Detroit bankruptcy: Is it a warning sign of things to come?

What if Detroit isn't a blip? Because an analyst best known for predicting the 2008 financial crisis says the city's fate could be a sign of things to come.

Detroit's financial meltdown has lessons for Canada and the rest of the global economy, Don Pittis writes

What if Detroit isn't a blip? What if, instead, the city's decision to enter bankruptcy proceedings is a sign of things to come?

Crazy talk? Maybe. But that was the prediction in a recent book by Wall Street financial analyst Meredith Whitney, best known for being one of the very few mainstream analysts to foresee the 2008 banking meltdown.

Interestingly, she also predicted this week's Detroit bankruptcy.

That may seem less impressive now that it has happened. On the other hand, the screams of outrage from lenders who are being offered 10 cents on the dollar for their billions in bonds by Detroit show that it wasn't obvious to them.

"I wish there had been a lot more outrage over the past 10, 20 years," said Kevyn Orr, the bankruptcy expert charged with cleaning up Detroit's accumulated financial mess, at a news conference Friday.

The fact is, long after Detroit's decline had become obvious, the city's government kept borrowing and lenders kept lending.

Some of the municipal debt against the future was hidden in the city's own books in the form of off-balance-sheet pension responsibilities. Other borrowing was obvious to everyone, in the form of bonds secured — at least notionally — by Detroit's future tax revenue. 

'Awash in new tax revenues, cities and states borrowed and spent as if the good times would never end. Unfortunately, they did'—Financial author Meredith Whitney

The whole house of cards teetered on a fiction that the city would return to its former prosperity. But somewhere between 1960, when Detroit had the highest income per person in the United States, and now, the city fell into a vicious circle of decline.

As good jobs left, so did educated people. Nearly half the population is now functionally illiterate. And while loans and liabilities were accumulated when the city had nearly 2 million people, now 700,000 bear all the responsibility for its debts.

Police and fire services are abysmal. Parks are closed. The murder rate is surging. Many bondholders assumed the city would simply continue to raise taxes to cover the interest payments. But as Orr said after the bankruptcy filing, there is just no way he can raise taxes any further. If he did, more and more taxpayers would simply pull up stakes and go somewhere else.

According to Orr, this is a disaster you could have seen coming years ago. Sure, the city was irresponsible in its borrowing — but just as in the sub-prime loan collapse, it is the responsibility of lenders to make sure they will get paid. It's as if the bondholders who lent the cash hadn't seriously considered where the money would come from to repay their loans.

Which is exactly Meredith Whitney's point. In her book Fate of the States: The New Geography of American Prosperity she says the Detroit crisis is far from unique. "Awash in new tax revenues, cities and states borrowed and spent as if the good times would never end. Unfortunately, they did," Whitney says in the book written well before the current bankruptcy filing.

From what was once one of America's richest cities, Detroit has fallen on tough times. (Mark Blinch/Reuters)

She says that in the wake of the U.S. property meltdown of the past few years, the cities and states that found themselves dangerously in hock were also the ones that had hidden pension debt, just like Detroit.

She says lenders have been poor at taking that into account. "State and local governments have underfunded — even non-funded — their pension funds for years now, and they can't seem to break the habit," Whitney writes. "In New Jersey, actual debt is at least four times greater than bonds outstanding."

Part of Whitney's analysis is especially interesting to Canada. Looking at the American experience, she says that the accumulation of debt in places that were formerly prosperous is contributing to a population shift to areas like the Midwest and the Dakotas, the former "flyover" states.

North of the border, we are seeing something similar as the old industrial areas of Canada struggle to deal with debt while the prairie provinces boom. In some ways Detroit is an analogy and a warning to the rest of the global economy.

Instead of taking our knocks during the bad times, governments borrowed and central banks created money to help us through, assuming that good times would soon return.  If the world bounces back and returns to growth, if the tax base resumes its growth, all will be well.

That didn't happen in Detroit. It may not happen in Greece and Portugal. As she makes very clear, while Whitney is not predicting widespread defaults, she warns that Detroit is only one of the governments that won't be able to make their payments. In the wake of this week's events, lenders who were skeptical of her thesis are likely to scoff a little less.

Detroit's problems are far from over. Bankruptcy is no picnic, and the city faces at least 15 months of court battles. Provisions of Chapter 9, the bankruptcy rule for cities, have never been used for a collapse of this magnitude.

Compared to the day he took the job, Orr looks haggard. But by taking its knocks now, going through the painful process of bankruptcy draws a line under Detroit's problems, just as it did for Chrysler and General Motors when they filed for bankruptcy almost exactly four years ago.

As Michigan governor Rick Snyder said at Friday morning's press conference, this is a chance for Detroit to carve out a new future: "Now is our opportunity to end 60 years of decline."


Don Pittis

Business columnist

Based in Toronto, Don Pittis is a business columnist and senior producer for CBC News. Previously, he was a forest firefighter, and a ranger in Canada's High Arctic islands. After moving into journalism, he was principal business reporter for Radio Television Hong Kong before the handover to China. He has produced and reported for the CBC in Saskatchewan and Toronto and the BBC in London.