Roubini’s big muni report

By Felix Salmon
March 2, 2011
according to former CEO Camille LeBlanc, "pick a bank, pick a hedge fund—they're probably a client”. So if you know anybody on Wall Street, they might well have a copy lying around somewhere.)

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The RGE report on muni bonds is very good, and I’m sad I’m not allowed to share it with you. (On the other hand, according to former CEO Camille LeBlanc, “pick a bank, pick a hedge fund—they’re probably a client.” So if you know anybody on Wall Street, they might well have a copy lying around somewhere.)

I can, however, share the five-word executive summary from authors David Nowakowski and Prajakta Bhide: “Overblown default risk, underestimated problems.” It’s a neat formulation, since it helps to concentrate attention on the real fiscal issues facing the states, without getting alarmist and unhelpful about a possible wave of defaults.

There have always been some muni defaults, of course, and chances are that number is going to rise over the next few years. But RGE isn’t all that worried on the default front. For one thing, muni bonds tend to be pretty robust in downturns, for another, defaults will likely be clustered in non-rated issues. And from a systemic perspective things look even better: banks and other leveraged institutions don’t hold much in the way of muni bonds, and it tends to be leverage, rather than default itself, which causes the real damage.

On the other hand, the effects of avoiding default will be large and painful, with layoffs and tax hikes seemingly unavoidable.

RGE takes a very long view, looking at the history of US municipal debt since 1790. The worst that it ever got was the 1873 Long Depression, when muni bondholders suffered 25% defaults and 15% losses. They write, plausibly enough:

In RGE’s view, this period following Civil War, Reconstruction and Carpetbagging, and economic collapse goes far beyond stress tests and even most tail risks.

Two datapoints underline just how bad the 1873 depression was: indebtedness in the south was 295% of GDP, much of it money which had simply been trousered by corrupt politicians. And wealth in the south fell by 59% between 1860 and 1870. We’re nowhere near that bad today, or in the foreseeable future.

My own view of the the tail risk in the muni market is that it’s linked to monoline wraps: that if defaults rise high enough that munis can’t borrow any more, the political cost of default is diminished by the fact that bondholders will still get paid by insurers. In other words, you don’t need economic collapse for munis to default, you just need a critical mass of lots of other people doing it, and a colorable claim that default will be painless for most of your constituents. But RGE’s point is well taken — munis are pretty tough, as 220 years of history demonstrates. Let’s not write them off just yet.

And if you’re holding general obligation bonds, there’s another thing helping to support them: the diversification of revenue sources available to state and local governments.


You can see this graph as bad news, showing that states are increasingly reliant on fiscal transfers from the federal government. Or you think of it as good news, showing that when push comes to shove the government is willing and able to bail out the states, which are after all too big to fail in many cases. And as for the other revenues, only income taxes have failed to bounce back from the financial crisis. All other revenues, even property taxes, have stayed pretty stable, as tax rates have tended to rise to offset any fall in property values.

All that said, the fiscal situation facing the states is pretty bad. Fiscal transfers are certainly going away for the next couple of years, and expenditures are growing even as revenues aren’t. The figures for a state like, say, New Jersey are alarming indeed: a 2011 deficit of more than $10 billion, unemployment of 9.2%, and a debt-to-gross-state-product ratio of 11.8%. There will be cuts, and they will be harsh.

Finally, there’s the question of legal protections, and it turns out that bondholders are pretty well situated on that front:

The laws regarding debt restructuring are complex, and the status of bondholders in such cases is much higher in the “capital structure;” in many cases, more akin to secured creditors at an operating company level than a typical senior unsecured corporate bond at a holding company level…

The U.S. court system is highly unlikely to allow a state to impose permanent losses on investors in GO debt…

Bond security is very strong for most debt issuances, and is provided for in state constitutions, statutes, covenants with bondholders, and local ordinances. U.S. state and local government bonds are usually secured by a general obligation of the issuer. For local governments, this is generally accompanied by an unlimited property tax pledge and such taxes are senior to the property’s mortgage obligation. Other commonly issued municipal bonds are secured by a first lien on sales or income taxes.

The RGE report is very strong on this, and has set quite a few of my worries to rest. I feared that bondholders would have little recourse in the event of default, but it seems the opposite is true: they really hold all the cards, and even in the case of Chapter 9 bankruptcy they’re pretty well positioned.

None of this means, of course, that muni bonds are going to go up in value rather than down. If retail investors leave the asset class and institutional investors are forced to step in, they’re likely to demand much higher yields since they don’t get the same level of tax benefits. Or to put it another way, just because default risk is low doesn’t mean that credit spreads are going to be low too — there are a lot of supply-and-dynamics going on here which can pull prices far away from their fundamentals.

But it does seem that the main thing to worry about is muni bond prices falling, rather than municipalities actually defaulting. If prices fall, there will always be talk of default — but talk is cheap. Default, by contrast, at least for the time being, remains very expensive.


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