Sallie Krawcheck should not run the SEC

The New York Times reported on Wednesday that Sallie Krawcheck, formerly of Citi and Bank of America, is the leading contender to be named chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission. Let’s hope that President Obama comes to his senses and names someone more fit to the post. From the Times:

With Ms. [Mary] Miller withdrawing, Sallie L. Krawcheck, a long-time Wall Street executive, has emerged as a potential front-runner. Over the last year, she has become a familiar face in Washington, making the rounds with lawmakers to discuss consumer issues.

In my time working with the agency over a number of years I have been involved in multiple rounds of rule writing about the regulation of credit rating agencies. There are some particular kinds of personality traits that are necessary to herd and motivate an agency of over 1,000 lawyers. Based on my reading of her record, Ms Krawcheck is not qualified to take on this role.

The SEC has two primary functions. To write rules for the financial markets, an especially onerous task under the Dodd-Frank law, and to enforce those rules. The SEC also regulates several “self regulatory organizations” (SROs) such as FINRA, which oversees broker-dealers and the MSRB, which is responsible for the municipal bond market.

The SEC also works closely with the Commodities Futures Trading Commission (CFTC), Congress, the Federal Reserve, the Office of Comptroller of the Currency and foreign securities regulators through its membership on the International Organization of Securities Commissioners (IOSCO). The SEC also coordinates its works with the Financial Accounting Standards Board, a private sector group, to create authoritative public company accounting standards.

What happens to muniland in 2012?

It looks like smooth sailing for the municipal bond market in 2012, according to three senior market participants who exchanged views at the Fitch Ratings 2012 Municipal Credit Forum. Continued strong demand for municipal bonds, ongoing low bond issuance, favorable Federal Reserve rate policy and major banks upping their direct loans to municipal entities will make 2012 another strong year.

Estimates of how many new municipal bonds will be issued in 2012 ranged from $300 billion to $350 billion. George Friedlander, a municipal strategist at Citigroup, dug a little deeper than the gross numbers and discussed the maturity profile of the municipal debt market. He talked about “bond years outstanding,” which is a new concept to me. Friedlander explained that with the massive amount of bond refundings that are happening in this low-interest-rate environment, the overall maturity of bonds outstanding is contracting. Or, to put it another way, as municipal bond issuers call long maturity bonds, they are replacing them with shorter duration bonds at lower interest rates. This shrinks the amount of bonds available in the 15-30-year range. It could help explain the new lows that the Thomson Reuters MMD AAA scale keeps hitting for longer maturity bonds. Friedlander had estimated that there was $90 billion more in bond refundings in 2011 than new issuance.

Given that refundings took up a big portion of 2011 bond issuance, Friedlander projected that there was $170 billion of “new money” that flowed into muniland last year. Much of the cash invested in the muni space was “old” money that investors had from their refunded bonds. This would help explain the meteoric performance of muniland in 2011, and it’s likely to have big implications for 2012.

Michigan’s unemployment insurance bonds

Michigan called on Citibank to help repay about $3 billion the state owed to the federal government for expenses racked up during the deepest part of the recession. Like many states, Michigan had to manage soaring unemployment insurance costs and borrowed from the feds to help workers who had lost their jobs. Washington had given these loans on very advantageous terms, but like a teaser rate for a credit card, those are expiring and interest costs will soon jump for borrowers. So Michigan, like Texas and Idaho, has refinanced these payments.

Michigan’s new UI bonds, underwritten by Citibank, use some of muniland’s favorite structures with a few twists. The bonds are “variable rate demand revenue” bonds, which are cousin to the the more commonly known “variable rate demand obligation” bonds (VRDO).

The “variable rate” part of  ”variable rate demand revenue” bonds refers to the interest rate which is reset weekly through a remarketing process. Although these UI bonds are issued for a two-year maturity the weekly resetting allows the borrower to a pay much lower interest rate. The structure also allows the bond’s owner to put the bond back to the “remarketing agent” at the weekly auction.

Let Europe kill municipal CDS

The solution to Greece’s debt crisis that Europe’s leaders announced on Thursday has market participants and commentators howling. It includes a provision that changes long-established rules for credit-default swaps mid-game. Mike Dolan, Reuters’ Investment Strategy Editor in Europe, said this:

For all the ifs and buts about the latest euro rescue agreement, one of its most profound market legacies may be to sound the death knell for sovereign credit default swaps — at least those covering richer developed economies.

I’d suggest that death knell just rang for U.S. municipal credit-default swaps (CDS), too. They’ve recently been on their last legs amid collapsing volumes, but actions in Europe just might have delivered the deathblow.

Yet another Bridge to Nowhere?

Alaska got a lot of attention several years ago when members of Congress belittled and then stripped the funding for the infamous “Bridge to Nowhere.” You would think the issue would have faded away as quietly as the Alaskan wildnerness, but the state’s penchant for building bridges to places with few inhabitants has actually been reborn in the Knik Arm Bridge Project, or the Bridge to No Where Part 2. And this time it’s not only members of Congress who are skeptical– locals are pushing back on this new project with lots of facts.

I’m not Alaskan, so it’s not my place to argue whether building a two-mile bridge to an undeveloped area would spur economic growth in the future. But I can look at the proposed public-private partnership that’s financing the project and say that Alaskans will bear all the financial risk and private participants will get a great part of the gain. As was said frequently during the financial crisis, the losses will be socialized and gains will be privatized. This is two-mile long extension of that maxim.

After reading a number of documents related to the Knik Arm Bridge, I estimate the cost to be about $1.5 billion. The Alaska Legislature created a public agency called KABATA in 2003 to create a method to finance the construction, operation and maintenance of the proposed bridge. KABATA has sought Congressional funding and low-cost loans from the U.S. Department of Transportation and is now pursuing a unique setup whereby a private firm builds the bridge and maintains it but bears no financial risk. It’s not clear why it’s necessary to have a private firm involved; after all there is really no privatization involved.

Muni sweeps: How does $775 billion of bonds go missing?

How does $775 billion of bonds go missing?

There is a sleeper story in muniland about a big pile of just-discovered municipal bonds. The story has some odd twists and turns. John McDermott of FT Alphaville scooped the details yesterday:

FT Alphaville typically estimates the size of the muni market at $2,900bn, based on year-end 2010 data from the Federal Reserve. The FT uses the same figure, occasionally rounding up to $3,000bn.

But the Fed is underestimating the size of the market by nearly $800bn, according to analysis by Citigroup’s municipal bond team.

Muni sweeps: Christie’s battles are not credit positive

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We are a nation of states with differing political cultures and leaders.  Loud leaders and quiet leaders.

The loud ones get most of the attention. Do financial markets reward the loud ones too?  Not always it seems.

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie gets a lot of attention for his approach to governing. And has garnered a lot of political interest for his full-on attack on his state’s municipal unions. See the video above for an example.

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