A beautiful thing is happening on Twitter. Local and national reporters are tweeting Chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy hearings as they happen. This is a great service for muniland because there is usually no audio feed at these hearings. Municipal bankruptcies are rare, so each one potentially creates new precedents for those that follow. At the Jefferson County, Alabama hearing to confirm the city’s plan to exit bankruptcy, Kyle Whittemore of the Birmingham News, Katy Stech of the Dow Jones Newswire and Jonathan Hardison of FOX6 WBRC-TV report from the court a day after $1.8 billion of new debt was raised to repay old debt. Bloomberg lays out the back story:
Jefferson County, Alabama is raising $1.7 billion of new debt to repay $3.1 billion while it is under the protection of the Federal Bankruptcy Court in a Chapter 9 proceeding. A lot of information that normally remains private to the issuer and underwriter has become public.
Bond markets generally focus on who has rights to specific cash flows and control over assets. That was what Alabama federal bankruptcy court Judge Thomas Bennett was addressing when he issued an opinion Friday afternoon covering the insolvent Jefferson County sewer system.
The New York Times really needs to improve the quality of its reporting on the municipal bond market. Mary Williams Walsh makes such a terrible hash of the situation in Jefferson County, Alabama, that she is bound to set off another muniland hysteria in the mold of Meredith Whitney.
Gary White, a former official of Jefferson County, Alabama, had his conviction on conspiracy and bribery charges affirmed by the U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals today. White, a former county commissioner, is already serving a ten-year term in a South Carolina federal prison for his involvement in the sewer scandal that ended in the largest municipal bankruptcy ever. He’s just another piece of detritus from one of the largest cases of municipal corruption in recent American history. The Birmingham News reported the courts decision:
The story of Jefferson County, Alabama filing the largest municipal bankruptcy ever last week is well-known. The county went into hock for about $3 billion to build an EPA-mandated sewer system. On the way to completing the system, every local crook and corrupt politician piled onto the project to skim off some pork. Many of these players ended up in prison and left the taxpayers saddled with a sewer system they really can’t afford.
Crushed by sewer debt and stripped of 48 percent of its general fund revenues by a state court, Alabama’s Jefferson County filed the largest municipal bankruptcy in history yesterday. The filing brings three years of financial chaos to an end and represents the largest default of municipal bonds and derivatives ever.
I’m beginning to think that Europe’s sovereign debt crisis might kill more than municipal credit default swaps. As the financial system trembles alongside the deliberations of the Greek government, areas of the markets that have quietly lumbered along in the dark are getting more and more attention.
Thumbs down on Obama’s muni tax
Unsurprisingly, the Treasurer of California and Bloomberg’s editorial board are pushing back on the Obama administration’s proposals to reduce the municipal bond tax exemption for those earning more than $200,000 per year. I wrote previously how the Republicans are cool to the proposal. The California Treasurer says that the increased tax would raise municipal borrowing costs and estimates that over time the act could add $2.7 billion to $7.7 billion to statewide borrowing costs. Bloomberg’s editorial board goes further and suggests that any changes to municipal bond taxation should be done as part of a broader tax reform effort. From Bloomberg:
This Bloomberg interview with John Miller, co-head of fixed-income at Nuveen Asset Management, is a good overview of the current state of muniland although I disagree with his comment that “many, if not most municipal bond holders are in the highest tax bracket”.