Who will foot the bill for Detroit's bankruptcy?

The city plans to spread the financial pain among more than 100,000 creditors. But experts predict 'battles and battles' ahead.

By MSN Money Partner Dec 4, 2013 1:30PM
The Motor City Casino and hotel is seen through a hole in the wall of an abandoned building in Detroit, Michigan (© Ann Hermes/The Christian Science Monitor via Getty Images)By John W. Schoen, CNBC

The bill for decades of Detroit's financial decline has now come due.

A federal judge's ruling approving the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history Tuesday sets the stage for an epic legal battle over who will be asked to help pick up the tab, including bond investors, retired city workers, city vendors, state taxpayers, or Wall Street bankers.

"You're going to see battles and battles and battles on a variety of things," said Randye Soref, a bankruptcy attorney with Polsinelli in Los Angeles. "The question is whether you're going to see any real negotiation toward a plan."

The latest legal salvo was launched minutes after federal bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes finished a 90-minute explanation of his decision to allow Detroit to proceed with its efforts to restructure the crushing burden of some $18 billion in debt and other obligations. The city says roughly half of that amount represents pension and health care benefits owed retired city workers, whose union immediately asked for permission to appeal Tuesday's ruling to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals.

"We don't believe the city negotiated in good faith," AFSCME lawyer Sharon Levine said shortly after the hearing ended.

But while those appeals are heard, city officials will proceed with negotiations aimed at spreading the pain among the more than 100,000 creditors the city listed in a filing that runs more than 3,000 pages. After decades of financial decline, Detroit has no other options left, Rhodes said.

"The city does not have enough money to care for its residents, let alone pay its debts," Rhodes said. "Municipalities cannot print money."

The hunt for money to pay bills has gotten so serious, there is even talk of selling off the city's art collection. The Detroit Institute of Arts has between $452 million and $866 million of artwork that is owned or partially owned by the city, the auction house Christie's said after an appraisal.

Healthy cities rely on taxpaying citizens and businesses to pay the bill for city services. But after years of rising taxes and cutting services, Detroit has driven away large numbers of both. Since its heyday as the world's auto manufacturing hub, Detroit's population has dropped by more than half, to about 700,000. As businesses have fled, so have jobs: the city's jobless rate is more than twice the national average. 

The housing collapse of 2008 sparked a wave of foreclosures and falling property values, further eroding the city's tax base.

About 40 percent of the city's streetlights are out and some 78,000 abandoned buildings litter the city.

"The city no longer has the resources to provide its residents with basic police, fire and EMS services," Rhodes said. The average police response time is 58 minutes, more than five times the national average. "The city needs help," Rhodes said.

In the short run, Rhodes' ruling buys the city some time as it tries to plug a roughly $200 million a year revenue shortfall. As it works out a plan to get out from under its crushing debts, the city can now raise fresh cash to help pay the bills and begin rebuilding.

"Some lender are out there willing to invest in the city because for whatever reason they see this an opportunity for the city to rebuild itself," said Douglas Bernstein, a Detroit bankruptcy lawyer with Plunkett Cooney who is following the case. "If the bankruptcy process works the way it's supposed to, you start out with cleaner balance sheet, you rid yourself of the ghosts of the past and you move forward. "

But before they leave, those ghosts are looking for the biggest payouts they can negotiate.

Standing in the front of the line are UBS (UBS) and Bank of America's (BAC) Merrill Lynch unit, which hold a so-called interest rate swap that is costing the city roughly $50 million a year. These investments -- originally sold by Wall Street as a hedge against rising interest rates -- have now become a financial albatross for hundreds of state and local governments as interest rates have fallen to the floor.

"The swaps were an egregiously imprudent deal," said Wallace Turbeville, a municipal finance expert and former Goldman Sachs (GS) investment banker.

Now, rather than take the kind of haircut offered to other creditors now waiting their turn in bankruptcy court, the banks are proposing the city pay them 75 cents on the dollar, according to Bernstein.

"They seem to have negotiated a pretty good deal," he said. "But the other creditors are saying they shouldn't be treated as secured creditors. That test remains to be seen."

Holders of Detroit's $576 million worth of general obligation municipal bonds also face an important test -- one being watched closely investors in the $3.7 trillion municipal bond market. Widely considered as safe as secured debt, the city is proposing that investors in these so-called "limited tax" bonds accept as little as pennies on the dollar.

The city's proposal has already sent ripples through the municipal bond market. The judge's final ruling is being closely watched in city halls across the country that face the prospect of paying higher interest rates to attract jittery investors.

