Archive

Surpluses


In my last blog I outlined the 10 states with the greatest losses since 2006.  Florida was not among them, yet given our legislature’s on-going discussion and hand-wringing with the state run Citizen’s insurance, you would  think we have a major ongoing crisis with insurance here.  Maybe we do, but I will provide some facts.  Citizens,averaged between 1 and 1.5 million policies over the last 8 years.  according the the South Florida SunSentinel, the average person pays $2500 per year for windstorm coverage.  Somehow I think I want that bill because my insurance is about $6000 through my private insurer and when I had Citizens it was $5700/yr.  But I digress.

Let’s assume there is 1.2 million policies over that time paying the #2500/yr. That totals.$3 billion a year in premiums.  That means Citizens should have reserves of $24 billion because they have not paid-out since 2006.  They have $11 billion according to the SunSentinel sources.  So wher eis the rest of the money?  We can assume there are operating expenses.  They pay their executives very well for a government organization.  I am sure they pay the agents as well.  I asked a couple friends in the industry and they indicate that for private companies, about half your premium goes the the agent who writes the policy.  That’s only Citizens.

Let’s assume there are conservatively another 8 million policies in Florida and since many of those are inland, let’s day they average $1500/yr.  If you have it for less, check out your policy!.  That means there is another $12 billion collected each year for a total of $15 billion per year.

Now let’s look at storms.  According to Malmstadt, et al 2010, the ten largest storms 1900–2007, corrected for 2005 dollars are as follows:.

Rank   Storm                         Year        Loss($bn)

1 Great Miami                        1926       129.0

2 Andrew                               1992        52.3

3 Storm                                  1944       35.6

4 Lake Okeechobee               1928       31.8

5 Donna                                1960       28.9

6 Wilma                                  2005       20.6

7 Charlie                                2004        16.3

8 Ivan                                     2004        15.5

9 Storm # 2                            1949        13.5

10 Storm # 4                          1947       11.6

So for all bu the top 9 storms in a 107 year history,the annual receipts exceed the losses for a storm.   The total over the period is $450 billion (adjusted to 2005 dollars)  That means an average of $4 billion per year.  So what is the issue?  Sure a big storm could wipe out the trust fund, but that is what Lloyd;’son London, re-insurers and the ability to borrow funds is all about.

I suggest that the fuzz is really about is this.  Most people do not understand the concept of an insurance pool.  That includes many public officials.  The idea of insurance is to pool resources is to collect huge sums of money so that if something bad occurs, there is the ability to compensate people for their losses.  Insurance is a good thing but individually we hope it is never us that needs to be compensated because that means something bad happened.  But we expect our premiums to pay into that pool, build large pools of money, and have money when you need it. The more people that pay in, the more the  risk is split and lower the likelihood that any individual suffers a loss.  Hence the lower risk should lower premiums.  And people who live in high risk area should pay more than those who don’t.  Flood plains, dry forests, coastal areas, high wind areas, tornado alley, etc are all high risk.  Florida is one, but clearly there are many others,

So Citizens has a pile of money. Most private insurance companies should also, although their money is invested and they expect most of that will not be paid out.  I suspect the concern is a fear that the pile of cash will create a public furor, but that shows a lack of communication and education.  Cash is good.  Lots of it is better.  It’s like running surpluses in government or in your personal savings account. The idea is to have money when you need it.  Running at a point where you never have surpluses guarantees you will have deficits that require cuts in services,and possibly losses of jobs when the economy tanks again.   For insurance, those losses occur when big event hit.  Fortunately those are infrequent, but they have and will happen.  We need the cash pools on hand to protect our citizens just in case.    In the meantime we need some leadership and education of the public.

Advertisements

The good news is that for many local governments, property values are up and so is the economy, especially in urban areas.  However that does not mean that the budget approval difficulties of 2009-2012 have passed or been resolved.  In fact the arguments may continue despite improvements in financial position.  Why?  There are a number of policies that were implemented in the recession years that were especially difficult for utilities:

  1. Borrowed or transferred water and sewer monies to avoid raising taxes against falling property values (note that raising taxes on falling values would have yielded a zero sum game, but raising taxes commensurate might have “un”elected a few people
  2. Failing to have long-term financial plan and even fewer have multiyear budgets.  Included are automatic rate adjustments that some are questioning or deferring now, despite having been approved several years ago
  3. Bad investments – public or private.  In either case, if the revenues are not realized, the local entity gains no benefit.  This can include public private infrastructure investments, privatization or investing cash.  Scenarios need to be created to figure out what happens when things don’t go as planned.
  4. Failing to save for a rainy day before the crash.  Our grandparents knew we need to save for a rainy day.  We talk about the lowered level of savings among Americans and the potential issues that could arise if economic difficulties occur.  So exactly why do our elected leaders think it is a great idea not to collect monies in good times for a rainy day?  Other than politics that is?

