MuniLand

The birds’-eye view of muniland

My Thomson Reuters colleague at Municipal Market Data, Daniel Berger, published an excellent report on the debt of the 40 poorest U.S. cities. His work is exclusively for MMD subscribers, but I excerpted the high-level part where he summarizes the general view the credit rating agencies have about municipalities. Here is what Dan had to say:

Moody’s

According to a recent report from Moody’s, the outlook for various… local governments remains negative. It cited a weak national economy and possible global risks to stock markets that could hurt state revenue. Another problem is the austerity measures of the federal government, which diminish any chance of more stimulus aid. This week Moody’s released the results of a default study of municipal bond issuers using default data from 1970 through 2011. They believe that revenue bonds will account for most of the troubled issuers and they foresee a “very small but growing number” of local government issuers defaulting on their debt.

Fitch

Fitch has no single outlook for the local governments. However, localities face two big concerns. First, Fitch expects an inflation-adjusted 13% decline in property values. Taken together with the fact that assessments are catching up with previous declines, Fitch expects further declines in property tax revenues for local governments. These declines may pressure some local bonds.

Labor costs are local governments’ other big challenge. About two‐thirds of local government spending is for labor. The easy cuts to other sorts of spending have already been made. Governments might be considering gaining labor concessions. Decisions made related to labor costs will have the most impact this coming year on local governments’ financial situation. Whereas cuts to public safety previously were off the table, localities are now starting to consider that possibility. Meeting pension obligation gaps appears to be a bigger problem for local governments than it is for states.

Standard & Poor’s

According to an S&P report, most governments have started 2012 with far fewer resources than in the recent past. The report also discusses the role that liquidity continues to play in governments’ abilities to manage declining revenues. S&P does not expect “many defaults” and “even fewer are likely to occur among rated debt issuers.” However, this rating agency foresees the possibility of a greater divergence between strong and weaker credits emerging in 2012.

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.

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.

Does a downgrade cost anything?

The debt of the United States was downgraded by Standard & Poor’s several weeks ago, but the price of U.S. Treasuries have skyrocketed since then. This confuses many people because a baseline relationship in the fixed-income markets is that lower-rated, less-creditworthy bonds will be relatively cheap and investors will demand higher interest rates to compensate for additional risk.

To see this bond market truism, it’s much more instructive to look at the downgrade of the debt of New Jersey. Fitch lowered the state’s credit rating Wednesday citing heavy debt and benefit obligations. This followed downgrades by Moody’s and S&P earlier in the year. Municipal bond and credit default swap markets didn’t like this third downgrade and did what you would expect them to do: they required more yield in the case of cash bonds and more payment in the case of credit default swaps.

The graph above charts muni CDS prices for New Jersey (data supplied by Markit). You can see the move up in CDS prices began in June when Governor Christie and the state legislature made the final run to their agreement on the fiscal 2011 budget, which began on July 1. The uncertainty and contentiousness of the process must have spooked investors and dealers.

Fitch gives USA its stamp of approval

Fitch leaves munis tied to U.S. rating at AAA, S&P downgrades

Fitch Ratings, one of the three major rating agencies and the one considered the most accurate by institutional investors, has affirmed the credit rating of the debt of the United States at AAA. As a follow-on to this action they have also maintained the AAA credit rating of municipal entities tied to U.S. Treasuries.

Going in the opposite direction, Standard & Poor’s downgraded the investment portfolio of the city of Los Angeles to AA+ because it holds 80% of its assets in U.S. Treasuries.  This follows S&P’s recent downgrade of U.S. Treasuries to AA+. The Bond Buyer reports what happened next:

Los Angeles has dropped Standard & Poor’s from rating its $7 billion investment portfolio after the agency downgraded it along with the United States last week.

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