MuniLand

Continuing wills for the United States?

The theatrics in Congress concerning the debt ceiling, now in their seventh month, have sent increasingly strong shock waves throughout the U.S. and global financial systems. The debt ceiling is the legislatively-imposed limit for the nation to issue debt to fund its activities. It’s been stalled at the same level of $14.3 trillion since May 16. The U.S. Treasury has been scrambling to find extra monies, including borrowing internally from the federal government workers’ pension plans, so that they can continue to pay the nation’s obligations. They say the cash drawer is near empty.

The United States borrows or issues debt for 40 cents of every dollar that it spends — that is a lot to borrow. The federal government turns around and distributes this borrowed money, along with taxes collected, to Social Security and Medicare beneficiaries, states and local governments and defense contractors. It also returns some of it to bond holders as interest payments. The federal government is so massive that this flow of payments equals about 24% of the gross national product. If this flow stops, substantial parts of the economy will stop.

Organizations that oversee, or participate in, the financial system are rightly concerned. One positive benefit of these long, drawn-out Congressional deliberations is that there is time for extensive planning and analysis. Credit rating agencies have particularly been concerned with the downstream effect on state and local governments. Today Moody’s issued a press release that affirmed the strong AAA rating of 400 local governments while saying it would review the AAA rating of 162 other local governments (emphasis mine):

The review for possible downgrade affects 162 Aaa-rated local governments and $63 billion of debt. Factors weighing on specific credits include high federal employment and exposure to capital markets disruptions.

The 162 local governments include 66 cities, 53 counties, 29 school districts and 14 special tax districts. The local governments are located in 31 states, with the heaviest concentrations in Virginia (15 credits) and Massachusetts (14 credits).

What would a debt-limit crisis cost the states?

Thanks to Jordan Eizenga at the Center for American Progress, you can see some scenarios of the impact of the halt in payments to states if the debt ceiling is not raised. Jordan says:

The key thing to remember is that these are cuts that would occur even if we protected Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, defense, and UI. Failing to raise the debt limit causes unavoidable pain to states.

Roll your mouse over to see the effect on each state. More analysis here.

It’s on in Alabama

The crisis in Jefferson County, Alabama is quickly coming to a head. The County Commissioners’ willingness to file for Chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy is putting a lot of pressure on bondholders, led by JP Morgan, to agree to a settlement. It appears that the entire Alabama political structure is aligned to do the best for their citizens. Right now the epicenter of the struggle between the people and Wall Street is Birmingham, Alabama.

The growing gap

The debate between President Obama and Republicans in Congress is getting more and more confusing. The graph above might help a little in understanding what the basis for the argument is. There is a large and growing gap between revenues and outlays. The deficit, or the difference between what comes in and what is paid out, is funded by selling U.S. Treasury bonds. We have reached the upper bound of what we can issue unless the Congress increases the debt limit. This has repercussions everywhere, including states.  Reuters has an excellent overview of the effect on the states since they rely on the federal government for a significant portion of their funding.

A very good discussion of the larger issue is happening at Econbrowser:  Data: Spending and Tax Receipts, 1967-2011.

Data in the graph comes from the Congressional Budget Office.

Another short-term loan for California

The uncertainty about a federal debt deal has California seeking a short-term loan in the private loan market. This will carry the state until it can issue short-term bonds or revenue anticipation notes (RANs) in the bond market in August. Bloomberg reports:

Infrastructure shuffle

Once the Congress and the Obama administration finish their negotiations on the debt ceiling, attention will turn to plans for reducing unemployment. The lack of jobs for Americans is the most crippling element of the recession. There seems to be a growing bipartisan consensus for the federal government to alleviate this problem through the establishment of an “infrastructure bank.” U.S. Senator Kerry has introduced Senate Resolution 652 to create the American Infrastructure Financing Authority. Here is what the legislation says:

    Establishment of AIFA- The American Infrastructure Financing Authority is established as a wholly owned Government corporation.
    General Authority of AIFA- AIFA shall provide direct loans and loan guarantees to facilitate infrastructure projects that are both economically viable and of regional or national significance, and shall have such other authority, as provided in this Act.

The legislation authorizes the AIFA to receive $30 billion in “start-up” funds from the federal government. Its role is to review proposals; determine which ones benefit the public and which ones are pork-barrel projects; and finance the ones that are worthwhile. These projects must be large-scale; the minimum size is $100 million, although rural projects will be considered that cost as little as $25 million. AIFA would be overseen by a panel of seven members appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate.

In terms of generating jobs, the spending authorized for the AIFA is relatively small. From the bill:

“Unrelenting rigidity”

“Unrelenting rigidity”

It feels as though American politics has become a war. The battle is not about civil rights or women’s suffrage; it’s a war about how large a role the government should play in the redistribution of income and the support of the people. There is plenty of room to disagree on these issues.

Throughout our history, there have been Americans who have suffered, and in the current faltering recovery, there are an exceptionally high number of people suffering. This makes the current war over reducing entitlements seem especially harsh.Unfortunately, Democrats and Republicans have taken rock-hard positions and have refused to come down from their pulpits. Minnesota has shut down the state government for seven days because the Democrats and Republicans refuse to even meet to discuss a compromise. From the Minneapolis Star Tribune:

In Minnesota, it remains uncertain whether results can be expected from an ad hoc budget group formed this week by former Republican Gov. Arne Carlson and former Vice President Walter Mondale, a Democrat.

The infrastructure bank as political cover

If you have been around Washington much, you know that a lot of what happens is often kabuki. What may appear to be a geisha girl coyly teasing a samurai is really a young man with heavy make-up and mincing steps. It’s beautiful deception.

I think a little DC kabuki maybe happening with the renewed chatter around an infrastructure bank funded with corporate overseas profits. Bloomberg reports:

The Senate’s No. 3 Democrat [Senator Charles Schumer of New York] said yesterday that his caucus is exploring the potential of using the short-term revenue a [overseas profit] repatriation holiday would generate to fund an infrastructure bank. The focus on infrastructure, he said, would “guarantee” job creation and address a key line of Democratic opposition.

Standardizing AAA

For many years, a AA-rated municipal bond did not have the same risk of default as a AA-rated corporate bond. In fact, the corporate bond was about 6 times more likely to default.

Over the last two years, credit rating agencies have standardized the municipal and corporate rating scales. This was a substantial change for the municipal bond market and had the effect of raising the credit rating of thousands of municipal issues. Many don’t understand why this large structural change was made, so I thought it would be helpful to share the history.

Many professionals within muniland have said that a substantial amount of “granularity” was lost in the municipal rating scale when it was equalized with the corporate bond scale. A municipal bond previously rated A2 was likely moved four notches up the rating scale to Aa1. This has the effect of “bunching” municipal ratings into a tighter band than they had previously been in, and it obscured the prior “granularity” that the muni scale had.

Muni sweeps: Employment slightly better

We are making some headway on unemployment although some states still have substantial problems. For the larger, original version from Calculated Risk Blog click here.

Muni tax exemption “on the table”

Bond Buyer reports:

Two weeks ago, about a dozen issuer advocates met with staff members for Democrats and Republicans on the Senate Finance Committee to emphasize the important role tax-exempt bonds play in infrastructure development.

The issuer groups were told by staffers that the tax exemption of muni bonds was on the table as part of discussions on spending cuts, and that the committee may soon schedule hearings on this subject, sources involved with the meeting said.

Auctioning off the infrastructure


Fiscally-stressed municipalities have leased roads, airports and statehouses to private entities. I’ve never seen a good compendium of how these privatizations worked for various stakeholders. But it is fair to assume that private investors are attracted because there are ways to increase margins and make profits. A 2008 New York Times article identified some of the approaches used by investors:

Private investors recoup their money by maximizing revenue — either making the infrastructure better to allow for more cars, for example, or by raising tolls. (Concession agreements dictate everything from toll increases to the amount of time dead animals can remain on the road before being cleared.)

There is a lot of cash sitting on the sidelines to take public assets private.

Reeling from more exotic investments that imploded during the credit crisis, Kohlberg Kravis Roberts, the Carlyle Group, Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley and Credit Suisse are among the investors who have amassed an estimated $250 billion war chest — much of it raised in the last two years — to finance a tidal wave of infrastructure projects in the United States and overseas.

Muni sweeps: Taxes are the fuel for public sphere

Taxes are the fuel for the government. Without taxation the state withers. Our governments have taken on so many responsibilities but have become starved for fuel. There is much debate on how much we as a country should spend on entitlements and defense, but often these arguments are made on the premise that the United States has higher taxes than other nations.

The Center for American Progress developed the following charts to help visualize the state of American taxation. If you check out “Ten Charts that Prove the United States Is a Low-Tax Country” you will see that our nation, on a relative basis, does not have especially high taxes. It also helps explain why our nation is running massive deficits and is close to defaulting on its debt. We have choked off the fuel to support the public realm.  These charts almost make the case for the need to increase taxes on the wealthiest Americans in the short term to help reduce the deficit and bring the nation to a sounder fiscal footing:

Party is approach

An excellent piece by John Gramlich in Stateline about how party affiliation is driving state agendas. Here are the money quotes:

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