 

We have identified four errors in public policy at the local level.  The questions for the 2015 budget are:

 

  1. Can we repay those funds we “borrowed” from during the down years?
  2. Can we keep the total revenues increasing (may not mean a tax increase, but certainly not a rollback)?
  3. Can we develop realistic scenarios for public investments.  Nothing worse than stranded infrastructure like that $6milion parking garage that grossed under $100 in the last 6 months because no one uses it because there is not business need for it.
  4. Can we develop reserve policies that allow local governments and especially utilities to create and maintain repair and replacement funds, reserves, and “savings” for the next rainy day.  It’s coming.  At some point.
  5. Can we develop a 5 year plan of where the community vision is?

I think this would be a start for a lot of us.


As you are aware, I have several hobbies and interest, and economics is one of them.  Economics has theorists from many different viewpoints, and the commonality among them is that there is no “school of thought” that explains everything.  So new schools get developed to explain the current events, or old ones that were discredits are resuscitated, but unfortunately we too often neglect the past, or at least the examples of the past.  Too often the obvious gets ignored.  For example, we cave money because we know there will be ups and downs.  Individual do it, so why don’t governments?  We know that we will pay for a product we need.  Demand drives the price.  If more people want it, the price goes up.  Been that way for…. ever maybe?  So in my recent reading I came across several musing that keep getting talked about by political pundits, but may be they are not what they appear to be.  So let’s take a look at a couple of these that might just affect us….

 

Is supply side economics is a myth developed by corporate economists to argue for lower taxes.  The concept is to give tax breaks to encourage manufacturers and businesses to produce more product which will reduce costs.  You know this is patently false.  Try selling your reclaimed water at a discount (or give it away) when it is raining.  Demand drives the economy, not supply.  Every economics student learns this in economics 101.  The supply side economics school developed as a means to explain stagflation in the 1970s. The idea what to give tax cuts to those who invested, so they would invest more to make new products, which would trickle down to the rest of us.  Still doesn’t work.  Why?  What they ignored was that the US industrial sector had saturated the US economy with goods and could not grow without new sectors to sell to.  Hence the push on Nixon to open up China to foreign trade and investment.  But opening foreign markets was great, except they could not afford our products.  So we had to make the products there, increase local wages so they could buy the products, and still shipped products back at a cheaper cost that to build them in America.  The idea is not new – recall Henry Ford set up the assembly line to cuts costs to allow him to increase wages so his workers could buy his cars.  The obvious question is when we saturate China, then what?  Africa?  Then what?  The economy cannot grow faster than the increase in population.  So why does supply side economics keep getting traction?  Did we mention those tax cuts….

 

To the big fashion in Germany and the EU is austerity.  Austerity is an economic idea that never seems to die despite very limited success and many, many failures.  It sounds great – cut costs and balance the budget while cutting revenues (income).  Ok, so let’s see how that works in your household – you quit your middle class job and take a minimum wage job.  You cut your expenses.  Except you can’t sell your house without a loss (and you do not have the cash to make up the difference) and you need your car to get to your new job.  But austerity says that if you eat rice, beans, cereal and Ramen noodles, you will soon be far better off than you are now.  No one will suffer.   Do you believe it?  Do you wonder why the Greeks and Irish are not doing so well today and why people are restless?  They used to devalue their currency, but the Euro prevents this.  They do not have away out.  Meanwhile Iceland devalued currency, let the banks fail, took over the bank assets, and are doing much better.  Austerity was not the option…. Just saying…  And who suffers the most?  Not the high income folks.

 

Tax cuts stimulate the economy.  Sounds great.  But, from 1944 to 1963, the income tax rate on the highest earning bracket in 1960 was 90% over $200,000.  Yes 90%!   The economy was great.  The middle class was born.  House ownerships jumped.  Education was up.  The economy in the 1970s stagnated after we cut tax rates.  We cut the income tax rate in the 1980s, but raised other taxes, and things improved, but then declined.  The economy improved after the Bush tax hike in 1991. It did not improve after the Bush tax cuts in 2001.  Interesting in their book Presimetrics, Mike Kimel and Mike Kanell noted that higher taxes seem to correlate with a better economy.  Is it because investors can’t sell stock so easily when they made a profit so corporations can count of investments longer?  Or is it that the increase in revenues allows the federal government to invest in more research and development that further stimulates the economy?  Did we mention the tax cuts favor the wealthy?

