Wall Street’s deepest muniland fear

Although credit rating downgrades for municipal bonds are grabbing the headlines, that is not a real worry for Wall Street. Underwriters and traders are used to adjusting their models and formulas for changes in ratings and interest rates; after all, they are extremely skilled at that. However, forces are taking aim at the way they are compensated, and that is Wall Street’s deepest muniland fear. It’s all about how they are paid to underwrite municipal bonds, and the state of Maine is leading the charge.

When states or municipalities issue bonds they use Wall Street banks to underwrite them. Wall Street banks or dealers either compete against each other for these mandates in a competitive process or one bank or dealer privately negotiates the terms of the bond offering with the issuer. A privately negotiated underwriting happens in approximately 80% of municipal bond deals. This often costs municipalities and states more in fees. Bloomberg has an outstanding piece about how the state of Maine is choosing the competitive style of bond underwriting and the political struggle that happened to get there:

Banks promote negotiated sales as letting them offer the lowest cost by tailoring the debt to specific types of investors. Yet academic studies of the municipal market show such sales often raise costs by as much as $4.80 on every $1,000 borrowed, according to Mark D. Robbins and Bill Simonsen of the University of Connecticut in West Hartford.

$4.80 extra in issuing costs across the $4 trillion muni market equals about $19 billion in additional profits for Wall Street. Hmmm… this story is getting really interesting.

Now of course Wall Street will defend this practice, but this quote explaining the practice in the Bloomberg article is very weak. A Wells Fargo muni banker says negotiated sales happen because the issuers want it even though it’s more expensive: