MuniLand

Watch Jefferson County Commission hearing live

The Jefferson County Commission is meeting now to review a counter-proposals from creditors lead by JP Morgan and decide whether to accept it or file for Chapter 9 bankruptcy. Live feed via the Birmingham News.

To recap, Jefferson County, Alabama is getting a lot of attention as it negotiates with the holders of $3 billion of sewer bonds. The county would like to pay $2 billion to settle the $3 billion of bonds outstanding and limit the rate increases county residents would have to pay. This arrangement would pay bondholders (led by JP Morgan) 66 cents on the dollar — not a great recovery but not outrageous either. Bondholders want the state to guarantee this new arrangement and stand ready to pay in the event of another default.

Update on creditor offer terms (August 12, 2011) via the Birmingham News:

THE CREDITORS’ NEW PLAN

> Refinance a principal amount of $2.326 billion, with $233 million going into a debt service reserve, $23.3 million paying issuance costs and $2.07 billion to redeem all outstanding sewer warrants based on negotiated concessions.

> Create an independent public corporation to own, manage and finance the sewer system.

> Dismiss all lawsuits involving the county and warrant holders related to the sewer system.

Geeks for democracy

Geeks for democracy

“How do you enable people to have a louder voice within their communities?” asks Conor White-Sullivan. He answered his own question by developing Localocracy, a platform that hosts community-focused discussion boards seeking participants who are registered to vote and who use their real names. Localocracy gives citizens an opportunity to generate discussions to influence each other, their government and journalists.

Conor is one of 16 winners of “Champions of Change,” a contest the White House hosted in June that showcased the potential of Web apps that utilize data sets made available by federal, state and local agencies. Developers who were chosen to attend created applications that enable users to find and organize pick-up games at public facilities, guide citizens through zoning ordinances and direct parents to child-friendly locations, as well as numerous other services. See more of this wonderful project at GovTech.com.

Jefferson County part 6

According to the Birmingham News the court-appointed receiver over the Jefferson County sewer system, John S. Young, announced late Wednesday that the bondholders had a counter-proposal for the county commission. This was a few short hours before the commission’s 1:00pm meeting today to decide to declare bankruptcy.

The state becomes the guarantor

Jefferson County, Alabama is getting a lot of attention as it negotiates with the holders of $3 billion of sewer bonds. The county would like to pay $2 billion to settle the $3 billion of bonds outstanding and limit the rate increases county residents would have to pay. This arrangement would pay bondholders (led by JP Morgan) 66 cents on the dollar — not a great recovery but not outrageous either. Bondholders want the state to guarantee this new arrangement and stand ready to pay in the event of another default.

There is an alternative option for settling the matter: a Chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy. The county is now prepared to go that route if necessary and have hired an expert attorney to lead them through the process if they so choose.

The county accumulated this sewer debt over a number of years to fund the development of an EPA-mandated sewer system. Its construction was laced with delays, cost overruns and corruption. It’s the poster child for disastrous public works and bad dealing by Wall Street. The credit rating for this debt started out as AAA in 1997 when it was issued. The bond insurer FGIC stood behind the debt and helped raise the credit to the highest level, AAA, from Baa1. In the chart above you can see the rating move in February 1997 as the insurer came in and pledged to repay bondholders if default occurred.

Most expensive sewage system in history

If you say “Jefferson County” to a professional in muniland, you will likely get a shudder of mild revulsion. This Alabama county is the biggest example of Wall Street aggression towards a public entity since Orange County, California declared bankruptcy in 1994 after buying too many interest-rate derivatives. Dodd-Frank, the financial-reform law that’s been in effect for a year, changed the rules for municipal bonds and derivatives.  But did it change them enough to avert a repeat scenario?

First, a little background: Jefferson County was ordered by the federal EPA to build a sewer system at an estimated cost of $1.2 billion. The construction went over budget and was rife with massive corruption that has ensnared 17 people. The funding of the sewer project was equally corrupt. JP Morgan was under investigation for bribery in 2009 and eventually reached a settlement with the SEC. The Washington Post reported this at the time:

J.P. Morgan Chase agreed to a $722 million settlement with federal regulators over accusations that the bank and two former executives made illegal payments to win municipal bond business from Jefferson County, Ala.

Is muniland hiding its borrowing?

Several financial-media outlets ran stories today about state and local governments ramping up their bank borrowing in lieu of issuing municipal bonds. Often this is depicted as “emergency” borrowing to fill thin periods of cash flows. The story of California’s possible “bridge loan” to tide over their current “bridge loan” in Bloomberg was cast this way.

But other media accounts suggest this bank borrowing is growing beyond emergency needs and banks are actively seeking it. Michael Corkery of the Wall Street Journal reports:

Teams of bankers are blanketing the country pitching transactions like the one in Orange County, as well as traditional loans, to government officials, people in the industry say.

Property taxes are all over the map

From Credit Sesame (click through the map above for an even better interactive version):

Other than their mortgage, most home owners’ largest home-related expense is their property tax bill. And it’s no secret that when it comes to property taxes, some states are much harsher than others. Consider this: In 2009, New Jersey home owners paid an average of 27 times more in property taxes than property owners in Louisiana. Ouch.

Hat tip to The Big Picture.

Potential U.S. rating downgrade rattles muniland

Bloomberg reports:

At least 7,000 top-rated municipal credits would have their ratings cut if the U.S. government loses its Aaa grade, Moody’s Investors Service said.

Insurers have “manageable” muniland risk

Insurers have “manageable” muniland risk

Meredith Whitney has made many assertions about muniland, but the only one that I had not heard from others before she stepped onto the national stage was her contention that insurance companies would be forced to sell their municipal bonds into a declining price spiral. She alleged this would collapse muniland, so it’s very interesting to see Moody’s assess the risk for insurance industry. From Property Casualty 360:

Property and casualty insurers remain the most exposed sector among financial institutions to volatility within the municipal-bond market, holding about $355 billion in municipal bonds, but the overall level of risk should be manageable, Moody’s says.

In a Special Comment, Moody’s says municipal bonds represent 60 percent of the industry’s equity capital base, as measured by policyholders’ surplus. This figure is down from the prior year, when the industry held about $370 billion in municipal bonds, representing about 70 percent of policyholders’ surplus.

Two strikes against JP Morgan

Can too-big-to-fail banks be restrained from engaging in fraudulent and manipulative practices? Or should we expect large, global banks to keep breaking the rules over and over again?

Today JP Morgan Securities reached a settlement with 25 state attorneys general and five federal regulators regarding their practice of using “sham bids” in the municipal market. The global bank will pay $211 million to settle federal and state charges, according to Reuters.

The details of the settlement are a little mind-numbing if you don’t follow muniland, but they mirror charges of “sham bids” in the auction-rate securities market that JP Morgan first settled in 2006. After violating that SEC’s “cease and desist” order, the bank had to settle for the second time with the North American Securities Administrators Association (NASAA), the Illinois Securities Department, the Florida Office of Financial Regulation and the New York Office of the Attorney Genera in 2008.

Don’t borrow in the dark, Governor Christie

Every family encounters times when bills are due and they don’t have money. If this happens to a state or local government, they go to the municipal bond market where they can borrow short- or long-term. In the current market they are likely to find a lot of willing lenders.  These lenders will lend at very reasonable interest rates, and the terms of the borrowing will be made public so taxpayers can see what their obligations are.

Since there is so much demand in the muni bond market I was surprised to see that the State of New Jersey was going to set-up a “bridge loan” with J.P. Morgan Chase, one of Wall Street’s biggest banks. The specific details of the borrowing have not been announced, but tidbits released in the media suggest that the lending rate from the bank will be twice the rate from the muni bond markets.

The consumer analogy would be using a neighborhood payday lender rather than taking a cash advance on a credit card. The payday lender would charge you 10% and the credit-card company would charge 5% for the same loan. These are made up examples, but give a glimpse into the most important variable when comparing the state’s borrowing choices.

The global spiderweb of debt

If you are not familiar with the municipal bond market, you may think that muniland is nothing more than states, municipalities and school districts offering plain bonds that mature on a set date and offer a fixed interest rate. That is the textbook description.

Actually the municipal bond market is a murky tangle of odd bond structures, variable-rate debt, multiple layers of issuers and bank guarantors. The lack of standardization of bond structures and relationships is one of the main reasons that the asset class has never migrated to the internet for retail investors.

Often the odd bond structures can create much more exposure to the tides of global affairs than plain vanilla bonds. The biggest example now is the Belgian-French bank Dexia, which is a big guarantor of U.S. muni bonds.The WSJ reported in an excellent article that investors are selling off muni bonds that Dexia insures:

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