MuniLand

Detroit’s bankruptcy hearing – Day 4

In day four of Detroit’s bankruptcy eligibility hearing some big issues with both state and federal ramifications were addressed. It was the first time in American history that a sitting governor was called to testify in a Chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy case.

The twitter handle for Michigan Governor Rick Snyder is @onetoughnerd. Detroit’s Emergency Manager, Kevyn Orr’s twitter handle is @motownem.

 

 

A new local pension calculus

The team at The Center for State and Local Government Excellence has set a new standard in how local pension burdens should be reported in financial documents like CAFRs. The center’s new approach for measuring a municipality’s pension burden is to aggregate the direct cost of locally-administered pension plans (both city and taxpayers’ share of costs) and contributions to state teacher and non-teacher plans on behalf of dependent school districts. The aggregated cost is compared to a community’s revenues to understand how much must support pensions.

A lot of previous pension analysis looked at pension plans’ funding levels. This study looks at the cost to taxpayers to support the pension promises they have made.

CSLGE says that its approach “measures the direct cost on the city’s finances.” It’s a vital number, but it has not been used to report the full debt burden on taxpayers. For example, when a community has municipal, school, library and sewer debt, one can understand an individual taxpayer’s debt responsibility by adding these figures.

Detroit bankruptcy hearing – Day 2

If you want to follow Detroit’s historic bankruptcy trial, Twitter is the way to do it. The court does not provide a video or audio feed, but there is a scrum of excellent local and national reporters tweeting throughout the day. Here are some of the best tweets:

 

Ratings competition is good for muniland

Morningstar Ratings began when it purchased the respected independent rater Realpoint in 2010. Realpoint was only registered to rate structured finance products, and Morningstar has leveraged that authority to begin rating muniland.

Morningstar Ratings, as a Nationally Recognized Statistical Rating Organization (NRSRO), has to do a lot to prove its chops against bigger competitors Fitch, Moody’s and Standard & Poor’s.

I’ve been pushing for more competition among raters since 2003, so I think the entrance of Morningstar and others is fantastic. Markets benefit from more opinions. Shaking up the ratings business is needed for more timely and accurate ratings.

Detroit’s embedded time bomb

There are a lot of moving parts in the Detroit story as it goes through the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history. The strangest part of the story has been the interest rate swaps that were layered onto the city’s 2005 and 2006 pension obligation bonds.

The purpose of the swaps was to lower the city’s borrowing costs by using interest-rate arbitrage. Theoretically, if financial conditions had remained “normal,” the swaps would have been beneficial for the city. Instead, Detroit’s credit rating was downgraded and the financial crisis upended the delicate conditions that underpinned the swaps.

On July 18th, when Detroit’s Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr filed for municipal bankruptcy, he also filed a proposed settlement with the swaps counterparties. Orr’s proposal would pay the counterparties – UBS and Bank of America Merrill Lynch – between 75 and 82 cents on the dollar to terminate the swaps and move them out of the picture. This action insulates UBS and Bank of America from the hatchet job that Orr plans to give to other creditors in the course of the bankruptcy process. Those unprotected creditors include bond insurer Syncora, which insured the interest-rate swaps and the underlying pension obligation bonds.

Should China build a muni market?

Reuters reported on the possibility that China’s government will take the next step in building a municipal bond market. It seems that local governments in China have accumulated a lot of debt and it needs to moved off their books. From Reuters:

China may decide next month to expand a trial program allowing local governments to sell bonds, in response to concerns that their huge borrowings are largely hidden from view and pose a risk to the stability of the nation’s financial system.

How big is this debt?

Local government debt totals up to $4 trillion or 42 percent of gross domestic product, according to some unofficial estimates, but much of it has been raised via financing vehicles that do not disclose details on the size and health of loans.

The debate over Rhode Island’s pensions

Former SEC attorney Ted Siedle (currently formerly Putnam Investments’ compliance director), has issued a new investigative report that blasts Rhode Island Treasurer Gina Raimondo about her lack of transparency over the state’s pension investments. The report was commissioned by the Rhode Island chapter of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME).

Raimondo says that Siedle’s allegations are entirely driven by politics, but four Rhode Island public interest groups have nevertheless encouraged the treasurer to release the pension information. From Siedle’s report (page 5):

Recently, four open-government groups – Common Cause Rhode Island, the state’s chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, the Rhode Island Press Association and the League of Women Voters of Rhode Island released a letter to the Treasurer voicing their concerns regarding the Treasurer’s strategy of withholding hedge fund records. These groups believe that since the financial reports are paid for with public funds and detail how the state is investing the public’s money, they should be made public in their entirety; further they found ‘troubling’ the Treasurer’s decision to allow the hedge funds to decide what information to release.

Decriminalize the marijuana business

 

Slowly, the personal use of marijuana is becoming legal across America. The Council on State Governments reported:

Marijuana remains illegal under federal law, but last year, residents in both Colorado and Washington voted to make recreational use of the drug legal, essentially ignoring the 1970 law. Although these states have legalized a federally identified illegal drug, they are not the first to do so.

Starting with California in 1996, 21 states have made the use of medical marijuana for ailing patients legal. Of those 21, 16 states have decriminalized those found to be holding small amounts marijuana, six of which were added in 2013.

Detroit’s forsaken leaders

Being the emergency manager for bankrupt Detroit is no picnic. Coordinating the largest municipal bankruptcy in American history while simultaneously trying to restructure city operations, even with a posse of high-priced consultants, is a huge job. The current emergency manager, Kevyn Orr, wants to complete the bankruptcy and his term in 18 months. This is a recipe for inappropriate appointments, rich living and major mistakes.

Now the mayor of Detroit, Dave Bing, has weighed in with scathing comments about Orr’s performance. From The Detroit News:

Mayor Dave Bing reiterated Wednesday his growing frustration with how consultants and Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr have taken over City Hall and sidelined his team.

Puerto Rico unveils a plan

 

Puerto Rico’s top public officials held a two-hour conference call on Tuesday that was open to all investors. That may have been a first for the Commonwealth. Previous calls and conferences had been relatively restrictive in who was admitted. The yields on Puerto Rico’s debt have skyrocketed and the Commonwealth’s access into the public debt markets has been basically shut down. The open conference call was a good change of approach.

Bond investors want to hear the facts about Puerto Rico’s fiscal condition and how they will be repaid on their investments. The call made some progress toward that goal.

The economic and fiscal situation in Puerto Rico is still extremely dire. The economy is mired in a six-year malaise that would be worse if the Puerto Rico government had not issued debt to cover government deficits. As the island has moved away from issuing debt to plug holes in the budget, it has simultaneously reduced the amount of fiscal stimulus that has been injected into the economy. The economy shrank 5.4 percent year over year in August. It will likely shrink more as the Commonwealth reduces its deficit financing.

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