Smooth sailing in muniland

Lately a lot of big waves have washed over muniland. The national economy has slowed; the 2009 federal stimulus program to the states has ended; there have been loud headlines about bankruptcy cases in Jefferson County, Alabama and Central Falls, Rhode Island; and Standard & Poor’s downgraded the debt of the United States with potential effects on the borrowing ability of states and municipalities. It’s a laundry list of woes.

Considering all the strong forces facing muniland it’s interesting that the municipal bond market is still in such good shape and that interest rates on municipal bonds have remained low. There are two big reasons for this performance.

The first and biggest reason for smooth sailing is that muniland’s sister market, the U.S. Treasuries market, is having a tremendous rally as investors sail into the safe harbor of owning U.S. debt. Even though Standard & Poor’s downgraded U.S. debt to AA+ two weeks ago the U.S. Treasury market is both liquid and deep; it provides investors with security and a place to park assets. There has been so much demand for U.S. Treasuries that their yield (which moves in the opposite direction of the bond price) is nearing the ultra low yields of Japanese government debt. Bloomberg reports:

“We are beginning to resemble Japan from an interest-rate policy standpoint as well as potentially an economic growth standpoint,” Bill Gross, who runs the world’s biggest bond fund at Pacific Investment Management Co., said in a telephone interview Aug. 10. Investors are “fearful of low growth and are fleeing to high-quality sovereign paper at whatever yield.”

Investors’ flight to quality in the face of uncertainty benefits the muni market and helps create strong demand for municipal bonds. Numerous Wall Street dealers have also reported foreign investor demand for U.S. municipal bonds as U.S. Treasuries yields have moved so low.

Why the little guys can be on top

Here is a brilliant map from the Tax Foundation (via The percentages on the map indicate the amount of each state’s annual budget that goes to pay off interest on their debt. Massachusetts leads the pack in this statistic with 9.58% of their budget going towards interest payments, much higher than the average. It’s important to note that this is not a map of relative ranking of debt loads as that would look quite a bit different and have California in the lead.

After seeing this map, S&P’s announcement that cities and states can keep their AAA rating despite the U.S.’s downgrade makes more sense. The National League of Cities said the following in response to Standard & Poors’ statement:

Standard & Poor’s announcement that cities and states may keep their AAA bond ratings despite the recent downgrade of the U.S. federal government demonstrates the difference between U.S. federal debt and the municipal bond market.

“Muniland a quiet backwater today”

Muniland was quiet today as market participants confined the bloodbath to the equity markets. Investors mainly sat on the sidelines and benchmark yields were unchanged. The Thomson Reuters Municipal Market Data 10-Year AAA Scale closed at 2.38%, unchanged from Friday. Reported volumes were light.

The worst muniland event of the day occurred when Moody’s announced that they had cut Puerto Rico’s general obligation debt rating to Baa1, a level close to the bottom of the investment grade scale. Because it is a territory, Puerto Rico has the unique distinction of enjoying national exemption from local and state taxes, so its debt is widely held across America. It is also among the cheapest municipal bonds available because the market believes it has some likelihood of default due to high levels of debt and unfunded pension liabilities.

The muniland non-story that commanded headlines was the expected downgrade of state and local bonds due to the Standard & Poor’s downgrade of the United States. Chris Mauro of RBC Capital Markets has some very good analysis about the arcana of this market and how the headlines are wildly overblown:

Muniland likely resilient to U.S. downgrade

It’s a little frustrating to hear commentators outside of muniland bash all municipal bonds as though they were a homogenous asset class. AOL’s Daily Finance ran a quote from the top regulator at the Municipal Securities Rulemaking Board, who is pushing back on this idea:

“It is important to remember that only four to six [defaults] make headlines, but 45,000 others are doing OK,” Lynnette Kelly Hotchkiss, executive director of the Municipal Securities Regulation Board, tells DailyFinance. “Remember that every issuer is unique and needs to be analyzed on its own merit.”

Reuters is running with the meme that the municipal bond market will likely be resilient in the face of Standard & Poor’s downgrade of the United States. Bloomberg is sailing in the opposite direction with a gloomy view of the prospect of downgrades for munis after S&P’s action. The Bond Buyer reports that low expected issuance should help buoy yields. And the Wall Street Journal details how muniland has passed a critical threshhold in the second quarter as municipalities were able to renew and renegotiate their bank backstop agreements:

Out of equities into bonds

As investors left the equity markets today, they moved into the fixed-income markets. The benchmark for bonds, the 10-year U.S. Treasury, had sharp gains and is now trading at 2.40 percent. The muniland equivalent benchmark, the 10-year AAA muni, ended at a slightly lower yield of 2.38 percent. (Remember the muni AAA has lovely tax advantages that push its yield much higher. Consult your accountant).

  Yield Market Change Dow - 4.31% S&P - 4.78 % Nasdaq - 5.08 % 2.40% 10-YR U.S. Treasury + 0.22 % 2.38% 10-YR AAA Muni + 0.07 %


Hospitals, higher ed and housing

Howard Cure, director of municipal research at Evercore Wealth Management, is asked in this Bloomberg video if Jefferson County, AL and Central Falls, RI are leading indicators of massive defaults in the municipal bond markets. He thinks not. After all, he says, these problems have been known for years.  For Cure, the real focus should be on what he calls the “three H’s:” hospitals, higher education and housing.  These entities are often heavily reliant on federal funds, which may be reduced in deficit negotiations. Muniland agrees and reminds everyone that there are vast differences in the fiscal and financial strengths of issuers.

Bondholders will win in trashed Rhode Island town

The Wall Street Journal is running a story on the Central Falls bankruptcy entitled “Bondholders Win in Rhode Island.” The story lauds how bondholders are ensured of receiving 100 cents on the dollar, although the bonds are currently valued at 62 cents on the dollar. Meanwhile retirees can expect their pensions to be cut by 34%.

Reading through the comments to a Providence Journal story on the threat to the state’s credit rating from the bankruptcy proceedings, I came across the following comment detailing the abject poverty of Central Falls, the community which is supposed to pay bondholders off at par. It’s shameful that a busted community would impose haircuts on all their creditors except bondholders.

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.

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 —

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