Alaska’s Permanent Fund Dividend (PFD) is volatile and uncertain reflecting the Alaskan economy, which—typical of resource-exporting regions—is subject to volatile commodity prices, fear that resource exports will soon run out, and hope that a new export boom could be about to begin. The dividend is likely to decline this year as more difficult news about the state’s finances comes out, but new drilling could bring the first increase in oil exports in years.
The PFD is the only existing basic income in the developed world. Each year it pays an equal amount in cash to all citizens who meet the residency requirement, but the amount varies each year. The PFD is funded by the returns to the Alaska Permanent Fund (APF), a pool of investments created out of savings from the state’s oil revenue. The APF accumulates investments each year as new savings are deposited into it, but its value fluctuates with the world economy. The Alaska Permanent Fund Corporation (APFC), the state-owned corporation that manages the fund, uses a complex formula to make the yearly dividend less volatile than the yearly returns to the fund, but the dividend still is rather volatile.
After reaching a high of $2,069 in 2008 ($3269 if the one-time energy rebate is added), returns over the past three years have been $1,305 in 2009, $1,281 in 2010, and $1,174 in 2011. According to a recent press release by the APFC, the dividend level is likely to decline a little more this year. APFC will designate $605 million for distribution as dividends this fall—nearly $200 million less than the $801 million it designated for dividend payments in 2011. Therefore the dividend might slip under $1000 for the first time since 2005. The exact amount of the dividend will be announced in a few weeks and dividends will be distributed in October.
The main reason for the decline is the poor performance of world stocks. Although the APF has recently moved some of its funds into real estate investments, which have been doing well, they have not done well enough to make up for poor stock performance. The APF finished its fiscal year on June 30th with a yearly return of 0.02%.
Some recent news has been troubling for the future of the dividend. As discussed in this column recently, Alaskan oil exports have been declining for 20 years, but oil revenue has so far been buoyed by rising oil prices. However, according to the Fairbanks News-Miner, the recent decline in oil prices has threatened the state’s budget. “To cover the state budget for the coming fiscal year, which begins July 1, oil prices must average at least $104 per barrel.” But oil prices have recently been as low as $100, a price that would put the state budget into deficit if it were to continue.
Reduced oil revenue does not immediately threaten dividends, but it will reduce new deposits into APF, which will have a negative effect on dividends over time. If the state finds itself in permanent deficit, it is constitutionally prohibited from spending the APF principal, but it has the authority to reduce or cancel the PFD and use APF returns for other purposes. Whether the state would have the political will to do so is uncertain. It would probably depend on whether popular opinion was more strongly against elimination of PFD or the reintroduction of state sales or income taxes.
Typical of a resource-exporting region, Alaskans live with the constant fear of lost resource revenue and with the constant hope that new sources of resource revenue will be found. Not long ago there was a great deal of talk about a new natural gas pipeline that might replace oil revenue when North Slope oil runs low. The recent decline in the price of natural gas has made such a pipeline less attractive in the near future.
The latest new hope in Alaska is for offshore oil drilling. According to Alex DeMarban of the Alaska Dispatch, Shell Oil is about to start exploratory drilling off the Alaska coast. Federal law makes offshore oil the property of the federal government rather than the various state governments. However, several states along the Gulf of Mexico have recently made an agreement with the federal government to share more than one-third of the royalties for oil drilled off their coasts. This agreement might be precedent setting. If Alaska can get a similar deal, offshore oil will prove lucrative for the state and for the PFD, but not as lucrative as on-shore oil has been.
For more on these issues see the following links:
Alex DeMarban “Will offshore oil development in Alaska’s Arctic make the state rich? Don’t count on it.” The Alaska Dispatch, July1, 2012:
The APFC’s press release on its performance for the 2012 fiscal year (Permanent Fund flat for Fiscal Year 2012) is online at:
“Volatile stock market hinders return for Permanent Fund”
KTOO News Department, August 2, 2012. Online at:
“Alaska Permanent Fund’s 2012 investments flat, PFD payout smaller”
Alaska Dispatch, Aug 2, 2012
Becky Bohrer, “Alaska Permanent Fund dividend likely to shrink this fall”
The Associated Press, Aug 02, 2012