Standard & Poor’s said on Tuesday that it could downgrade New Jersey’s general obligation bond rating in the next two years if state revenue assumptions turn out to be too optimistic.
The agency revised the Garden State’s outlook to negative from stable based on structural imbalance, in addition to optimistic revenue assumptions.
The outlook revision applies to $34 billion of outstanding debt, which includes the state’s GO debt, rated AA-minus, as well as its A-plus-rated appropriation debt and A-minus-rated moral obligation debt.
The action comes a few months after New Jersey passed its 2013 budget, and ahead of the New Jersey Economic Development Authority’s $400 million sale of school facilities bonds and notes this week, which was assigned a S&P rating for appropriation-backed debt of A-plus.
As listed in its budget, New Jersey’s total revenues for 2013 are estimated to be $31.9 billion — $2.2 billion above last year’s revised projections.
“We revised the outlook to reflect our view of the risk of revenue assumptions we view as optimistic, continued reliance on one-time measures to offset revenue shortfalls, and longer-term growing expenditure pressures,” said S&P credit analyst John Sugden.
Pressures include pension funding increases, Medicaid and debt service. The state also has used one-time measures including debt restructuring, and using revenues from the affordable housing trust fund and a mortgage service settlement.
“They have about $1.2 billion that they’re citing as one-time measures and it includes a combination of revenues that won’t be available in future years,” Sugden said.
The report says the state has already identified around $2.2 billion in budgetary gaps that would need to be closed for fiscal 2014.
“Should state revenue projections turn out to be optimistic, resulting in additional short-term budgetary maneuvering to close the gap — which would indicate continued fiscal pressures on the state — we could lower the rating,” the report said.
If the state sees a significant rebound that translates into revenues that are close to or above estimates and makes progress toward a structurally balanced budget, S&P could revise the outlook back to stable.
Andy Pratt, a spokesman for the N.J. Department of Treasury, said it is gratifying that the three major rating agencies all have affirmed New Jersey’s ratings, and pointed to the stable outlooks that Moody’s Investors Service and Fitch Ratings recently affirmed. Moody’s and Fitch rate New Jersey’s GO bonds at Aa3 and AA-minus, respectively.
“We believe investors will find S&P’s arguments to be out of step and its basis for revising New Jersey’s outlook unconvincing, particularly in the face of the continued growth in New Jersey’s economy and state revenues,” Pratt said.
Last month, the Treasury reported that the state’s major revenues were up 2.5% from the year before.