MuniLand

Muniland is shrinking

Muniland bond issuance is slowing, according to Thomson Reuters data. Year-to-date issuance through June was $176 billion versus $194 billion in the same period a year ago. Thomson Reuters broke down the data by the largest issuing states and region of the country above. The West, likely fueled by California, and the Southwest were the only regions that borrowed more this year than last. It would be interesting to map this against economic growth across the country.

 

This chart shows how municipal bond issuance for new money projects has remained steady at around $70 billion this year to date, while issuance to refund higher coupon bonds has slowed from $125 billion to $106 billion. As interest rates go up, refunding higher coupon bonds with new bonds slows refunding issuance. If interest rates continue to go up, this source of new issuance will likely shrink considerably.

There are many factors that are weighing on issuance, but the primary one is likely to be the high-rate environment. There are other factors like shrinking federal revenues due to sequestration and rising pension and healthcare costs for state and local governments. There has been more active pressure from rating agencies about future liabilities like pensions and a lot of uncertainty about the direction that Congress will take regarding capping the muni bond tax exemption.

The tone of muniland has changed from rosy bliss to a rocky road this last year. Detroit’s bankruptcy filing must have sent a chill down the spine of every municipal official. Intensifying short-term pressures include massive outflows from municipal bond mutual funds, which crimps their ability to be buyers in the primary market. It’s a stormy sea in muniland.

Muniland is shrinking. Pressures are weighing on issuers and much of their necessary funding can be deferred. It’s likely that muniland will continue to shrink.

Diluting the MSRB

Muniland’s overseer, the Municipal Securities Rulemaking Board, has a big job keeping the $3.7 trillion municipal bond market in order. The MSRB was first authorized by Congress in 1975 and mandated to have 5 securities firms, 5 bank dealers and 5 public members. It was nonetheless dominated by the views of bank and dealer members, rarely undertaking investor protection initiatives. There was minimal oversight of municipal bond trading and underwriting practices as dealer banks were steering the ship.

After some gruesome muniland disasters like this one detailed by Bloomberg, Congress added law within the Dodd-Frank bill for the MSRB:

Joseph Ambrosini says the deal looked so easy. JPMorgan Chase & Co. bankers told him there was really no risk. All he had to do was sign a public financing contract, and the bank would give $280,000 to his school district in New Castle, Pennsylvania.

Can Philadelphia borrow to save its schools?

Philadelphia will borrow $50 million to fund the opening of its school system on September 9th. Reuters reported:

The city of Philadelphia will borrow $50 million in the capital market for its cash-strapped public schools so they can rehire about 1,000 furloughed employees and open on time on Sept. 9, Mayor Michael Nutter said on Thursday.

It’s not clear, however, that Philadelphia can assume debt for the school. I discovered this while reading the Philadelphia school district financial statement (page B-93):

Muniland, meet your issuers

 

Bloomberg’s Joe Mysak, whom I consider the king of muniland, had a delightful stream of consciousness via Twitter today about how little information he had to report from when he was a muni reporter in the 1990s. In one tweet he laments the lack of access to preliminary official statements for bond offerings. To get one, “you basically had to rely on spies,” he says.

Thankfully, those days are over. Official statements are in the public domain via a giant file cabinet called EMMA, which is maintained by the Municipal Securities Rulemaking Board. It’s muniland’s equivalent to the SEC’s Edgar system for corporate securities (actually it’s even more advanced).

How safe are GO bonds?

Detroit’s Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr and Michigan Governor Rick Snyder have told some bondholders that they will not be repaid at 100 cents on the dollar in Detroit’s bankruptcy plan. Lamentations ring out across the nation. This treatment of general obligation (GO) bonds – the gold standard for municipal securities – has rocked the market.

Here is the formal description of GO’s from the MSRB (emphasis mine):

[General obligation] typically refers to a bond issued by a state or local government that is payable from general funds of the issuer, although the precise source and priority of payment for general obligation bonds may vary considerably from issuer to issuer depending on applicable state or local law.

Most general obligation bonds are said to entail the full faith and credit (and in many cases the taxing power) of the issuer, depending on applicable state or local law. General obligation bonds issued by local units of government often are payable from (and in some cases solely from) the issuer’s ad valorem taxes [property taxes], while general obligation bonds issued by states often are payable from appropriations made by the state legislature.

Where is Detroit’s sales tax?

I have read about 5,000 stories about the collapse of Detroit. I keep searching for some useful or novel idea for fixing the city, and what I haven’t seen is any discussion of raising taxes.

I wrote yesterday about Stockton, California putting a 3/4 cent sales tax increase on the ballot. The city intends to use the new revenue to put more police on the streets. I thought about how little of Detroit’s revenues came from sales tax, and I wondered why a tax couldn’t be implemented to lift the city out of bankruptcy.

