocation. Some 17.6% consists of fixed income assets. Barring some bizarre experiment with negative interest rates in the U.S., there is no way in a zero interest-rate environment that these assets can generate a 7% return. Another 39.8% of the portfolio consists of equities. Insofar as the bull market in stocks over the past 30 years has been driven by lower interest rates and an expansion of earnings multiples, there is no way to replicate the stock gains of the past ten years. Indeed, earnings and earnings quality of stocks are deteriorating, not a good sign for near-term price performance. Meanwhile, the performance of hedge funds nationally has been dismal of late. There is no rabbit to pull out of the magic hat of alternative investments.

For another view on the outlook for long-term portfolio performance, it is instructive to turn to the University of Virginia, which, whatever one might say about the Board of Visitors’ strategic priorities, one must credit with doing an excellent job of managing its endowment. The 10-year return of the University of Virginia Investment Management Company (UVIMCO) has been 10.1 %, according to its 2014-2015 annual report. That compares to 5.8% ten-year performance calculated by the VRS in 2014-2105.

How much do UVa’s masters of the universe think they can earn on their portfolio looking forward? As best as I can tell from perusing UVIMCO’s annual report, they don’t say. UVIMCO doesn’t report that assumption because it isn’t relevant:  Although UVIMCO does have unfunded commitments, it is not a pension fund in which shortfalls must be made up by taxpayers.

Still, it is possible to get a sense of UVa’s expectations from comments made by university officials that they expect the controversial $2.2 billion Strategic Investment Fund to throw off $100 million a year to pay for programs to advance the university’s strategic goals. University officials have not explained what rate-of-return assumptions they are using. But a simple calculation reveals that $100 million is only 4.5% of $2.2 billion.

From that, one can draw one of two conclusions. Either UVa’s investment mavens are assuming a much lower rate of return than the VRS, or they expect a higher-than-4.5% rate of return but plan to retain a substantial fraction of the earnings, presumably in order to grow the size of the portfolio.

It appears that the second conclusion is true. Here’s what the UVIMCO annual report says: “Each year a portion of the endowment value is paid out to support the fund’s purpose, and any earnings in excess of this distribution help build the fund’s market value over time. In this way, an endowment fund grows and provides support for its designated purpose in perpetuity.”

For legislators digging into UVa’s controversial Strategic Investment Fund, which is managed by UVIMCO, it would be interesting to know what rate-of-return the university is assuming for its endowment and what percentage it figures on spending and what percentage it figures on retaining. The numbers should be equally interesting to Speaker Howell. It would send out a flashing yellow caution signal if the UVIMCO’s assumption about of future performance was more conservative than that of the VRS.

Debt to TVOP: A Fiscal Warning Flag for Virginia Localities

debt_to_value

by James A. Bacon

The financial travails of the City of Petersburg has prompted some readers to wonder if other Virginia localities are fiscal time bombs waiting to go off. There are many causes of fiscal dysfunction but one sure sign of trouble is a heavy burden of long-term debt.

One way to measure that burden is to express debt as a percentage of the tax base, in particular as a percentage of the true value of property. Local governments have many revenue sources, but the property tax is the one major source which city councils and boards of supervisors can control. Therefore, the value of taxable property is a good proxy for a locality’s tax base, and the ratio of debt to the tax base is a good indicator of fiscal health.

To get a sense of which localities might be over-extended, Jim Weigand, a regular reader and concerned citizen of Lynchburg, calculated net debt as a percentage of true value of property (TVOP) for fiscal 2015. The ten most leveraged localities appear in the table above, with Accomack County heading the list at a fear-inducing 22.8%. The state average is 3.4%, and the least leveraged locality in Virginia, Mecklenburg County, is three-tenths of one percent.

Petersburg ranks fairly high on this list, 19th in the state, with a ratio of 6.8%. Buena Vista, another fiscal basket case we have written about on Bacon’s Rebellion, cracks the Top 10 with a ratio of 10.1%. The City of Richmond, whose inept fiscal management we have highlighted, does not appear on the list… because it could not comply with the data reporting requirements!

If I were a citizen of Norfolk, Portsmouth or any of the other localities atop the list, I would regard this ratio as a warning flag. This one metric along is not sufficient to declare a locality to be in poor fiscal shape. Many factors go into calculating a locality’s health. But a high debt-to-tax base ratio is undeniably a worrisome sign. Conversely, an exceedingly low ratio raises questions as well. Is Mecklenburg County spending enough money on utilities, school buildings, public safety buildings and the like?

