Analysts debate whether bankrupt Detroit can bounce back to health

Loss of population, dwindling revenue trouble city of Detroit.
By TOM KRISHER Published: July 20, 2013
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— Four years ago, America's Big Three automakers mortgaged all they owned or went into bankruptcy court to keep from going broke.

Since then, General Motors, Chrysler and Ford have all returned to full financial health, unlike Detroit itself, which filed for bankruptcy Thursday after years of painful decline.

So why can't the Motor City use bankruptcy to transform itself in the same way? Unfortunately for Detroit, it's not that simple. Automakers were able to shed most of their problems in bankruptcy court and come out leaner and more competitive. The city can get rid of its gargantuan debt, but a bankruptcy judge can't bring back residents or raise its dwindling revenue.

“In General Motors, at least you could have this dream about there being increased revenues in the future,” said Douglas Baird, a bankruptcy law professor at the University of Chicago. “It's much harder to do that in the case of a city like Detroit because it doesn't sell a product.”

Detroit, which filed the largest municipal bankruptcy case in American history, owes as much as $20 billion to banks, bondholders and pension funds. It has revenue of about $1.1 billion per year, a number that drops by about $100 million annually. And it's burdened with a running deficit of $327 million.

The city had to borrow $80 million from Bank of America last year just to keep the lights on.

City taxes are already at limits set by the state, so the only way Detroit can raise revenue is to attract more workers and residents so they pay taxes. But with high crime, poor services and decrepit neighborhoods, people are moving out rather than in. The population has fallen to around 700,000, less than half as many people as during the heyday of the 1950s.

Much of the city's debt to banks and bondholders is secured by tax revenue, and just how much the creditors get will have to be hashed out in court. A big chunk is owed to employee pension plans and for the health care costs of more than 18,000 retirees.

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