According to the Detroit News, Detroit has the highest property tax rate in the country:

Stockton proposes sales tax hike to put police on the street

Stockton, California was a topic on Morgan Spurlock’s Inside Man program on CNN this week. The focus was on the increase in crime since the city slashed spending on police and fire in its bankruptcy proceeding. 70 percent of the city’s budget is spent on “safety” needs, and the city is broke.

After the housing crisis cut property tax collections, the ax in Stockton had to fall on the next-largest area of spending. City employee payrolls were cut 25-30 percent for public safety and 40 percent for non-safety positions. Now the city has a 3/4 cent sales tax increase on the ballot for November to add police to the streets. The proposed tax would raise an estimated $28 million dollars the first year. It’s an excellent idea, but not a panacea for the city’s deep fiscal problems.

Stockton pays very high salaries to city employees, especially to fire and police workers. As I wrote in March:

Europe’s privatization of public assets isn’t a model for the U.S.

Chart: Policy Dialogues

Some think that when it comes to privatizing U.S. public assets, our nation is a laggard and we really should be following the path of Europe in selling infrastructure into private hands. Here is attorney Kent Rowey, who is a leading infrastructure privatization attorney (and whom I’ve sparred with previously):

This should be a golden age of public-private partnerships — the need exists in cities across the country. And the capital is there, from private investors seeking long-term returns. American infrastructure has fallen behind countries like France, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Poland, Hungary and countries that have long embraced privatization of urban systems. Ironically, the United States has become an emerging economy when it comes to developing P3 projects — in which opportunity needs to be matched with political will and bold thinking to undertake.

Europe went through a massive privatization process starting under Margaret Thatcher in the 1980’s. But unlike the United States, U.K. and European countries had enormous state holdings that encompassed telecoms, utilities, banks, manufacturing and energy companies and many other industries. Few of these are under public control in America, which makes the pool for privatization much smaller.

Detroit’s emergency manager sure loves the media

#Detroit EM Orr was one of Miami's "most eligible men" in 1990, thank you @MaryellenTighe for the best fact of the day! #muniland

— Kate Smith (@laKateKate) August 8, 2013

I’ve closely watched five municipal bankruptcies, Jefferson County, Alabama, Central Falls, Rhode Island, Vallejo, Stockton and San Bernardino in California and two near bankruptcies in Mammoth Lakes, California and Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Never have I seen the person managing a bankruptcy process seek media attention like Detroit’s Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr.

You can watch video interviews of Orr done with Detroit television stations and newspapers, national broadcast networks and national financial media like Reuters, the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times. This media rush began before Orr dropped his Proposal to Creditors on June 14th. I was astonished at the time that Orr had pre-packaged and distributed how he wanted creditors treated. This step usually happens much later in a bankruptcy process. Although Orr claimed that he wanted to use his proposal as a template for negotiations with creditors he held no meetings with retirees, unions or bondholders other than marching these groups into city auditoriums and presenting Powerpoint presentations. Everyone of these groups say that Orr did not hold “good faith” negotiations; a requirement to be accepted into Chapter 9 bankruptcy.

The real history of public pensions in bankruptcy

There appears to be a frenzy of comments lately that public retirees receive excessive pensions in the current economy and that they need to be reduced. Many in the media have taken a brief look at Detroit and decided that costly pensions were the cause of the city’s bankruptcy. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Detroit pays a relatively modest median pension of $19,000 a year to general government retirees and $30,000 to police and fire retirees. Detroit’s pension system was funded at 82 percent in 2011 (and at 99 percent for its police and fire retirement system). That is higher than the national median of 74 percent. But public benefits make easy targets for critics. Let’s take a tour of pensions in bankruptcy through the years.

Attorneys Kenneth E. Noble and Kevin M. Baum describe Prichard, Alabama:

Prichard, Alabama, which experienced a population decline of approximately 50 percent over the past 50 years, filed for bankruptcy in 1999 after it was unable to pay approximately $3.9 million in delinquent bills. In addition to the unpaid bills, Prichard also admitted to not making payments to its employees’ pension funds and, even though the city had withheld taxes from employees’ paychecks, the city failed to submit such withholdings to the state and federal governments.

While in bankruptcy, the city successfully revised its budget so that it no longer operated at a deficit. However, Prichard was still unable to meet its pension obligations. In 2009, Prichard filed for bankruptcy for the second time in order to stay a pending suit brought by its pensioners after it failed to make pension payments for six months. In its chapter 9 petition, the city claimed that during the previous year it had operated a $600,000 deficit on its $10.7 million budget. Further, Prichard had failed to make a $16.5 million payment to its pension fund under its previous plan of adjustment.

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