Moody’s muniland blacklist

Moody’s this week published a Special Comment (subscription required) that crystallizes a lot of the discussion regarding bankruptcies and defaults that has been going around muniland lately:

Recent decisions to seek bankruptcy protection by two large California cities – Stockton and San Bernardino – provide some indication that willingness to pay debt obligations may be eroding in the US municipal market. Although many municipalities have faced severe fiscal pressures since the start of financial crisis, only a handful of municipalities have chosen not to pay their debt.

Most of these municipalities have defaulted due to exposure to failing enterprises, such as a convention center, sports arena, or other project that was backed by a government until the project and related debt were left to falter. In contrast, Stockton and San Bernardino’s pursuit of bankruptcy are different and potentially more significant given that these defaults emanate not from enterprise risk but instead from stress on core government operations, notably high pension and other compensation costs and debt service.

Moody’s is saying that defaults in this space typically come from municipalities collapsing from the weight of some public project whose cash flow was never enough to cover its expenses and debt service. These are projects that were either never vetted properly or were undertaken by municipalities with insufficient professional expertise to manage them. Some were outright boondoggles.

With the recent moves by San Bernardino and Stockton, Moody’s says that there is a developing trend of cities using bankruptcy to cleanse themselves of liabilities, including those to debtholders, rather than raising taxes or pursuing other sources of revenue. The audience for Moody’s commentary is bondholders, so it makes sense for them to view this as an alarming trend. But as a citizen I think of these moves toward bankruptcy as a positive for communities that are groaning under the weight of bloated labor contracts and pensions for public safety workers. I think in many cases adjustments to labor contracts, which for most municipalities make up 50 to 80 percent of general fund expenses, can only happen in a setting where municipal leaders have the right to throw them out. That only happens in bankruptcy court.

Muniland needs defenders when Meredith Whitney talks her book

Yesterday DealBook announced the dreariest news possible for muniland: Meredith Whitney is publishing a book entitled Downgraded: Why the Next Economic Crisis Will Be Local, which is due out in November. DealBook says:

In the book, Ms. Whitney — who shook [municipal] bond markets with a 2010 appearance on “60 Minutes” in which she predicted scores of municipal defaults –will “reveal why America’s cities and states are in deeper trouble than is commonly realized,” according to the publisher.

The truth is that when Whitney made her infamous muniland prediction, she spooked retail investors into fleeing the municipal bond market in droves. These investors suffered tens of billions of dollars in losses, thanks to her.

How risky is that rating?

The Municipal Securities Rulemaking Board’s data platform for municipal bonds, EMMA, recently added credit ratings from Fitch and Standard & Poors to the system. This makes it really simple for investors to get a snapshot of the relative risk of one bond over another when doing research.

Typically the higher the rating, the lower the likelihood that a bond will default. New rules issued in 2008 for credit rating agencies required them to disclose the quantitative results of their ratings and show over time how many bonds defaulted in each rating category. This allows investors to map the performance of ratings over time and allows comparisons between agencies. The system looks at the occurrence of default 1, 3 and 10 years after the bond was issued.

The SEC views default statistics as a window into the accuracy of credit rating agencies’ analysis. Raters are required to publish this data, separated into bond classifications, on an annual basis on SEC Form NRSRO (Fitch’s 2011 NRSRO). I published the comparable data for municipal bonds from Standard & Poors in August. The two raters are broadly similar but not identical.

Munis are the star performer of 2011

Bloomberg had a great piece that rounds up the factors that made municipal bonds the best performing financial asset of the past year. The story is framed as a knock on Meredith Whitney for her scare call a year ago:

This was supposed to be the year the $3.7 trillion state and local debt market would be rocked by an exploding pension time bomb and “hundreds of billions of dollars” of defaults, according to analyst Meredith Whitney.

Whitney’s Armageddon never came. Instead, munis became the star performers of 2011.

Year-end in muniland, part 1

Lots of excellent municipal bond market analysis is coming muniland’s way, and I’ll be sharing some of it through the end of the year. First up is Daniel Berger of Thomson Reuters Municipal Market Data, who makes an interesting point about the municipal bond yield curve. He notes that the 10-/30-year slope (or difference in yield on 10-year AAA bonds and 30-year AAA bonds) has rapidly steepened since August 1. Berger attributes this to the great performance of 10-year AAA bonds over that period. In a little over two months their yield has dropped from about 2.55 percent to under 2.00 percent. Investors are loving these bonds — it’s a full on “flight to quality.”

Berger next gives us a snapshot of flows in and out of municipal bond funds. After a very rough beginning to the year it looks positive going into year end:

Muni bond funds posted about $1.04bln of net inflows for the week ended December 7, according to data released on Thursday by Lipper. This was the biggest inflow since March 10, 2010, when investors put $1.13 billion into the funds. The latest week’s inflows were a sharp turnaround from the almost $298mln of outflows seen in the prior week, which was the first negative reading in seven weeks.

Project Sugar has soured

Missouri has a sweet mess on its hands. A half-completed manufacturing facility, financed with industrial revenue bonds underwritten by the small municipality of Moberly, has gone bust.

The politics around the project, called Project Sugar, also appear very messy. Originated by the American and Chinese firm Mamtek, the project was shopped around to 13 communities without adequate due diligence by the Missouri state economic development agency. The SEC has issued subpoenas to most of the players in the project.

Maybe over-eagerness to create jobs in a hard-pressed area made so many public officials blind to the viability of Mamtek. On the other hand, maybe there is criminal wrongdoing. Project Sugar will surely become the poster child for improper use of municipal revenue bonds and the fallibility of government officials as they try to pick economic winners and losers.

The calmest seas you will ever see

Low issuance, low defaults and low rates

For issuers, conditions are just about perfect in muniland now. Many have defered or withdrawn planned bond offerings, leading to greatly reduced supply for the year. Bloomberg estimates that 3rd quarter total issuance will be about $67 billion. This follows the $117 billion in muni securities issued in the first half of the year (data from SIFMA, Excel file link). Through Q3 Billions 2010 $ 298 2011 $ 184

Defaults have also been puttering along at very, very low rates. This is due to some creative workout solutions, like Jefferson County’s negotiations with creditors, and many instances of postponement of problems, like Collingswood, NJ. I’ve seen estimates for total defaults for the year ranging from $1.8 billion (this number included unrated bonds) to $1.1 billion. Bloomberg says:

Municipal defaults have dropped this year to about $1.1 billion, a quarter of last year’s total, according to Bank of America Merrill Lynch. Local general- obligation bonds have accounted for only 1 percent of the 2011 failures [balance is revenue or conduit bonds].

Meredith Whitney’s anniversary

Two big events happened on Tuesday in the municipal bond market: it was the annual conference of SIFMA, one of the industry trade associations; and it was also the one-year anniversary when Meredith Whitney began her campaign of predicting the collapse of the muni market. Whitney was of course way off-base with her prediction of hundreds of billions of dollars in bond defaults. In fact less than $1 billion of muni bonds have defaulted so far . But many believe that she did cause substantial damage to retail investors, mutual funds and insurance companies, all of whom were caught up in the downdraft of selling that followed her words of doom.

The reason that her words were so damaging to muniland was that there is little natural elasticity in the ebb and flow of the market structure — or, in market jargon, there is little liquidity. When large sell-offs happen in the equity or U.S. Treasury markets there is always a ready pool of buyers standing ready to pick up those securities at lower levels. These markets are favorites for traders and fast money because they encounter little friction, meaning the price rarely moves against them when entering and exiting the market. In contrast, there are few pools of buyers that understand the muni market and are able to do quick credit analysis of bonds for sale, not to mention the lack of shared pricing data that would let participants see if they are transacting at updated, fair-market prices. Because muniland is not really liquid, when Whitney yelled “fire” there was no orderly way for the crowd to exit the theater.

There are structural reasons why little liquidity exists in muni markets. For example, over 50,000 local and state governments have issued over 700,000 different municipal securities. On a given day only about 15,000 of these individual securities change hands in about 40,000 trades. The Municipal Securities Rulemaking Board stated in their annual fact book that about 10 million muni bond trades happened for the year 2010. In contrast, the New York Stock Exchange had 95 million trades in month of December 2010 alone.

Part-time employment up in muniland

Incredible shrinking workforces

I’ve read in a few places that state and local governments were reducing the number of full-time employees and hiring more part-time workers. There is a story in the Dayton Daily News that nicely details the trend:

The data show that both the state and local Ohio governments attempted to get the work done by hiring more part-time employees. While local governments shed a little more than 11,000 full-time employees, they added almost 6,000 part-timers, a 4.6 percent increase. The state, meanwhile chopped close to 1,400 full-time workers and added 386 part-timers, a half-percent increase, according to Census data.

Ohio’s government job-shedding put it in the top third of the 50 states, although margins of error from the Census survey data make exact rankings impossible.

The swirl of ratings and CDS

The Wall Street Journal ran an odd article yesterday about the unpredictability of sovereign credit ratings that are below the investment-grade cutoff (BB+ and lower). Check out the table from the IMF of S&P’s sovereign ratings.

The WSJ article seemed to air some highly paid bond-fund managers’ whining that ratings were not a useful signal for when they should buy and sell bonds of specific countries. The complaint was also that ratings don’t include certain data sets that are important, such as fund flows in banks, and that they don’t have the agility of credit default swaps.

The guys quoted in the WSJ might be right on the data sets that raters use and they are certainly right about CDS being more agile than ratings. But ratings are not intended to mirror market sentiment like CDS does. They are supposed to stand above market panics and routs and give a 30,000 foot view of an issuer’s credit condition.

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