"People now have to go in wide eyes open buying those kinds of assets -- knowing that they aren't guaranteed," said Soref.

Detroit's retired city workers have already learned the hard way that their pension and health benefits aren't guaranteed either. Union officials appealing the city's proposed cuts argue they've already seen pensions and health benefits cut. But Rhodes said Tuesday that while he won't rubber stamp the city's proposal, the retirees pensions are fair game like any other city obligation.

"The pensions plan holders are sitting precariously," said Soref. "(The judge) was pretty clear that he views the pension debt no different than any other debt."

While Detroit's appeals for state aid have so far come up short, Lansing also is keeping a close eye on the outcome of the city's bankruptcy proceedings. Like many cities suffering form the withdrawal of state aid since the financial collapse of 2008, Detroit's revenue gap began widening considerably in 2011 when the state slashed more than $65 million in revenue sharing.

If the debt restructuring doesn't give the city enough breathing room, state officials may face increasing pressure to restore at least some of that aid.

The city is also looking at the possible sale of a large art collection that creditors say could be worth billions of dollars.

But unlike the corporate bankruptcies of two of the region's major employers, the sale of assets will provide only limited relief. Nor can the city can't scale back its product line or close sluggish sales territories, said Bernstein.

"Unlike like a General Motors or Chrysler the city doesn't have a product to sell other than itself," he said. "They are going to have to find a way of marketing the city. That means get rid of blight, have safe streets, turn the street lights on and have a school system that's worth somtehing."

Those rebuilding efforts are critical to the city's long-term viability. But they'll cost money -- something likely to remain in very short supply.

"They don't have a revenue base and they continue to bleed," said Soref. "Do you see an influx of people coming back to Detroit? Do you see business flocking to Detroit post bankruptcy? No matter what the outcome of the bankruptcy I don't see how the end game changes."

--Reuters contributed to this report

More on CNBC

Dec 4, 2013 1:56PM
Don't be surprised if Obama and the dems send taxpayer money to bail out the almost entirely DEMOCRAT city. This is the result of 50+ years of being run by the democrats and liberals. Like most  democrat programs they rely on other peoples money to keep them running.
Dec 4, 2013 2:23PM
This is the way Democrats govern, no Republican had a hand in the destruction of Detroit, just think what they are doing to the Federal Government. 
Dec 4, 2013 2:16PM
Once again, the people will end up paying for this total mismanagement of public funds. this is getting ridiculous ! 
Dec 4, 2013 2:22PM
Who will pay for Detroit's bankruptcy? The same people that pay for everything, the taxpayer. Surprised you even had to ask.
Dec 4, 2013 2:20PM
The people of the city have  no one else to blame but themselves. Who kept voting in the coleman young's and kilpatrick"s, the people of Detroit. Crooks and liars ran this city into the ground and now its time to pay up!  Detroit was once a great city, it will never return to being one if history is repeated
Dec 4, 2013 2:28PM

Damn, I thought Obama said if I voted for Romney - he would bankrupt Detroit.  I also remember Obamacare would not raise taxes on anyone making under 250k..... Can I get my vote back because he lied?

Dec 4, 2013 2:34PM
Didn't Obuma "save" Detroit already?
Wait - you mean he LIED ?

Dec 4, 2013 2:31PM

Detroit is the federal government's fault:


"You didn't build your business, the government did." - Obama



Dec 4, 2013 2:25PM
Can't paint this anything but Blacks and liberals. 
Dec 4, 2013 2:18PM
This and Africa is what you get when blacks run things. They need to stick to sports.
Dec 4, 2013 2:17PM
is this a Liberal state where they tax the hell of the worker and and steal from them and tell them we cannot you your money that we taken from you
Dec 4, 2013 2:31PM

I know this is a hard, hard thing, but I believe the overwhelming amount of the cash needed for Detroit's bailout should be borne by the citizens of Detroit.  THEY elected people that couldn't or wouldn't do the responsible thing by managing the city properly. THEY elected people who promised something for nothing- or much for little. THEY were hoping for a free lunch, even though they knew there is no such thing.  --And they elected these types of people over and over and over again.

There is no reason people from another city in Michigan, or any other state for that matter, should be forced to pay for someone else's mistakes.  Would we force Sears to pay to bail out J.C. Penney?

Would we force General Mills to bail out Nabisco? of course not.

If it is not done this way, then we will have taught other poor-performing city administrations that it is acceptable to be fiscally irresponsible, for some other more responsible set of people will fix it.

