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Report casts doubt on Detroit's estimated debt: 'Simply inaccurate'

A new report by a former Goldman Sachs vice president casts doubt on some of the key justifications for Detroit's bankruptcy.
People board a public transit bus in Detroit, Michigan, Sept. 6, 2013.
People board a public transit bus in Detroit, Michigan, Sept. 6, 2013.

The official story about Detroit goes something like this: Decades of mismanagement and out-of-control spending have left the city with a crushing $18 billion in debt. Things are so bad that the city government is simply not equipped to deal with the problem on its own, and so the governor had no choice but to temporarily suspend the powers of the mayor and city council, appointing an emergency manager (EM) in their place.

The EM, after making a good faith effort to patch together the city's finances, realized that the only way out was through a full reset, and so he filed for bankruptcy. Alas, current and former public employees are going to have to make sacrifices in bankruptcy if Detroit is ever going to get back on its feet: One of the biggest sources of bloat is a $3.5 billion unfunded pension liability -- meaning that pensions will have to receive a significant cut.

But that offical story is deeply flawed, according to a new report from the progressive think tank Demos. Having combed through publicly available data on the city's finances, Demos senior fellow Wallace Turbeville—a former vice president at Goldman Sachs—concluded that Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr is selling a municipal bankruptcy on the basis of some deeply questionable assumptions.

The biggest of those assumptions is the claim that Detroit is facing an insurmountable long-term debt burden of $18 billion. In fact, Turbeville writes, that figure is both "irrelevant" and "simply inaccurate."

"That number is not particularly important in terms of cash flow analysis, and that number is wrong," he said during a Wednesday conference call with reporters. The bigger issue for the city is whether it has enough cash on hand to make it through the next fiscal year.

"The real issue is about the cash, and in fiscal year 2014 it is about an $198 million cash shortfall," said Turbeville. He blames the shortfall on a number of factors, including the Great Recession, a dwindling tax base, and declining state aid. But pension obligations, which have stayed mostly flat over the past five years, are not a significant factor in Turbeville's analysis.

A much larger factor appears to be city's debt to Wall Street. As of 2011, Detroit owed $3.8 billion to major financial institutions because of financial instruments called interest rate swaps. Those swaps allow cities to trade variable interest rates on their municipal bonds to the banks in exchange for fixed-interest payments.

Cities across the country, including Detroit, bought up these swaps because fixed interest rates were more predictable, and therefore seemed safer; but when the federal government drove down interest rates in response to the financial crisis, banks ended up making billions off of swaps while municipalities were stuck with the bill. Now, Turbeville writes that those institutions "are now demanding upwards of $250-350 million in swap termination payments."

Turbeville's report isn't the first document to cast doubt on the official story. In a private email written before Detroit filed for bankruptcy, then-state treasurer Andy Dillon wrote that the filing "[l]ooks premeditated" because the city hadn't yet demonstrated that pensions and other retiree benefits could only be dealt with inside a bankruptcy court.

Retired public workers and Detroit pension funds are now battling EM Orr in bankruptcy court, arguing that a deal which cuts to pensions would be in violation of the state's constitution. David Allen, a Detroit firefighter who entered early retirement and started collecting a pension after being injured in the line of duty, joined Turbeville on the conference call with reporters.

"I gave up the full use of my body, and now you just want to take the little bit I have left," said Allen, who now requires the use of a walker. "It's just not right."