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Glenn Hegar
Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts
Glenn Hegar
Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts
Glenn Hegar
Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts

Texas and the Credit Rating Agencies Determining the Cost of State Borrowing

by Elizabeth Barrett and Bruce Wright

Most of us find out, sooner or later, that our personal credit rating is important, generally when we start buying big-ticket items. Your credit rating can dictate how much you pay for a house or car, or even whether you can buy it at all.

State governments have credit ratings as well, and in their case the stakes are considerably higher; they spend and borrow billions of dollars each year, and even minor changes in their ratings can have multimillion-dollar impacts on their cost of borrowing.

Texas law authorizes state agencies to issue certain forms of debt to support state projects. This is primarily long-term general obligation debt — bonds backed by the “full faith and credit” of the state government — as well as some short-term debt including Texas Tax and Revenue Anticipation Notes (TRANs). (Texas will not be issuing TRANs this year due to the strength of its cash position.)

Every July, the Comptroller and a team of agency staff members visit the rating agencies to provide information intended to help them determine ratings for the upcoming year. At these meetings, the rating agencies obtain updates regarding the state’s economic condition, recent legislative actions and other matters related to its long-term credit rating.

Texas has the highest available credit ratings from the nation’s major agencies.

Rating Basics

The nation's major rating agencies, Moody’s, Fitch and Standard & Poor’s (S&P), issue ratings that characterize the state’s ability to repay debt.

The rating agencies provide investors with assessments of the “creditworthiness” of potential investments and the risks involved. And their opinions have dollars-and-cents implications, since they affect the cost of borrowing.

A bond or other debt instrument, after all, is a form of IOU, and more highly rated borrowers usually pay lower interest costs — also called the “risk premium” — based on the assumption that they’re more likely to be able to pay principal and interest when the debt becomes due. Many institutions, moreover, invest only in bonds the rating agencies judge to be “investment grade.”

Moody's, Fitch and S&P use similar but different methods to determine each state’s credit rating, based on factors such as the state’s economic and financial policies, its financial management practices and recent legislation affecting the state’s finances. The agencies’ ratings are accompanied by a commentary outlining the strengths and weaknesses that led to the rating. These debt ratings are reviewed at least annually and updated as the rating agencies deem necessary.

In the following sections, we’ll look at the yardsticks the rating agencies use to gauge Texas’ financial health, and their current assessments of our state.

Moody's Ratings

Moody’s rates long-term debt outlook as (in descending order) Aaa, Aa1, Aa2, Aa3, A, Baa and below. The agency credits Texas with a diversified and fast-growing economy, low bond debt, conservative revenue forecasting and the presence of the state’s Economic Stabilization Fund (its “Rainy Day Fund.”)

Areas of concern Moody’s cited in 2015 include a need for higher transportation and educational spending, as well as high poverty rates creating a need for services that may affect the state’s long-term financial security.

Moody’s Rating Criteria

Moody’s Rating Criteria Definition Factor Weight Factor Elements
Economic Strength The economic profile of the state, with relative economic strengths and weaknesses 20% • Per capita income versus U.S. average
• Industrial diversity
• Employment volatility
Governance The quality of financial decision-making and financial policies 30% • Financial best practices
• Financial flexibility vs. constitutional constraints
Financial Strength Financial structural balance produced by the decisions and practices of state policymakers 30% • Revenues
• Balances and reserves
• Liquidity
Debt Position The state’s debt and long-term liabilities as part of its overall financial health 20% • Bonded debt
• Adjusted new pension liabilities

Source: Moody’s Investors Service

Fitch Ratings

Fitch rates long-term debt outlook as (in descending order) AAA, AA+, AA, AA-, A+, A, A-, BBB and below. It credits Texas for low debt, a diverse and growing economy and its Rainy Day Fund. Areas of concern include the cyclical nature of the Texas energy industry and additional long-term funding needs for transportation, schools and water.

Fitch Rating Criteria

Fitch Rating Criteria Definition Factor Elements
Debt and Other Long-term Liabilities State debt and other long-term liabilities and their effect on affordability and flexibility • Debt ratios and trends
• Debt structure
• Future capital and debt needs
• Pension and other post-employment benefit funding
• Indirect risks and contingent liabilities
Economy The economy’s ability to yield the tax revenue needed to support ongoing operations and repay debts • Major economic drivers
• Employment
• Income and wealth
• Demographic factors
• Tax burden
Finances The state’s financial resources and ability to meet short- and long-term goals • Revenue analysis
• Expenditure analysis
• Operating margin trends
• Fund balance and reserve levels
• Liquidity
Management and Administration Management skills of state elected and appointed officials and staff • Institutionalized policies and budgeting practices
• Financial reporting and accounting
• Political, taxpayer and labor environment
• Revenue and spending limitations

Source: Fitch Ratings

Standard & Poor’s Ratings

S&P rates long-term debt outlook as (in descending order) AAA, AA+, AA, AA-, A+, A, A- and BBB. Each factor is scored on a scale from 1 (strongest) to 4 (weakest); each metric is averaged and added for a composite score that translates into a rating.

Standards & Poor’s Rating Criteria

Standards & Poor’s Rating Criteria Definition Factor Elements
Government Framework Government structure and political environment • Fiscal policy framework
• System support
• Intergovernmental funding
Financial Management State’s ability to make sound and timely financial and operational decisions in response to fiscal and economic demands • Financial management assessment
• Budget management framework
Economy A review to assess the state’s overall economic fundamentals • Demographic profile
• Economic structure
• Wealth and income indicators
• Economic development
Budgetary Performance State’s financial condition based on audited financial statements • Budget reserves
• Liquidity
• Tax/revenue structure
• Revenue forecasting
• Service levels
• Structural budget performance
Debt and Liability Profile Prioritization of debt service expenditures and other liabilities • Debt burden
• Pension liabilities
• Risk assessment for other post-employment benefits

Source: Standard & Poor’s Financial Services LLC

S&P credits Texas with strong employment growth, effective revenue forecasting and cash management and low debt. Areas of concern include long-term budget issues, primarily due to public school funding. FN

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