Dec 4, 2013 2:39PM

Like CA cities run by liberals, Detroit spent more than it took in and it too is broke. This is the same plan liberal give away Obama has for the US. The US will be broke when Obama is done.


Like the Obama sheeple, the Detroit sheeple all danced and shouted how great it is until it came time to pay for their childish spending. Now the sheeple are whining and crying its not fair. Too bad as you got the ignorant liberal government you voted in, so now pay the price for you stupidity.


Slash all their pensions so they can pay for their bad voting decisions! 


Sadly, the liberal sheeple won't learn a thing from this lesson.

Dec 4, 2013 2:28PM

Pay attention UNIONs: Almost unilaterally you have supported Democrats in the elections, on promise of being "Labor friendly" and lucrative CB agreements.

Just because the Democrats promise you something in return for your support, doesn't mean you are going to get it.

The unions have supported all the Democrats whom have run the city.  WHAT DID THAT GET YOU?

Such incompetence is criminal, and rightly so you now will pay with a portion of the pensions you were promised.  You cant just blindly trust what someone tells you i.e. Union Members. 

Don't listen to what your local or national union leaders tell you.  They do not have your best interests at heart. 

Instead educate yourself on who you vote for!  Which candidates are most closely aligned with your ideals?

The right to Choose and make up our own minds is one of the last True Freedoms we have!!

Use IT!!

Dec 4, 2013 2:28PM





 "The fact that we are here today to debate raising America's debt limit is a sign of leadership failure. It is a sign that the US Government cannot pay its own bills. It is a sign that we now depend on ongoing financial assistance from foreign countries to finance our Government's reckless fiscal policies. Increasing America's debt weakens us domestically and internationally. Leadership means that, 'the buck stops here.' Instead, Washington is shifting the burden of bad choices today onto the backs of our children and grandchildren. America has a debt problem and a failure of leadership. Americans deserve better."
   ~ Senator Barack H. Obama, March 2006

Dec 4, 2013 2:43PM
Oprah W. & all her billions should do so.
Dec 4, 2013 2:45PM
An all minority city in the USA will never be successful. Not racism but realism.
Dec 4, 2013 3:16PM

Mammy, what's socialism and what's is racism?

Honey chil, socialism is where we gets our benefits , we gets our free medical, food stamps, housing, cell phones, electricity, stuff like that. We gets it from folks that work.

But Mammy, don't the folks that work complain about it?

Yes honey chil, that's called racism

Dec 4, 2013 2:30PM
PHILADELPHIA one of the next... Our city already on the list of worst cities for small businesses and very high taxes....
Dec 4, 2013 2:42PM
Detroit is just the beginning in this once fine country. Decades of mis-management, political corruptness and Liberal giveaways are now catching up with the large metropolitan areas. Detroit is just the first of many and is in worse shape than the rest. Hold on to what you have left middle class Americans.......you think the economy is in the toilet now? Just wait!!!!
Please help us to maintain a healthy and vibrant community by reporting any illegal or inappropriate behavior. If you believe a message violates theCode of Conductplease use this form to notify the moderators. They will investigate your report and take appropriate action. If necessary, they report all illegal activity to the proper authorities.
100 character limit
Are you sure you want to delete this comment?


Copyright © 2014 Microsoft. All rights reserved.

Fundamental company data and historical chart data provided by Morningstar Inc. Real-time index quotes and delayed quotes supplied by Morningstar Inc. Quotes delayed by up to 15 minutes, except where indicated otherwise. Fund summary, fund performance and dividend data provided by Morningstar Inc. Analyst recommendations provided by Zacks Investment Research. StockScouter data provided by Verus Analytics. IPO data provided by Hoover's Inc. Index membership data provided by Morningstar Inc.



Quotes delayed at least 15 min
Sponsored by:


There’s a problem getting this information right now. Please try again later.
There’s a problem getting this information right now. Please try again later.
Market index data delayed by 15 minutes

[BRIEFING.COM] S&P futures vs fair value: +0.50. Nasdaq futures vs fair value: +5.30. Equity futures point to small gains at the open. 

Asian markets finished mixed amid a quiet overnight trade. 

Economic data from the region was limited to Japan's trade balance, which posted a record March trade deficit of JPY1.71 trln (JPY1.27 trln expected, JPY1.18 trln previous) on a 1.8% rise in exports and 18.1% jump in imports.


There’s a problem getting this information right now. Please try again later.