Sinkhole City Chicago in Worse Fiscal Shape than Detroit?

If the City of Chicago Were a Bank … 

By Bill Bergman

One of the lessons we didn’t learn in the savings and loan crisis in the 1980s was the importance of “prompt corrective action” in bank regulation and supervision.

Back then, underwater “thrifts” were kept afloat with less-than-truthful regulatory accounting principles that hid their effective insolvencies, allowing well-connected parties to feast off the public purse, unleashing incentives that ended up trebling the cost to taxpayers.

In theory, “improved” legislation and regulation arrived, under the cry of “never again.” Among other things, the new systems developed “tripwires” designed to force intervention into failing institutions before large and/or widespread failures threatened the public purse again.

Less than twenty years later, the Big One arrived in 2007-2009, despite (or because of) these fixes.

How about municipal governments? Why do city and state “balanced budgets” sound like those “tripwires?”

For some perspective on questions like these, let’s take a peek at the Midwestern cities of Indianapolis, Chicago, and Detroit.

In 2013, Detroit filed for bankruptcy under Chapter 9 of the federal bankruptcy code. What did some simple financial trends look like in Detroit before, during, and after that development?

Indianapolis is a good place to start. The state of Indiana and its largest city have been in relatively good shape in the last decade, compared to their immediate northern and western neighbors. Here’s a look at the difference between general revenues and net expenses (leading to a bottom line measure akin to “net income” in the private sector) for the city of Indianapolis from 2006 through 2013.

The bottom line took a hit in Indianapolis in 2009 – not altogether unreasonable, given that the economy had entered the worst economic and financial crisis since (at least) the Great Depression. By 2013, the bottom line poked its head above zero, again.

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Wolf Richter

In his cynical, tongue-in-cheek manner, he muses on WOLF STREET about economic, business, and financial issues, Wall Street shenanigans, complex entanglements, and other things, debacles, and opportunities that catch his eye in the US, Europe, Japan, and occasionally China. WOLF STREET is the successor to his first platform… TP-Title-7-small-200px …whose ghastly name he finally abandoned in July 2014. Here’s the story on that. Wolf lives in San Francisco. He has over twenty years of C-level operations experience, including turnarounds and a VC-funded startup. He earned his BA and MBA in Texas and his MA in Oklahoma, worked in both states for years, including a decade as General Manager and COO of a large Ford dealership and its subsidiaries. But one day, he quit and went to France for seven weeks to open himself up to new possibilities, which degenerated into a life-altering three-year journey across 100 countries on all continents, much of it overland. And it almost swallowed him up.