 

The moral of the story is that utility managers cannot ignore the economic realities around them.  We cannot be trapped by the musings of people who have hidden agendas, which means that our understanding of the way things are must extend beyond the utility itself.  The economy, economics, monetary policy, tax policy, demographics and change are areas that utility managers need to be current on.  Engineers and managers often understand these issues easily (most are mathematical) but we tend to focus only in out areas.  We need to become educated.  Recall the earlier blog where I noted the city manager who realized later that the reason elected officials tended to bad alternatives was they were being lobbied to approve the poorer options because their clients could make money from it.  You know many ideas that will be lobbied to elected officials and business people in the future.  You need to become educated on these ideas and how they affect your utility.  You know that rates that are too low will not increase revenues.  You know you need to expand sales when possible, perhaps serving new areas, and making the investments for same.  You know that not spending money will only increase the risk of failure in the system.  You know that not increasing pay will disenfranchise employees.  Prepare for these assaults so you can lead your utility down the proper path. 


We have talked about reserves, the need for them, reasons why they are neglected and how to establish appropriate numbers (an area where more research is needed).  Reserves are an issue when the economy tanks.  We all recall the problem in 2008, but this is where utilities need to look beyond just their system to see what might be coming.  2008 was a problem that we should have seen coming, or at least planned for, but did not.  But it means that we need to look at the national and local economic picture and understand a little about events beyond our reach that can affect us.  Utilities and governments generally do not do this well. 

In 2005-2007, it was very clear we had a property bubble going on.  There was discussion on the news, financial channels, Wall Street Journal and even columns by economist like Paul Krugman.  A few of us may have taken advantage of the bubble through prudent real estate sales, but many did not.  Likewise, few utilities or governments planned for its inevitable fall.  After the crunch hit, those who owed the least amount of money, had savings and had stable incomes fared better than those who did not.  Same for governments.  Unfortunately most Americans and most governments fell into the “did not” category. 

So let’s look at a couple issues.  First, we knew there was a bubble and should know that all bubbles pop.  We had the tech stock bubble in the late 1990s.  People on Wall Street knew that the investments had turned to real estate and bankers where busy loaning money out with no interest for two years, no money down, adjustable rate mortgages and the like.  If you owned a computer you were inundated with Countryside and various other folks trying to loan you money.  Or buy your house and pay you an annuity if you were older. 

The reason that these “opportunities” were so prevalent was to help speculators who expected to own the property for short periods of time, or help those who might not have the means to buy time to get the means to support the payments.  All the subsequent financial instruments discussed in books like “Too Big to Fail” come from tools used by bankers to disperse the risk associated with speculators and the risky.  It made money for bankers and investment houses (remember they are private businesses beholden to their private stockholders). 

Like all bubbles, we get caught up in the money being made by speculators (and yes if you invest in the stock market you are speculating).  We try to grab onto the rising instruments to get ahead, but we forget that especially with real estate, the growth overall rate across the nation could only grow at the rate of population growth.  It is basic supply and demand. 

For governments, revenues rise, especially during real estate bubbles.  Some bubbles last for years, which creates a distorted view of the future.  In south Florida, there was a lot of buzz concerning water supply projections and arguments between regulatory staff and utilities over water supplies that were projected 20 years in the future, based on demand projections from 2000-2005.  When the dust settled in 22011, most of those issued disappeared because virtually all projections were substantially revised downward.  And most revenue growth projections were likewise revised downward and capacity needs delayed.  Planning 20 years out is historically inaccurate because the global economy can impact local growth.

Of course these new projections are incorrect as well.  Because the test period was 2005-2010 or 2000- 2010, the growth is stunted.  So they are likely underestimating demand and revenues.  Uncertainty with time means that the accuracy of projection decreases with time.  As a result, simply relying on past projection methods increases risk that of significant deviations.

I do an exercise n class where I give students three sets of projections.  10 years apart, for 50 years.  I tell them nothing else.  The examples are The State of Nevada, Cleveland, and Collier County, FL.  All are in the past (Cleveland is 1910-1950) There is absolutely no easy method that can project the growth in either Collier County or the State of Nevada, or that Cleveland’s population will drop in half. We could do the same with Detroit and never project that decrease either.  But when you tell them where the population are and what year, the wheels start to turn.  They realize that economics is a major issue.  While Nevada and Collier grew from 1960-2000, the rate of change is likely to be very different in 2010 to 2020 due to the 2008 recession. 

Tracking economic activity is a utility responsibility.  We need to know what is really happening, and understand bubbles.  We need to recognize that when property values and housing number increase fast, it will be short term.  Plan for savings and reserves.  Figure out what your recovery period might be.  We need to understand our economic base.  For example try this out and see what your conclusion is.  Florida’s economy is based on three major industries: agriculture, tourism and housing.  What could possibly go wrong with that model?  Well if we have an economic problem nationally, 2 of 3 take major hits because people outside the state do not travel to Florida and retirements get put off.  The economy gets hit hard and recovery is slow.  We have experienced that exact phenomenon from 2009 to date.  And many of those jobs are low wage positions which means the people who struggle most get hit hardest.  Storm events can impact the state.  Bit hits to all three, and agriculture is also a low wage industry.  It is a precarious economic model that sets itself up for potential fluctuations.  We need to plan for this.  It is our responsibility, utility staff and decision-makers to plan and prepare for the next big event.  


We have spent some time talking about the need to fund and maintain reserves.  I think most people reading this concur but how do you track reserves?  Every public sector utility gets audited annually.  How many people have actually looked at that audit?  Or attend the discussion with the elected officials with the auditors.  Or know how to read it?  This is an important part of our job.  We need to defend the utility and knowing the financial position is part of the defense. 

The annual audit is commonly called the Comprehensive Annual Financial Report of CAFR.  The finance director normally controls the process.  The CAFR is many, many pages long and include information on revenues and expenses, but also a bunch of other things like assets, depreciated assets, transfers to other funds, outstanding long and short term debt, fund balance and reserves.   The CAFR is designed to be a management tool to help with tracking performance of the entity with time.  CAFRs were redesigned by the Governmental Accounting Standards Board (GASB) about 15 years ago to provide more useful information to lenders and oversight agencies.  It was redesigned to help with management, discussion and analysis of the financial position.  The utility director should be a part of this management, discussion and analysis team and should fully understand its contents as it affects the utility. The CAFR should not be viewed simply as a compliance tool to submit and forget about. 

For example, the assets should include the value of all installed infrastructure (fixed) and all mobile equipment (non-fixed) as assets.  The depreciation is the total amount of depreciation, assigned as a straight line, since the acquisition of the assets.  You should always have more than 50% of the asset value remaining.  You should understand outstanding debt and debt plus depreciation should be less than your asset values, otherwise you are underwater with your assets.  You should understand the transfers to other funds and the justification for same.

But the reserves are key.  Some of these reserves may be restricted, which means they are likely impact fees, reserves to cover debt coverage requirements or covenants for repair and replacement of other purposes.  Most utilities do not have a separate repair and replacement reserve, but this would be useful for those capital expenses,  Likewise, operating reserves, for use to balance the budget in lean periods should be identified.  The reporting reserves for rate stabilization should be separate from the operating reserves (usually 1.5 to 3 months) to cover the day-to-day expenses.  An understanding of the value and tracking of these reserves is useful to long and short term decision making by utility managers.  Unfortunately most auditors and most finance director do not make separate reserves and tracking becomes a challenge.  But the utility is an operating entity.  Finance, like purchasing and human resources and support agencies designed to provide service to help accomplish the mission of the operating elements of the utility.  You need the support agencies to provide the necessary information to help your decision-making.  Doubtful your finance director wants to hear this, but really, does the utility operate because the finance department does the work or because the utility does?  Just food for though.

As water and sewer utilities, the public health and safety of our customers is our priority – it is both a legal and moral responsibility. The economic stability and growth of our community depends on reliable services or high quality. The priority is not the same with private business. Private businesses have a fiduciary responsibility to their stockholders, so cutting services will always be preferred to cutting profits. Therein lies the difference and yet the approach is different. Many corporations retain reserves for stability and investment and to protect profits. Many governments retain inadequate reserves which compromises their ability to be stable and protect the public health and safety. Unlike corporations, for government and utilities, expenses are more difficult to change without impacting services that someone is using or expects to use or endangering public health. Our recent economic backdrop indicates that we cannot assume income will increase so we need to reconsider options in dealing with income (revenue) fluctuations. If there are no reserves, when times are lean or economic disruptions occur (and they do regularly), finding funds to make up the difference is a problem. The credit market for governments is not nearly as “easy” to access as it is for people in part because the exposure is much greater. If they can borrow, the rates may be high, meaning greater costs to repay. Reserves are one option, but reserves are a one-time expense and cannot be repeated indefinitely. So if your reserves are not very large, the subsequent years require either raising taxes/rates or cutting costs. An example of the problem is illustrated in Figure 1. In this example the revenues took a big hit in 2009 as a result of the downturn in the economy. Note it has yet to fully return to prior levels as in many utilities. This system had accumulated $5.2 million in reserves form 2000-2008, but has a $5.5 million deficit there after. Reserves only go so far. Eventually the revenues will need to be raised, but the rate shock is far less if you have prudently planned with reserves. You don’t get elected raising rates, but you have a moral responsibility to do so to insure system stability and protection of the public health. So home much is enough for healthy reserves? That is a far more difficult question. In the past 1.5 months of operating reserves was a minimum, and 3 or more months was more common. However, the 2008-2011 economic times should change the model significantly. Many local governments and utilities saw significant revenue drops. Property tax decreases of 50% were not uncommon. It might take 5 to 10 years for those property values to rebound so a ten year need might be required. Sales taxes dropped 30 percent, but those typically bounce back more quickly - 3-5 years. Water and sewer utilities saw decreases of 10-30%, or perhaps more in some tourist destinations. Those revenues may take 3-5 years to rebound as well. Moving money from the utility to the general fund, hampers the situation further. Analysis of the situation, while utility (government) specific, indicates that appropriate reserves to help weather the economic downturns could be years as opposed to months. The conclusion is that governments and utilities should follow the model of trying to stabilize their expenses. Collect reserves. Use them in lean times. Develop a tool to determine the appropriate amounts. Educate local decision-makers and the public. Develop a financial plan that accounts for uncertainty and extreme events that might impact their long-term stability. Take advantage of opportunities and most of all be ready for next time. In other words, plan for that rainy day.


My last blog was a discussion about surpluses.  The State of Florida will have a $1.3 billion surplus this year and a host of politically expedient answers for where that money goes (tax cuts, pork projects, projects to help election results), but little mention of replenishing trust funds and reserves that were emptied to balance the budget amid tax cuts from 2010 – 2012.  But perhaps it is not the legislators or their constituents that we should blame for not understanding the need for reserves because the truth is that most people are not used to saving.  A recent article I read noted that 72 percent of Americans live paycheck to paycheck and would have difficulty putting $2000 together if needed.  $2000 is not a lot of money these days – it won’t buy you a transmission for example or a new engine for your car.  It won’t cover first, last and a deposit on a rental.  And it won’t cover the down payment on a house or most cars.  There are people who do not receive enough income to achieve some degree of savings, but not 72% of us.  We have come to perceive that having little savings is normal, but it wasn’t always this way and it is not this way everywhere in the world.  Back in the day, American saved more than they do now.  The reason is not that they had more money (they didn’t) or that they had less to spend money on (as things cost more proportionately).  But it was that “rainy day” they all knew would come and when they would need money.  They had been through depressions, recession and losses of industries (remember those Concord coachmakers did not get a federal bailout in trying to compete with Henry Ford).  They knew that there would be times when they needed to rely on themselves to survive and savings was the key.

There are two major differences from the past.  The most important is the fact is that credit was a lot harder to come by back in the day, so you needed cash for those big purchases.  That has changed dramatically in 50 years.  Today we get advertisements for credit cards – in the mail, instant credit at stores, easy credit for cars, and in the early 2000s, no-money-down-no-income-verification loans on real estate.  The need to save evaporated.  The access to easy credit has eliminated much of the need to save for those big expenses.  We can borrow to acquire them.  If we have a job problem, we borrow against the house or life insurance policy.  These are good backstops that help us maintain our way of life.

At the same time as we are being extended opportunities to secure funds to spend, we are barraged by advertisements and flyers and pitches to spend that money on products and services, many of which we probably don’t need, but are “cool” to have.  We are encouraged to compete to have better “stuff” than the other guy, and make sure we have the newest technology.  We all do it.  Just look at all phones can do, while keeping in mind that the old Bell phone I bought in college still works regardless of the situation and still sounds good.  No cool ringtones however, nor photo capability.  All that means we spend less on “needs” and more on “stuff.” 

Given this backdrop it is no surprise the attitude of decision-makers in government toward revenues and expenses.  Re-education of the public is needed as opposed to rhetoric.  We need to move the public discussion away from the concept of a balanced budget being expenses equal revenues to the correct concept of revenues + reserve expenses = expenses plus savings.  At times you use reserves (and savings =0) while other times reserve expenses are 0, while savings are positive. When big expenses come, borrow, but recurring expenses should not be funded through borrowing (credit).  We should seek to avoid is the desire to cut taxes (akin to cutting our salaries) to bring the budget back into balance that if we run a surplus, or spend it on “stuff.”  Such a system leaves room for those lean times when revenues may fluctuate but expenses do not (or increase).  

%d bloggers like this: