A smarter way for Congress to talk about muni tax code

Chris Mauro, head of U.S. municipal strategy at RBC Capital Markets, sent around a comment note suggesting that the media coverage of the Senate Finance Committee hearing Wednesday that included discussion of possible changes to the taxation of municipal bonds was overheated:

Yesterday, the Senate Finance Committee held a hearing entitled “Tax Reform: What It Means for State and Local Tax and Fiscal Policy”. A simple reading of the media accounts of this hearing would lead one to believe that the entire event was dedicated to a detailed discussion of the future of the tax-exempt status of municipal bond interest. So we decided to review the tape of the hearing in order to see what in fact was discussed. In reality, the vast majority of the hearing was focused on two issues – the deductibility of state and local taxes by federal taxpayers and the ability of state and local governments to collect sales taxes on internet and catalog purchases.

Both Committee Chairman Max Baucus and Ranking Member Orrin Hatch made some passing comments about tax-exempt bonds and the federally subsidized taxable Build America Bond (BABs) program, with Baucus making generally positive statements about BABs and Hatch making generally negative ones. Senator Maria Cantwell of Washington State expressed some concern about the importance of tax-exempt bond financing to public power utilities in the northwest, but beyond that, there wasn’t a whole lot of discussion about the muni tax exemption.

In our view, the biggest take-away from the hearing was just how far away we seem to be from a comprehensive tax reform package actually becoming reality. We found it informative that at several points during the hearing, Senator Baucus discussed the difficulty Congress has in identifying which tax expenditure items need to be cut in order to lower overall tax rates, asking the witnesses during one exchange to contribute some creative ideas in that regard. This confirms something that the market already knows but needs to be continually reminded of – real comprehensive tax reform is extremely difficult to pull off and will take a considerable amount of time to accomplish.

I didn’t watch the hearing but it sounds as if RBC’s Mauro read the tea leaves pretty well. I’m sure that Congress is having difficulty identifying where to amend the tax code to make it fairer and raise additional revenue or have revenues remain neutral. The deliberative congressional process gives all the issue’s players a chance to be heard, and tax matters are often the most fiercely fought. But the other thing I noticed in Mauro’s note was that Congress is looking for new ideas to address this complex issue.

Forget Volcker — bring back Glass-Steagall

Imagine you are a financial regulator whose agency is underfunded, understaffed and under-trained and that firms under your jurisdiction are likely to pick off your best employees by offering them triple the salary you pay them.

Furthermore, imagine that Congress has written an 800-page law that instructs you to write and enforce new regulations on banks and securities firms to ensure financial stability for the system. The most complex part of this new law, the Volcker Rule, would require you to cooperate with three other agencies to jointly issue a 530-page Proposed Rule that asks 1,300 questions.

Now imagine that in the course of honing this rule, 17,000 comment letters will flow into your agency, the majority of which promote the status quo.

The impact of defense cuts

Reductions to our outsize military budget are scheduled to take effect in 2013. Congressional Republicans have vowed to reverse these mandated reductions, but so far organized resistance in Congress has not appeared. President Obama has vowed to veto any legislation that would overturn the cuts.

I previously described the size of the annual reductions:

President Obama proposed spending approximately $924 billion on defense, veterans care and international affairs for 2012. This represents about 24.7 percent of the $3.729 trillion federal budget. The automatic cuts to these areas required by the Budget Control Act of 2011 will equal about $75 billion per year over eight years. This would be on top of already enacted Defense Department reductions of $45 billion per year over 10 years. The combined $120 billion of annual spending cuts will equal about 12.9 percent of the joint budget for defense and intelligence. It’s a big cut, but it would barely dent the capabilities of the biggest military force on earth.

Annual reductions of 13 percent are substantial, but the nation will still spend significantly more than any other on earth. And it’s important to remember we will be spending 25 percent of our federal budget on the military even though, it is hoped, we will not be fighting a war. It’s not clear that the U.S. would have the “fiscal space” to ramp up spending to fight another big war and care for Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid beneficiaries.

Lessons from MF Global

The October bankruptcy of MF Global has been the subject of several Congressional hearings recently. 38,000 MF Global clients lost $1.2 billion in the collapse, and numerous regulators, as well as the Department of Justice, have been trying to unravel hundreds of thousands of transactions to discover how this client money disappeared. Weeks later, it’s still unknown whether clients will have their funds returned or whether any laws were broken. What is certain, though, is that even after the passage of Dodd-Frank, our regulatory system has large supervisory gaps.

The derivatives and futures businesses in which MF Global operated are complex, and it’s easiest to understand the firm as a large transaction processor that served its futures clients by connecting them to exchanges around the world. MF Global was both a broker-dealer and a futures commission merchant, meaning it was regulated by the SEC as well as the CFTC. In addition, MF Global was overseen by the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) and the CME, two self-regulatory organizations empowered by the SEC.

The big problem with oversight of MF Global within the U.S. is that there were too many regulators with only a small window into the firm’s activities and none with the ability to see the full scope of risks and capital of the holding company. How can we fix this?

Drum circle of the war hawks

The war hawks, desperate to avoid huge impending cuts to the defense budget, have formed a drum circle to stall the reductions and are beginning to pound out a rhythm. Seung Min Kim of Politico reports:

Congressional Republicans are still full throttle in their efforts to dismantle the automatic spending cuts that would be particularly painful to the Pentagon.

A quartet of Senate defense hawks [Republican Senators Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, John McCain of Arizona, Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, and Jon Kyl of Arizona] announced on Wednesday they’ll introduce legislation to undo hundreds of billions of dollars in defense cuts by replacing it with budget savings elsewhere. Those across-the-board cuts were mandated by the supercommittee’s inability to strike a deal slashing the nation’s deficit by at least $1.2 trillion over the next decade.

Franchise the Post Office

Since the news came out that the United States Postal Service lost about $10 billion in the last fiscal year, various proposals have been swirling around to make it profitable going forward. Some have called for the closure of half of the mail processing centers, the elimination of Saturday home delivery, and the possible closure of about 3,650 rural post offices.

But instead of closing those 3,650 rural post offices, how about we convert them to franchises using the model of United Parcel Services?


Washington’s misguided pension panic

Many state and local pension funds are still struggling from the financial crisis. Between 2007 and 2008, they recorded a loss of 27 percent. Pension assets have bounced back some – they stood at $2.664 trillion at the end of Q3 2011 – but are still approximately 17 percent below their 2007 high. Although many state legislatures and city councils have taken steps to shore up their pension funds, including the elimination of cost-of-living adjustments and requirements for higher contributions from employees and taxpayers as well as later retirement ages, there are still struggles ahead.


The soft side of federal spending

It’s not clear that Congress is capable of doing its job of managing the nation’s purse strings. Capitol Hill failed at identifying a combination of tax increases and reductions in spending that would have lowered our growing debt burden. Now every constituency that draws funds from the U.S. Treasury is angling to push others away from the trough. A perfect example is the internecine warfare to come over defense cuts. Here is a slick ad against funding for the military’s nuclear arsernal obviously coming from the traditional munitions and equipment makers:

The military players are well versed at battling over the spoils. But it’s the soft side of federal spending, where social support and services are funded, that is less equipped to fight over its share of decreased funding.

The automatic cuts that kick in due to the failure of the supercommittee are aimed at defense, Medicare and Social Security, and other discretionary social programs. The legislation spares cuts for Medicaid payments to states. It’s interesting that this area was protected when other major areas of the budget will have reductions. Medicaid cuts were the reductions that governors and county officials feared most because they consume an increasing amount of state and local budgets. Maybe governors were the real winners of the lobbying game when the Budget Control Act of 2011 was being written.

Don’t let the hawks win

The Supercommittee has failed. Their mandate to cut $1.5 trillion from the federal budget over 10 years was too great a hurdle for its members to climb. Now the automatic provisions of the Budget Control Act of 2011 will kick in. These require half of the $1.2 trillion in spending reductions to come from the Departments of Defense, Homeland Security, and Veterans Affairs; the National Nuclear Security Administration; some management functions of the intelligence community; and the international affairs budget from the State Department.

Already the fight over these required cuts is on. The war hawks in Congress are starting to circle in an effort to kill the automatic cuts to the military that are included in Budget Control Act. Reuters reports:

[T]he defense industry turns to lawmakers to undo the automatic cuts known as “sequestration.”

Cutting the ratings agencies the tiniest bit of slack

After polluting the global financial system with hundreds of billions of dollars of overrated mortgage-backed securities and helping bring down the world economy, the credit rating agencies have been struggling mightily to repair their reputations. It’s been an uphill climb, and they were dealt another blow on Friday when a Bloomberg piece detailed academic research showing how fees influenced the assignment of higher ratings. Municipal issuers got the harshest ratings because they paid the lowest fees, according to the article.

Although higher fees definitely played a part in inflated ratings, I think there are a lot more powerful market forces at work than the study and article suggest. The academic study that the Bloomberg piece highlighted – Jess Cornaggia, Kimberly Cornaggia and John Hund’s “Credit ratings across asset classes: A ≡ A?” — focused on 30 years of data from one rating agency, Moody’s. From that data, the authors extrapolated the results to all the major raters. Here’s what Bloomberg had to say:

While the study was based on Moody’s data, it would find about identical results with data from S&P and Fitch because each firm’s grades closely track each other, Cornaggia said in an Oct. 14 e-mail.

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