Tuesday, April 27, 2010

A Bond Rater Gives UC Its Marching Orders

Moody’s has rated the University of California’s bonds as aA1, and the university’s finances have been defined as stable. However, the high rating comes with the following warning: “The broadest pledge of revenues backing the University's various debt securities, General Revenues include tuition and other student generated fees, indirect cost recoveries, investment income and other revenues excluding state appropriations and gross revenues of the Medical Centers. The security features of the General Revenue Bonds is fairly weak, with no reserve fund, a rate covenant that requires revenues sufficient to pay debt service, the ability to issue senior debt, and the ability of the University to add and remove revenues as long as an event of default has not occurred. However, we expect the University to closely protect its market access and the strength of its broadest and highest rated security pledge.” According to this assessment, the UC can spend student fees, indirect costs from grants, and investment profits, but it cannot use state funds or revenues from the medical centers to back its debt. The raters also point out that the bonds do not have sufficient funds to service the debt, but they are confident that the university can protect its market access.

Part of the UC’s market access concerns the use of credit default swaps and other complicated financial derivatives: “The University has two swaps related to two series of variable rate bonds under its Medical Center Pooled Revenue Bond pledge, both of which are floating to fixed rate agreements. Only one of the swaps requires the University to post collateral under certain circumstances. The fair value of the agreements was negative $48 million at the end of FY2009.” While the UC is losing money on its swap, it is unclear how many other similar arrangements it is currently holding.

One of the main strengths of the UC’s finances continues to be its access to unrestricted funds that can be used for any purpose: “Sizeable balance sheet that remains highly liquid, with $3.5 billion of unrestricted financial resources ($5.9 billion excluding post-retirement health liabilities) and active treasury management monitoring a short-term investment pool exceeding $10 billion.” As I have previously stressed, while the university likes to claim that it has limited access to unrestricted funds, it is clear that it can use close to $6 billion according to its own purposes. Moreover, the retiree healthcare liability now moves $2.4 billion from unrestricted funds to restricted funds, but the university is really only spending a tenth of that amount on retiree healthcare, and there is no sign that they are actually saving $2.4 billion in a separate account dedicated to the healthcare of retirees.

One concern that Moody’s signals is the high rate of debt the university has taken on: “Significant capital needs likely to result in rising borrowing levels; debt outstanding has grown from $8.3 billion in FY2006 to over $13.2 billion in FY2009 and including new borrowings since the end of the fiscal year, a 56% increase.” This debt requires a huge amount of funds to service, and it unclear why the university finds it necessary to borrow so much money. Furthermore, the more the UC borrows, the more it has to make its decisions based on what the bond raters tell them since a high bond rating results in a lower interest rate, which reduces the cost of borrowing money.

Like the IMF, the bond raters hint to the UC that a source of financial weakness is their reliance on the state and the high level of unionized labor: “high susceptibility to regulatory and government pay or changes, coupled with unique stresses on California healthcare, including unionized labor.” In this seemingly neutral economic assessment, we find a bias against state regulation, unions, healthcare, and state funding.

Moody’s also slips into their analysis the idea that the university should increase the number of students coming from outside of the state: “In-state demand is so strong that UC does little recruiting of freshman from out-of-state. Moody's views this as an untapped strategic asset because UC could easily increase its student demand further if it followed national recruiting practices similar to most peer universities.” Not only does Moody’s think that the university should accept more out-of-state students, but it should spend more money marketing and recruiting them.

It is interesting to note that while the bond raters indicate that the UC needs to wean itself off of the unstable support for instruction from the state, they believe the UC will continue to profit from the money it gets from the federal government to do research: “The UC system collectively represents a vital part of the nation's research infrastructure, as evidenced by its status as the largest university recipient of federal R&D spending in the country. Total grants and contract revenue in FY2009 exceeded $4.5 billion, with research expenditures exceeding $3.7 billion. Grant and contract revenue has grown consistently in recent years, and given the University's prominent research position we expect it to benefit from a spike in federal research funding provided by the federal stimulus bill.” According to this analysis, research grants brought in an $800 million profit last year, and this amount may go up due to the federal stimulus. Hidden in this analysis is the idea that state-funded instruction is unstable, but federally funded grants are a growth market. The reality of the situation is that we do not know if grants make or lose money, and they are an even more unstable source of funding than state support.

Another major threat to the financial health of the university that is highlighted by the bond raters is the pension and retiree healthcare liabilities. These future projections make it look like the university is currently running a deficit when it is still showing a healthy surplus: “UC had generated an average operating margin exceeding 4% through FY2007. Beginning in FY2008, the University was required to report expenses associated with its post-retirement healthcare benefit plans leading to rising operating deficits based on Moody's approach to calculating public university operating margins. In FY2008, the margin was negative 3.1% with the deficit rising to 6.1% in FY2009. Operating cash flow margin, adjusting for the non-cash portion of the post-retirement health expenses, was 11% and 9% respectively. The deficits reflect $1.35 billion and $1.50 billion in expenses for retiree health benefits respectively in each year compared to less than $300 million of actual cash contributions to the plan. The University's retirement health and pension plans represent a significant and growing liability and expense of the System. We believe the University will need to take significant steps to either curtail the benefits or improve ongoing funding of the costs in order to sustain its long-term credit quality.” This complicated passage means that on paper it looks like the UC has a deficit, but that is because they are declaring a $2.85 billion pension and retiree healthcare liability, while they are actually only spending $300 million. Also, Moody’s is pushing the university to either curtail benefits and/or increase the funding for the pension and retiree healthcare, and if the university does not do this, the UC is threatened with a lower credit rating.

While it is necessary for the university to fund the cost of its pension and healthcare for retirees, the question is how much is needed and how does the projected liability affect current operations and the campaign to downsize benefits. Also, instead of simply reducing its profits by declaring a huge liability, shouldn’t the UC use some of its net revenue for future benefits?

Moody’s not only tells the UC, in subtle and not so subtle ways, how to spend its money, but it also pushes a risky mode of investment: “The long-term targets for the endowment pool would bring alternative assets (including hedge funds, real estate and private equity) to 35% of the total, with domestic and international equity accounting for another 45% of total assets.” While the move to increase investments in hedge funds, real estate, and private equity could result in a major reduction of endowment wealth, Moody’s often shows a preference for this type of investment strategy.

Not only do the bond raters want the UC to invest in volatile assets, but they also encourage the university to take on even more debt: “With expendable financial resources covering pro-forma debt by 0.8 times (resources as of end of FY2009 and debt as of current issue), and debt service consuming 4.1% of operating expenses, we believe the University retains additional debt capacity at the current rating level.” Like a pusher telling a junkie that he should increase his dosage, Moody’s neutral report appears to promote the very things that helped to cause the global fiscal meltdown: high debt, easy credit, and creative accounting.

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