Fitch Ratings-New York-28 March 2016: Fitch Ratings has downgraded to 'BBB-' from 'BBB+' the ratings on the following Chicago, Illinois obligations:
--$9.8 billion unlimited tax general obligation (ULTGO) bonds;
--$486 million sales tax revenue bonds.
The Rating Outlook is Negative.
The ULTGO bonds are payable from the city's full faith and credit and its ad valorem tax, without limitation as to rate or amount.
The sales tax bonds have a first lien on the city's 1.25% home rule sales and use tax and the city's local share of state-distributed 6.25% sales and use tax. Additionally, there is a springing debt service reserve, funded over a 12-month period that would be triggered if coverage fell below 2.5x.
KEY RATING DRIVERS
PENSION RULING HEIGHTENS PRESSURE: Fitch believes last week's Illinois Supreme Court ruling striking down pension reform legislation for two of the city of Chicago's four pension plans was among the worst of the possible outcomes for the city's credit quality. Not only did it strike down the pension reform legislation in its entirety, but it made clear that the city bears responsibility to fund the promised pension benefits, even if the pension funds become insolvent.
CITY STRATEGY ANTICIPATED: The city expects to present a strategy to address the increased burden resulting from the ruling in the next several weeks. Given the lack of flexibility to alter the liability, Fitch believes the plan must rely on meaningful use of revenue and expenditure controls to meet much higher annual payments.
UNDERLYING FUNDAMENTALS REMAIN SOUND: The 'BBB-' rating recognizes the city's role as an economic hub for the Midwestern region of the United States with a highly educated workforce and improving employment trends. Aside from its pension funding issues, Chicago's financial profile has markedly improved in recent years, although full structural balance remains a challenge. The city's independent legal authority to raise revenues remains a key credit strength.
LONGER-TERM LIABILITIES A CHIEF CONCERN
The city continues to face credit challenges related to critically-underfunded pension obligations and rising associated costs. The Outlook for the city's credit quality cannot be considered stable until such challenges are met in a sustainable fashion. Since last week's ruling appears to eliminate the option of reducing the liability, the city will need to rely on its ability to increase revenues and control spending. Fitch will evaluate the direction of the rating and Outlook as their level of ability to do so becomes more apparent.
The weight of the city's extremely large unfunded pension liability is compounded by the high (8.7% of market value) debt burden, which is the product of substantial borrowing by the city as well as overlapping jurisdictions. Many of these overlapping governments also maintain underfunded pensions, and Fitch remains concerned that the funding requirements for all of these long-term liabilities will pressure the resource base in the coming years.
The city maintains four single-employer defined benefit pension plans, all of which are poorly funded due to a statutory funding formula which has fallen far short of actuarial requirements. In fiscal 2014, the combined actual pension contribution amounted to just a quarter of the actuarially determined requirement. The combined unfunded liability for all four plans is reported at approximately $20 billion, yielding a very low funded ratio of 34% or an even lower estimated 32% when adjusted by Fitch to reflect a 7% rate of return assumption.
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