To view a list of all Virginia cities and counties, click here.

We’re All Hedge Funds Now

hedge_fundJohn Rubino, author of DollarCollapse.com, is my favorite financial blogger. He did some excellent reporting for Virginia Business magazine back in the day before he went on to become a successful author and financial pundit. In a recent post, he drove home a theme commonly expressed on this blog: that the near zero-interest rate policy pursued by the Federal Reserve Bank (and below-zero policy in some other central banks) is hidden with hidden costs and is creating systemic risk.

As global interest-rate yields are driven down, writes Rubino in his fourth post developing the theme, “We’re All Hedge Funds Now,” insurance companies are especially hard hit. They’re finding it increasingly difficult to meet their obligations to policy holders without assuming greater risk.

Such companies have no choice but to roll the dice on “growth” assets like junk bonds and equities, which fundamentally changes the nature of their business model. Instead of steady, predictable income that guarantees the ability to pay off on policies when retired, they’ll have flush years and lean years which might or might not coincide with the needs of their clients. They’ll become hedge funds, in other words, high-risk investment vehicles that do well in good times and frequently fold up shop in bad.

Globally, more and more capital is flowing into riskier and riskier investments. Sooner or later, the deck of cards will collapse. This time, when it does, the calamity will be global in nature. One thing you can bet on: The architects of the super-easy money policies will find someone to blame other than themselves. Meanwhile, here in Virginia, taxpayers will be left holding the bag for the state’s under-funded state pension fund — along with much else.

The Fed’s super-easy monetary policy is designed to keep interest rates low for the world’s largest debtor, the United States government. In effect, the Fed transfers yearly hundreds of billions of dollars of wealth from individual and institutional investors to the U.S. Treasury — no taxes necessary — by means of a process so opaque that few understand what is happening. I remain convinced that the hidden effects of loose monetary policy comprise a major reason why members of the white working/middle class are out their minds with political frustration.

— JAB

When Balanced Budgets Aren’t Really Balanced

hide_the_peaby James A. Bacon

The politics of fiscal implosion are ugly. Just look at what’s going on in Petersburg and Richmond.

  • Confronted with a massive budget deficit last year in contravention of the state constitution and the prospect of a deficit in the year ahead, Petersburg City Council bravely agreed to cut the compensation of the city’s 600 employees — but carved out exemptions for senior city officials and themselves.
  • Another trustee has resigned from the board of the city of Richmond’s severely under-funded retirement fund, which has been embroiled in governance issues over who calls the shots over investment decisions.
  • City of Richmond officials say they have nearly completed their comprehensive annual financial report for 2015 — seven months late! The city has not completed the required report on time since 2014. City officials blame IT issues.

That’s just in the Richmond region, which I am familiar with because I read the Richmond Times-Dispatch as my daily newspaper. Who knows what’s happening elsewhere? While Virginians pride themselves for their fiscal rectitude, it is increasingly clear that some jurisdictions don’t hew to standards much higher than Chicago, Cleveland or Detroit.

In theory, the state constitutions requires the state government and each political jurisdiction to balance its budget each year. Virginians should be concerned that Petersburg failed to do so in fiscal 2016, that it shows every sign of failing to do so again in fiscal 2017, and that there appears to be no sanction or penalty in sight. Likewise, we should be concerned of the various tricks the state and its localities can use, if so inclined, to hide long-term structural budget deficits. Here are three:

  • Under-fund employee pensions. The Commonwealth drastically under-funded the Virginia Retirement System in the last recession, although it is now doing penance by accelerating repayments. The City of Richmond has under-funded its government-employees pension, which it operates independently of the VRS.
  • Slow pay creditors. This tactic comes straight out of the Illinois Fiscal Irresponsibility Playbook. Petersburg, it has been revealed, delayed payments of millions of dollars not only to the VRS but schools and the regional jail.
  • Defer maintenance. Rather than properly maintain roads, streets, buses, water systems, sewer systems, school buildings and the like, save money by scrimping on maintenance, even if it means even higher costs down the road.

To what extent do local governments rely upon these and other budgetary sleights of hand to balance their budgets? Nobody knows. Let me rephrase that: The public doesn’t know.

