MuniLand

The end of muniland interest-rate swaps for Pennsylvania?

Pennsylvania may have suffered more damage from municipalities using interest rate swaps than any other state in America. Many cities and school districts were sold these “hedging” instruments after former governor Ed Rendell pushed legislation allowing their use in 2003. The fallout for the state has been devastating.

Small communities, large cities and school districts have suffered substantial losses from their use. Bloomberg reported in March 2008 how a school district suffered deep losses:

James Barker saw no way out. In September 2003, the superintendent of the Erie City School District in Pennsylvania watched helplessly as his buildings began to crumble. The 81-year-old Roosevelt Middle School was on the verge of being condemned. The district was running out of money to buy new textbooks. And the school board had determined that the 100,000-resident community 125 miles north of Pittsburgh couldn’t afford a tax increase. Then JPMorgan Chase & Co., the third-largest bank in the U.S., made Barker an offer that seemed too good to be true.

David DiCarlo, an Erie-based JPMorgan Chase banker, told Barker and the school board on Sept. 4, 2003, that all they had to do was sign papers he said would benefit them if interest rates increased in the future, and the bank would give the district $750,000, a transcript of the board meeting shows. “You have severe building needs; you have serious academic needs,” Barker, 58, says. “It’s very hard to ignore the fact that the bank says it will give you cash.” So Barker and the board members agreed to the deal.

What New York-based JPMorgan Chase didn’t tell them, the transcript shows, was that the bank would get more in fees than the school district would get in cash: $1 million. The complex deal, which placed taxpayer money at risk, was linked to four variables involving interest rates. Three years later, as interest rate benchmarks went the wrong way for the school district, the Erie board paid $2.9 million to JPMorgan to get out of the deal, which officials now say they didn’t understand.

States don’t need to take loans from JP Morgan

Jamie Dimon, the CEO of JPMorgan Chase, made headlines this week for an interview at the Council on Foreign Relations in which he said that buying Bear Stearns in March, 2008 was a “favor” to the Federal Reserve, and that JPMorgan had lost money on the deal. But there was another part of his interview where he talked about lending to states that caught my attention:

DIMON: OK, so — (laughs) — this company, JP Morgan and Chase — (inaudible) — went through ’06, ’07, ’08, ’09, 2010, 2011, 2012, never lost money in a quarter, didn’t need TARP and was there for a lot of people when others weren’t. California, New Jersey, Illinois, hospitals, schools, businesses.

I think that Mr. Dimon is inferring that California, New Jersey and Illinois, which have had severe cash flow problems, had had to rely on JPMorgan to tide them over until they completed their next bond offerings. I remember all these financings; there was very little data available about the borrowing costs and terms. Although these loans are for public entities, the current MSRB rules exempt bank loans from disclosure. This is mind-bending when you consider that JPMorgan’s purchase of Bear Stearns required voluminous public disclosure to protect shareholders. There are no such rules to protect taxpayers.

JPMorgan fails to disclose

Charlie Gasparino of Fox Business News seems to have scooped a muniland story yesterday when he reported that JPMorgan had failed to include material facts in a municipal bond offering on which it was the lead underwriter.

Lead underwriters have a special role in muniland. The Tower Amendment, passed in 1975, prohibited the federal government from requiring issuers of municipal debt to make specific disclosures to investors prior to offering securities for sale. Underwriters, however, do not enjoy the same protection, so the law has evolved to make them liable for the contents of the offering document for municipal debt. This requirement is administrated by the Municipal Rulemaking Board through Rule G-17, or the fair-dealing rule.

MSRB’s Rule G-17 is the Ten Commandments of muniland (emphasis mine):

Rule G-17 precludes a dealer, in the conduct of its municipal securities activities, from engaging in any deceptive, dishonest, or unfair practice with any person, including an issuer of municipal securities. The rule contains an anti-fraud prohibition. Thus, an underwriter must not misrepresent or omit the facts, risks, potential benefits, or other material information about municipal securities activities undertaken with a municipal issuer.

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.

Buying the top spot in the muni league table

Bloomberg ran an excellent story recently about JP Morgan making a very low bid to win the underwriting role for Massachusetts’ latest general obligation bond offering. The bid reduced the interest rate the state will pay for the borrowed funds and vaulted JP Morgan to the top of the league table to finish the year. Slashing fees to move up league tables happens all the time in financial markets, but it’s unusual to hear the particulars:

The competition between JPMorgan Chase & Co. (JPM) and Bank of America Merrill Lynch to be the top underwriter of municipal bonds offered by auction helped Massachusetts save $880,000 on a $400 million borrowing.

JPMorgan won the bid Dec. 20 for the general-obligation debt maturing from 2015 to 2027, offering an overall interest cost of 2.57 percent, according to state Treasurer Steven Grossman. Bank of America Merrill Lynch was the second-lowest bidder, offering 2.79 percent. With the Massachusetts deal, JPMorgan vaulted ahead of Bank of America for the top underwriter of competitive municipal bonds issued in 2011 by $141 million, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

Make Jefferson County’s receiver its salesman

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.

Last year, amid the county’s fiscal and political meltdown, the Russell County Circuit Court appointed a water system professional, John Young, to take over the management and operation of the sewer system. This action came at the request of the bond indenture trustee, the Bank of New York, which wanted the bond payments protected. Now the county is fighting with the receiver and creditors for control of the sewer system in bankruptcy court. My advice to Jefferson County Commissioners is to stop fighting John Young and change his role into a salesman for the system. The sewer system is an albatross, and it should be sold and creditors repaid with the sale proceeds.

The Russell County Circuit Court’s mandate covered raising sewer rates and lowering costs but did not grant Mr. Young a role in facilitating a settlement with sewer debt creditors. According to Young, he took on that responsibility “unofficially.” He claimed to have traveled many times to New York City to negotiate potential haircuts on the outstanding debt, meeting repeatedly with JP Morgan, the biggest creditor, and other Wall Street banks. Young had a lot of experience dealing with Wall Street as the former president of the publicly-held American Water Works Company.

Crawling in the dark through the muni CDS market

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.

Bloomberg held an excellent state and local finance conference on Wednesday where there was a brilliant session with the state treasurers of North Carolina, Delaware and New Jersey. Bloomberg Editor-in-Chief Matt Winkler grilled the trio on the use of derivatives, mainly interest rate swaps, by public officials. In the most thought-provoking back-and-forth, Winkler asked what the difference was between Alabama’s Jeffereson County and Greece. Both Greece and Jefferson County have extensive ties to financial institutions through the bonds they issued and derivatives they have either entered into or that have been written on them. In the case of Jefferson County this exposure is mainly concentrated with JP Morgan Chase, the lead underwriter for most of the bonds and derivatives written on the county. In the case of Greece it’s fairly well-known who owns its bonds but it’s practically unknown how deep the interconnections are for derivatives. As Bloomberg wrote:

The European nations are linked in a network of debts, as Bill Marsh recently illustrated in the New York Times with a beautiful piece of graphic art. The image is like a complex wiring diagram for a ticking debt bomb. Yet what it shows may be less important than what it leaves out: a largely invisible network of ties among institutions around the world, which could ultimately cause global financial chaos.

Let Europe kill municipal CDS

The solution to Greece’s debt crisis that Europe’s leaders announced on Thursday has market participants and commentators howling. It includes a provision that changes long-established rules for credit-default swaps mid-game. Mike Dolan, Reuters’ Investment Strategy Editor in Europe, said this:

For all the ifs and buts about the latest euro rescue agreement, one of its most profound market legacies may be to sound the death knell for sovereign credit default swaps — at least those covering richer developed economies.

I’d suggest that death knell just rang for U.S. municipal credit-default swaps (CDS), too. They’ve recently been on their last legs amid collapsing volumes, but actions in Europe just might have delivered the deathblow.

The weakest states are stronger than U.S. banks

The weakest states are stronger than US banks

I noticed something very interesting in some research that Markit, a data provider that tracks the credit-default swap market, released yesterday: the worst U.S. municipal credits (California, Illinois and New Jersey) are considered much stronger than all the major U.S. banks save JP Morgan. New York state is considered stronger than Mr. Dimon’s bank!

Why this is especially important in muniland is that these U.S. banks write a lot of credit-default swaps insuring the debt of these large states, which seems upside-down given that credit markets view the banks as weaker than the states they insure. This raises questions about the validity of the whole muni CDS market. I’ll dig around on this issue a little more.

Heavy political support for ending municipal-bond tax exemption

Bloomberg writes about several strong political forces in favor of ending the tax exclusion from municipal bond interest payments. I still haven’t seen a definitive cost analysis of the change though. Maybe the President’s proposal to reduce the tax exclusion on muni bonds for those earning over $200,000 is a signal to Republicans that the administration is willing to negotiate the issue. From Bloomberg:

“We don’t have a deal”

The Jefferson County Commission met last Friday to decide if they would accept a proposed settlement from creditors led by JP Morgan on their $3 billion of sewer debt. After many hours of meeting in executive session and in public, the Commission voted to reject the proposal, remove the court appointed receiver and directly negotiate with the creditors.

I watched the live webcast of the meeting and it was actually one of the most open and informed county commission meetings that I’ve ever seen. I give the Commissioners a lot of credit for their efforts to clean up a problem which they did not create. In the meeting there was a lot of indignation against JP Morgan and their role in burdening the county with several billion dollars of derivatives. Several Commissioners felt especially that there had been fraud in these transactions and were not willing to release their right to sue JP Morgan and other banks for these problems. There were also calls for increased transparency in the process. There was a lot of drama in the meeting.

The drama was only heightened when county commissioner, T. Joe Knight, saw a message on his mobile device in the middle of the meeting that said the Wall Street Journal was running a headline announcing that an agreement had been reached. You can see the video of Commissioner Knight above shouting, “We don’t have a deal”. When I clicked over to the WSJ.com the paper was running a story that quoted the state finance director and said that the Commission had accepted the proposal although the Commission had not yet voted. The Wall Street Journal eventually yanked the false story and replaced it with this account which makes their error seem less odious:

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