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Pension, borrowing choices later hit museums, arts groups

(MCT) Borrowing and spending on the assumption that more money and visitors would follow was not the only financial risk many cultural institutions took. They also put off pension payments and borrowed at unpredictable interest rates.

Those choices allowed museums and arts organizations to pay less up front but ended up costing them more in the long run. It also made it harder to restructure their debts when times got tough.

According to a 2012 report by Moody's Investors Service, about 66 percent of the bonds issued in 2010 by cultural institutions were variable-rate debt that lets interest rates fluctuate. By contrast, about 40 percent of the bonds in the nonprofit sector as a whole that year were variable-rate.

In Chicago, all of the bonds issued by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra to build the Symphony Center were variable-rate, as were the loans used to rehab the Lyric Opera and the Chicago History Museum. The Museum of Science and Industry, which borrowed conservatively for its size when it built new exhibits and improved its facilities, took out all $64 million of the loans in variable-rate debt.

Often, those organizations then took advantage of an option to "swap" out their variable rates for fixed ones. The idea was to guard against rising interest rates, but instead the swaps left them unable to benefit from historically low rates.

The swaps are also weighing down the organizations because they are counted as liabilities, limiting their ability to borrow more money. And if the institutions want to refinance their debts, they would first have to unwind the swaps, which can cost millions of dollars.

Adding to the financial woes at many cultural institutions is the need to fund large pension plans. While many companies no longer offer pensions, they are still common benefits at museums and for orchestra musicians, who are unionized.

In the robust early-2000s market, pension plans were flush and some institutions refrained from contributing to avoid over-funding, which is allowed under federal law. When the market weakened and interest rates fell, funding levels dropped. Yet the boards of many major cultural institutions continued to approve the skipping of annual pension payments.

The Art Institute, Field Museum, CSO and Adler Planetarium all elected not to make pension payments for several years at a time in the early 2000s, even as funding levels slipped.  Now all of them have either frozen plans, closed them to new employees or increased retirement ages.


©2013 the Chicago Tribune

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