The bottom line here is that citizens cannot take at face value that their local governments are truly balancing their budgets. Some might be. I have faith that my home county of Henrico, whatever its other failings, runs a tight fiscal ship and doesn’t play bookkeeping games. But I don’t know it for a fact. Speaking generally, not specifically about Henrico County, government administrators are subject to the temptation of hiding bad news. And in most cases, local elected officials are either too timid or too untutored to ask tough, probing questions about how money is being spent.

Citizens unite! There are active taxpayer groups in Arlington, Fairfax County and Virginia Beach that I know of. I hope and pray that there are others of which I remain ignorant. Rather than fight lonely fights, they need to pool resources and expertise. I invite like-minded citizens to join Bacon’s Rebellion to create a platform to share knowledge and hold state and local governments more accountable than our elected officials seem able to do on their own. If anyone is interested in such a collaboration, please contact me at jabacon[at]baconsrebellion.com.

Detroit on the Appomattox

Downtown Petersburg is rich in historical architecture, not much else.

Downtown Petersburg is rich in historical architecture, not much else.

by James A. Bacon

For its 2016 fiscal year, which closed June 30, the Petersburg City Council enacted a $75 million General Fund budget. Somehow, the city managed to close the year with a $17 million deficit.

Last week, council members knew the situation was dire. Staring at what they thought was a measly, $7.5 million deficit, they unanimously approved a 20% cut in personnel costs. Then, as reported by the Richmond Times-Dispatch, they learned that the deficit was actually $17 million.

Holy moly! In a state that constitutionally requires a balanced budget, how can a government body be 20% off? How can things go so far wrong?

Mayor W. Howard Myers sounded clueless. “I had no idea. I’m like, wow, where is this coming from,” he told the Times-Dispatch. Vice Mayor Samuel Parham only hinted at the problem: “This is a problem that has compounded over many years, so the  balloon has blown up and it has popped here on us.”

The city’s financial woes became apparent early this year when an audit found overspending in the General Fund by $1.8 million and anticipated a budget shortfall of $6 million. City Council fired City Manager William E. Johnson III, and appointed Dironna Moore Belton in his place on an interim basis. With Belton at the helm, a team of state auditors dug deeper into the books and found that about $4.5 million had been depleted from some “internal accounts” without the city’s knowledge.

Petersburg is a case study in how a municipal government can run up deficits without calling them deficits. The Times-Dispatch article refers to $2.5 million in financial obligations to the city school system, the regional jail and the Virginia Retirement System carried over from the 2016 budget to the 2017 budget.

“When you have a deficit, it just keeps rolling forward, Belton said. “We are working very diligently to do long-term finance restructuring, and we’re still trying to break down exactly the causation (of the deficit), but we do know the number of delinquent accounts that we have.”

Bacon’s bottom line: Fiscal negligence of this magnitude is just extraordinary for Virginia, and it raises all sorts of questions.

First, is this incompetence unique to Petersburg, or is it widespread and Petersburg is just the first to “blow up,” as Vice Mayor Parham put it? The situation calls to mind the chronic inability of the city of Richmond to complete its Comprehensive Annual Financial Report, which suggests that at least one other jurisdiction’s finances are in disarray. If I were a resident of the City of Richmond, I would be very concerned.

Second, Petersburg apparently used a number of tricks to hide the deficit, which allowed liabilities to build up unbeknownst to elected officials. Stretching out payments to vendors is a classic — Illinois is notorious for the late payment of its bills, incurring more than $900 million in late payment interest over six years. Petersburg apparently did the same thing on a smaller scale. How many other Virginia jurisdictions are slow-paying their vendors?

Third, what can be done when a deficit this large has built up? Petersburg, a jurisdiction of about 32,500 people, is already down on its luck. The city has a hollowed out economy, a large population of poor minorities, and one of the worst-performing school systems in the state. Its challenges are immense. Going into drastic budget-cutting mode can only make matters worse. For now, city officials seem determined to take drastic action to get their fiscal affairs in order. But the task will be painful. Which brings us to the fourth question…

Fourth, what happens from a constitutional perspective if a jurisdiction runs a deficit? Are there any sanctions? Or is the requirement to balance budgets every year merely aspirational — desirable but not mandated? What provisions are there for the state to step in? Who initiates the process — the governor or the General Assembly? We’d better get answers because my guess is that the problem is not going to go away.