Illinois Debt Set to Slump on Pension Ruling, Wells Capital Says

Illinois bonds are set to weaken after a judge struck down a plan to address the biggest pension deficit among U.S. states, according to Wells Capital Management.

Illinois 10-year obligations yield 3.68 percent, or about 1.4 percentage points above benchmark municipal debt, data compiled by Bloomberg show. At that yield spread, the smallest since July, the debt isn’t attractive given the legal developments and the potential financial strain, said Robert Miller, who helps oversee $35 billion of munis at Wells Capital.

The lowest-rated U.S. state plans to appeal the Nov. 21 ruling that its constitution protects cuts to public pensions, which face a $111 billion shortfall. The decision marks the latest challenge to emerge for the incoming governor, Bruce Rauner, who takes office Jan. 12. He also has to grapple with a $2 billion budget hole from expiring increases to income-tax rates.

“You would expect on this news that spreads would widen out,” said Miller, who’s based in Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin. “The pension is definitely a looming problem and something they need to deal with.”

Some Illinois bonds weakened after last week’s pension decision. Taxable debt maturing in June 2033, the state’s most frequently traded securities, changed hands Nov. 21 at yields as high as 5.42 percent, Bloomberg data show. The debt’s spread to Treasuries was about 0.3 percentage point more than the average for the past five months.

If history’s any guide, the court decision will keep inflating the state’s relative borrowing costs. In July, Illinois yields surged after a separate court ruling signaled the 2013 pension fix might be in jeopardy. The law would save an estimated $145 billion over 30 years by reducing cost-of-living adjustments and raising the retirement age.

State constitutions have been invoked elsewhere to try to prevent reductions to retirement benefits. In Rhode Island, unions settled over pension cuts before the groups’ constitutional challenge could be put to the test. In bankruptcy cases in Detroit and California, judges ruled that federal law overrode state bans on cutting pensions.

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