MuniLand

Bondholders have cut the line

Something doesn’t seem right in Central Falls, the Rhode Island city that declared municipal bankruptcy yesterday. Now that the state receiver has filed Chapter 9, all the town’s dirty laundry has been hung out in public, and, like any bankruptcy, it’s not pretty. Overspending and declining tax revenues doomed this poor town, along with liberal doses of alleged corruption.

Here is what doesn’t seem right in Central Falls. The city is dead broke and those they owe money to are lined up at City Hall to collect. But for some odd reason, the city’s bondholders have pushed ahead of all the others in line to claim full repayment of their debts; those later in line must settle for 50 cents on the dollar. Retired police officers and firemen will have their pensions cut by 50%.

It wasn’t Central Falls’s decision to give preferential treatment to bondholders. Last year legislators in the state capitol passed a law making the claims of bondholders superior to all other claims in bankruptcy. The Rhode Island General Assembly’s action flies in the the face of common bond market practice, which is that bondholders get in line with everyone else and a judge overseeing bankruptcy proceedings gives a fair resolution to all the creditors.

The law passed by the Rhode Island General Assembly upends the order of priority for payments in bankruptcy. Municipal bankruptcy is filed in federal court, and cities cast themselves at the mercy of the federal bankruptcy law. Because our federal constitution reserves all rights to the states that the federal government does not claim, it makes this area of the law a funny hash of competing jurisdictions. And it possibly encourages the Rhode Island legislators to try and change the rules.

The federal bankruptcy code does create some special protection for holders of “special revenue” bonds. The law firm Jones, Day characterizes the exemption:

Supporting less prosperous brethren

There are many financial linkages between various levels of government in muniland but everyone eventually has to stand on their own. It’s like the cousin you grew up with but don’t see much now other than holidays. When your cousin loses their job and their mortgage is being foreclosed you want to help but in a limited way. You want the cousin to get a job and cut a deal on their mortgage or do a short sale. You don’t want them moving into your home or having access to your bank account. It’s the same between the federal, state and local governments. They are cousins. But not that close.

My fellow Reuters blogger, Felix Salmon, said yesterday that states are considered too-big-to-fail by the financial markets:

There’s certainly a general understanding, in the markets, that California is too big to fail: if push came to shove, the federal government would bail it out rather than let it default.

Oh Illinois!

 

Oh Illinois!

Illinois has massive problems: the state has more liabilities than assets, and the credit-default swap market says they are the number one state at risk for default (see chart above). The Bond Buyer ran an excellent story on how the liabilities of Illinois are rapidly increasing:

In a sign of Illinois’ ongoing fiscal challenges, its net assets deteriorated by $8.4 billion in fiscal 2010, pushing its deficit in that category of financial reporting up to a negative $37.9 billion, according to a new report from state auditor general William Holland.

The figure takes into account the state’s accounts payable that were $9.1 billion in fiscal 2010 and $55.1 billion of debt obligations, including outstanding bonds and pension obligations. The figures provide a wider view of a state’s overall long-term fiscal health than the snapshot provided by annual budget numbers.

Meredith’s clone?

Meredith Whitney has made a reputation for herself in muniland as an analyst that came from the equity markets to predict an impending municipal bond cataclysm. Municipal bond experts were flabbergasted at the enormity of Whitney’s call, as well as the lack of data she had to back it up. Her bark ended up being many times worse than her bite, and now my antennae are on high alert for analysts who come out of nowhere and make big, unfounded calls.

While working this afternoon I noticed John McDermott, a Financial Times blogger, tweet the following:

@johnpmcdermott MF global write that Moody’s underestimates vulnerability of school districts to a US downgrade — http://cot.ag/odqdwL

A little of this, a little of that

Minnesota reaches a deal

Minnesota agrees on a budget, ending a two week shutdown. But is it just accounting tricks? From the NewsObserver.com (emphasis mine):

Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton and top Republicans agreed Thursday to end a budget impasse that prompted the longest state government shutdown in recent history.

Dayton said the state government would be back in business “very soon,” but he didn’t say exactly when.

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.

Transforming the social order

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity…”

A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

I view the new proposals for “social impact bonds,” financial instruments that try and address the problems of society’s underclass, as the latest iteration of “the epoch of belief” that Dickens was writing about. These ”social impact bonds” (SIBs) are monies raised from private investors and charities that pay rich annual yields and return principal only if prescribed social goals are met.

The pilot program for social impact bonds is an effort to reduce recidivism at the UK’s Peterborough Prison. The British Parliment describes the project:

If you’re bad, you pay

If you’re bad, you pay

Ever wonder why fixed-income investors are often called “bond vigilantes?” Just as a banker charges a homeowner with a bad credit history a higher mortgage rate, bond investors make borrowers pay more if they have a heavy debt load and weak revenue sources. Investors use higher interest rates to crack down on borrowers; the interest rate is higher because there is more risk.

I thought it would be helpful to visualize the credit quality data that Thomson Reuters Municipal Market Data regularly publishes for states and large cities. The higher the interest rate, the greater the perceived risk in lending to these public entities.


The chart above shows the additional interest rate that a public entity pays over the benchmark AAA interest rate. As you can see, Puerto Rico is far and away the riskiest borrower.

America will never recover when China builds our infrastructure

End game for America’s jobs

America will never recover if we outsource everything, including our public infrastructure. Bloomberg made the excellent video above about California outsourcing the construction of a portion of the San Francisco Bay Bridge to Shanghai Zhenhua, a Chinese firm. Shanghai Zhenhua is assembling the section and will then ship it to California for installation. The state is supposedly saving $400 million with this move. The workers at the Chinese facility are making $12 dollars a day.

In times of fiscal stress it’s easy to understand why public entities are trying hard to cut costs. But this “cost cutting” is really just off-shoring American jobs. Something has to give — we can’t recover without creating American jobs. It’s our choice, and I choose spending more and creating jobs at home.

Background on the project from Bloomberg.

Hungry market gobbles up new municipal bonds

Bond Buyer reports:

The week’s new inventory can’t seem to reach the muni market fast enough. One trader in Florida said there is little product anywhere. “There are fewer bonds than usual,” he said. “It’s hard to find anything to sink your teeth into.”

Decades-long infatuation with financing our spending

Decades-long infatuation with financing our spending

Sheila Bair, who served as Chairman of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation for five years through the financial crisis, has completed her term. In a weekend op-ed in the Washington Post, she urges America to rid itself of its addiction to financing consumption and “growth” with debt. This is the core requirement for America to become financially stable again and to return to “real” growth. From Bair’s Washington Post oped:

Now that I’m stepping down, I want to sound the alarm again. The common thread running through all the causes of our economic tumult is a pervasive and persistent insistence on favoring the short term over the long term, impulse over patience. We overvalue the quick return on investment and unduly discount the long-term consequences of that decision-making.

Our decades-long infatuation with financing our spending through ever-growing debt, in the private and public sector alike, is the ultimate manifestation of short-term thinking. And that thinking, particularly in business and in government, is actually getting worse, not better, as we look for solutions to put our economy on a sounder footing.

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