In his budget for fiscal year 2013, President Obama has resurfaced his proposal from last September to reduce the tax exemption for the wealthiest municipal bond investors. This tax reform proposal is unlikely to pass this year, but a battle is already raging in the media about what damage the change could do. Dire predictions of much higher yields for municipal bond issuers are being thrown around with little or no verification.
It looks like smooth sailing for the municipal bond market in 2012, according to three senior market participants who exchanged views at the Fitch Ratings 2012 Municipal Credit Forum. Continued strong demand for municipal bonds, ongoing low bond issuance, favorable Federal Reserve rate policy and major banks upping their direct loans to municipal entities will make 2012 another strong year.
Matt Taibbi’s latest piece for Rolling Stone, “How Banks Cheat Taxpayers,” blasts a common municipal bond market practice in which a state or municipality selects an underwriter for an offering without soliciting competitive bids for the project. These are called “negotiated bond offerings” in muniland parlance, and Taibbi likens them to a legalized form of bribery:
All year long, muniland has been dragging its feet on issuing bonds. Budgets have been much too constrained to take advantage of historically low interest rates. At the end of the third quarter of 2011 issuance was 39 percent lower than 2010, according to Thomson Reuters SDC data. Nine-month issuance for 2011 was $160 billion versus $262 billion for the same period last year.
When the mainstream press pays attention to muniland, often it’s the most colorful and misinformed voices — think Meredith Whitney — that dominate coverage. So it was great to get some interesting data today on how municipal insiders view the market from the muni team at RBC Capital Markets. They did a survey of 116 municipal market professionals at the recent Bond Buyer’s California Public Finance Conference. Respondents included officials from federal, local and state governments; bankers; and other municipal finance professionals in attendance.
The Christie discount
The media is reporting that New Jersey Governor Chris Christie will announce that he is not running for the Republican presidential nomination this afternoon. That’s probably wise given that the credit markets’ opinion of New Jersey would undercut any claim candidate Christie could make to being a responsible budget manager.
Low issuance, low defaults and low rates
For issuers, conditions are just about perfect in muniland now. Many have defered or withdrawn planned bond offerings, leading to greatly reduced supply for the year. Bloomberg estimates that 3rd quarter total issuance will be about $67 billion. This follows the $117 billion in muni securities issued in the first half of the year (data from SIFMA, Excel file link).
Incredible shrinking workforces
I’ve read in a few places that state and local governments were reducing the number of full-time employees and hiring more part-time workers. There is a story in the Dayton Daily News that nicely details the trend: