MuniLand

Muniland holds steady

Municipal bond ownership has remained relatively steady over the past year, according to the Federal Reserve’s latest Flow of Funds data, which was released yesterday (Fed’s L.211 Municipal Securities and Loans page 92). The data paints a different picture than the one we typically hear from the media of large outflows from retail investors and mutual funds following Meredith Whitney’s prediction of massive municipal defaults. Essentially the whole municipal bond market has increased slightly in size, growing from $2.842 trillion in 2Q 2010 to $2.886 trillion in 2Q 2011. Ownership for all categories has remained pretty steady.

The puzzling part is that the Federal Reserve continues to maintain that muniland is about $2.8 trillion in size. Back in June my colleguage Daniel Berger of Thomson Reuters Municipal Market Data kicked up a dust storm when he began to question the overall size of the municipal bond market. George Friedlander of Citigroup got on the story too and wrote the following:

After considerable conversation with Federal Reserve staff and recalculation based upon separate sources, we have concluded that the Fed’s data dramatically understates the amount of outstanding municipals. We now estimate that there is a sum total of roughly $3.7 trillion in state and local debt outstanding, in comparison with the $2.925 trillion reported by the Fed for year-end 2010. While the Fed may modify its data at some point, we felt that it was important to present this modified picture of the size and mix of holdings on a timely basis.

It would be useful if the Federal Reserve was able to verify the size of the muni bond market, especially as President Obama and the Congress make proposals to alter the tax treatment of these bonds. It would certainly help policy-making if there were accurate baseline data.

Moodys: Defaults and bankruptcies to remain “rare”

Reuters reports that the rating agency Moodys continues to see stress on state and local government finances but predicts few defaults or bankruptcies for municipal bonds. From Reuters:

Dark times at the post office

One of America’s oldest institutions is facing default. The United States Post Office could be forced to stop delivering mail at the end of September. The rhetoric around the issue is beginning to sound like the potential default of U.S. government debt obligations during the debt ceiling debate. A report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) tells the fiscal tale:

USPS has experienced a cumulative net loss of nearly $20 billion over the last 5 fiscal years. USPS does not now have—nor does it expect to have—sufficient revenue to cover its costs without legislative changes.

Every nation on earth has a postal service. Some countries have combined mail and phone services, although many have been privatized in recent decades. In Japan the post office is combined with the world’s largest deposit bank and mail carriers serve as bank tellers as they do their delivery rounds. Postal service is indispensable to an economy and society.

Harrisburg, PA next?

Bankruptcy for Harrisburg finally?

The fiscal troubles plaguing Harrisburg, Pennsylvania have been well telegraphed in muniland. Reuters detailed the problems earlier this month:

Pennsylvania’s state capital, a city of 50,000 about 100 miles west of Philadelphia, has been flirting with bankruptcy as it struggles to pay off $300 million in debt incurred through a financing scheme used to fund a revamp of its trash-burning plant.

In July, the city council rejected a rescue plan put forward by a state-appointed advisor that called on the city to sell the incinerator, renegotiate labor deals, cut jobs, and sell or lease its parking garage.

Political heat at S&P for ratings downgrades?

The Daily Show – What Are You Friggin’ Nuts Over There?

 

S&P replaces president after U.S. downgrade

The board of directors of McGraw-Hill met Monday and voted to oust Deven Sharma as president of their Standard & Poor’s rating division. This forced resignation comes approximately three weeks after S&P downgraded the debt of the United States. Jon Stewart, in the clip above, jokes about political pressure brought to bear on the company by the U.S. government. I think he is spot on with his humor.

Last week the U.S. Department of Justice just happened to discuss publicly an investigation of S&P and the other major raters about ratings assigned before the financial crisis to mortgage-backed securities, even though this investigation has been ongoing since 2009. Why the sudden need to reiterate this publicly? S&P’s downgrade was a brave action. It’s a pity that Deven Sharma has to pay for it with his job. As I wrote previously:

Standard & Poor’s took one of the bravest actions that I’ve ever seen a rater take when it downgraded the United States one notch. Furthermore, this marks a new beginning for accurate credit analysis and truth in fixed-income markets. Keep speaking the truth, S&P.

“We don’t have a deal”

The Jefferson County Commission met last Friday to decide if they would accept a proposed settlement from creditors led by JP Morgan on their $3 billion of sewer debt. After many hours of meeting in executive session and in public, the Commission voted to reject the proposal, remove the court appointed receiver and directly negotiate with the creditors.

I watched the live webcast of the meeting and it was actually one of the most open and informed county commission meetings that I’ve ever seen. I give the Commissioners a lot of credit for their efforts to clean up a problem which they did not create. In the meeting there was a lot of indignation against JP Morgan and their role in burdening the county with several billion dollars of derivatives. Several Commissioners felt especially that there had been fraud in these transactions and were not willing to release their right to sue JP Morgan and other banks for these problems. There were also calls for increased transparency in the process. There was a lot of drama in the meeting.

The drama was only heightened when county commissioner, T. Joe Knight, saw a message on his mobile device in the middle of the meeting that said the Wall Street Journal was running a headline announcing that an agreement had been reached. You can see the video of Commissioner Knight above shouting, “We don’t have a deal”. When I clicked over to the WSJ.com the paper was running a story that quoted the state finance director and said that the Commission had accepted the proposal although the Commission had not yet voted. The Wall Street Journal eventually yanked the false story and replaced it with this account which makes their error seem less odious:

Chapter 9 struggle: Unions are buying power

“The unions are buying power”

This is a great video of Stephanie Gomes discussing her experience as a member of the City Council in Vallejo, California, as they struggled through a municipal insolvency and bankruptcy. She talks about the power of the police and firefighter unions and their stranglehold on local politics. Gomes comes across as passionate citizen who was willing to confront some of the deep-seated problems in her community. She highlights the importance of local and national media attention on the “dirty laundry” of municipal finances like high salaries and generous pensions for union workers. Her experience is an important lesson for anyone interested in muniland.

Video via Vallejo Independent Bulletin and WPRI.com.

Jefferson County nearly files bankruptcy but instead ditches negotiator

The Birmingham News ran this above video of Jefferson County Commission President David Carrington discussing the commission’s meeting on Friday when they voted to delay filing Chapter 9 bankruptcy, cut out their court appointed receiver and deal directly with bond creditors. From what President Carrington says, it sounds like they almost filed bankruptcy at the meeting::

I thought we were going Chapter 9. I think I could take a test on Chapter 9 I know it so well.

Watch Jefferson County Commission hearing live

The Jefferson County Commission is meeting now to review a counter-proposals from creditors lead by JP Morgan and decide whether to accept it or file for Chapter 9 bankruptcy. Live feed via the Birmingham News.

To recap, Jefferson County, Alabama is getting a lot of attention as it negotiates with the holders of $3 billion of sewer bonds. The county would like to pay $2 billion to settle the $3 billion of bonds outstanding and limit the rate increases county residents would have to pay. This arrangement would pay bondholders (led by JP Morgan) 66 cents on the dollar — not a great recovery but not outrageous either. Bondholders want the state to guarantee this new arrangement and stand ready to pay in the event of another default.

Update on creditor offer terms (August 12, 2011) via the Birmingham News:

THE CREDITORS’ NEW PLAN

> Refinance a principal amount of $2.326 billion, with $233 million going into a debt service reserve, $23.3 million paying issuance costs and $2.07 billion to redeem all outstanding sewer warrants based on negotiated concessions.

Hospitals, higher ed and housing

Howard Cure, director of municipal research at Evercore Wealth Management, is asked in this Bloomberg video if Jefferson County, AL and Central Falls, RI are leading indicators of massive defaults in the municipal bond markets. He thinks not. After all, he says, these problems have been known for years.  For Cure, the real focus should be on what he calls the “three H’s:” hospitals, higher education and housing.  These entities are often heavily reliant on federal funds, which may be reduced in deficit negotiations. Muniland agrees and reminds everyone that there are vast differences in the fiscal and financial strengths of issuers.

Bondholders will win in trashed Rhode Island town

The Wall Street Journal is running a story on the Central Falls bankruptcy entitled “Bondholders Win in Rhode Island.” The story lauds how bondholders are ensured of receiving 100 cents on the dollar, although the bonds are currently valued at 62 cents on the dollar. Meanwhile retirees can expect their pensions to be cut by 34%.

Reading through the comments to a Providence Journal story on the threat to the state’s credit rating from the bankruptcy proceedings, I came across the following comment detailing the abject poverty of Central Falls, the community which is supposed to pay bondholders off at par. It’s shameful that a busted community would impose haircuts on all their creditors except bondholders.

Bondholders have cut the line

Something doesn’t seem right in Central Falls, the Rhode Island city that declared municipal bankruptcy yesterday. Now that the state receiver has filed Chapter 9, all the town’s dirty laundry has been hung out in public, and, like any bankruptcy, it’s not pretty. Overspending and declining tax revenues doomed this poor town, along with liberal doses of alleged corruption.

Here is what doesn’t seem right in Central Falls. The city is dead broke and those they owe money to are lined up at City Hall to collect. But for some odd reason, the city’s bondholders have pushed ahead of all the others in line to claim full repayment of their debts; those later in line must settle for 50 cents on the dollar. Retired police officers and firemen will have their pensions cut by 50%.

It wasn’t Central Falls’s decision to give preferential treatment to bondholders. Last year legislators in the state capitol passed a law making the claims of bondholders superior to all other claims in bankruptcy. The Rhode Island General Assembly’s action flies in the the face of common bond market practice, which is that bondholders get in line with everyone else and a judge overseeing bankruptcy proceedings gives a fair resolution to all the creditors.

The smallest city in the smallest state

Central Falls, Rhode Island — the smallest city in the smallest state — filed for bankruptcy today after years of decline. It is the fifth U.S. municipality this year to seek protection from the courts under the bankruptcy law. The Governor of Rhode Island stood with city officials as the bankruptcy process commenced. Reuters quoted him as saying in a statement:

“The current situation is dire and it necessitates decisive steps to put the city back on a path to solid financial footing and future prosperity,” Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chafee said in a statement.

Central Falls’s population peaked in 1930 and has declined ever since; it currently has only 19,000 inhabitants. The town is extremely poor with median household income of $22,628 and per-capita income of $10,825, according to the 2000 Census. Central Falls, like many hidden American towns, is at the end of municipal row.

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