The perils of unrated municipal bonds

It is extremely rare to see a muniland market professional pitch a specific bond to the public. In fact, I’ve never seen an analyst or a portfolio manager do it in the general media. So I was more than a little shocked to see Alexandra Lebenthal pitching a newly issued unrated bond on Maria Bartiromo’s show on CNBC.

Unrated bonds inhabit a dark corner of muniland. An August 2012 study by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York highlighted that default rates for unrated bonds have historically been 36 times higher than rated bonds. Here is how the New York Fed puts it:

Our findings raise the question, what causes such markedly different default frequencies between rated and unrated municipal bonds? Our answer: Not all municipal bonds are created equal. Different types of municipal bonds are secured by very different revenue sources with varying levels of predictability and stability. Furthermore, we believe that rated municipal bonds tend to be self-selected: issuers are less likely to seek ratings if their municipal bonds are not likely to achieve investment grade ratings.

Unrated bonds are the Death Valley of muniland. They should never be promoted to a retail audience. In fact, Lebenthal does a dance trying to buffer the dark alley she is leading her audience down. From the CNBC transcript of Lebenthal:

And I’ve said this a lot over the last couple of years, with all the things that have gone on, I would have a professional managing my municipal money, whether it’s in a mutual fund, an ETF or separately managed account… I wanted to give people an example of what the maximum yields are that are out there. We have non-rated bond, and typically we don’t sell non-rated bonds and wouldn’t normally recommend that, but as you can see, if it’s showing on the screen right now, it’s 100 basis points above the other bond that I haveand — look at the coupon, but what you really want to look at is the yield to call, and that bond is priced to call, so that 4.37 is the yield to call in 2020 or 2022.

California gets a little lovin’

The state of California received some good news this week when credit rating agency Standard & Poor’s upgraded the state’s long-term rating to “A” on its $73 billion in general obligation (GO) bonds (a single A rating is four notches below AAA). It’s certainly a feel-good moment for Governor Jerry Brown and other public officials. The municipal bond market has been anticipating the state’s improving credit position for the last year, as you can see in the chart above. It shows that the extra interest cost (over the AAA gold standard) on the state’s bonds has declined in the last year. The Golden State is getting some sunshine in muniland.

A single “A” rating is not great for a state, especially one as large as California, which has substantial debt to service and relatively volatile tax receipts. Among the positive praise that Standard & Poor’s gave the state, there were also reminders of the risks that the state faces in achieving real fiscal stability. These risks include lawmakers loosening their fiscal restraints and restoring the social spending that had been cut during the fiscal crisis. Translation: Politicians will revert to promising more than they can afford. S&P explains (requires free registration):

But another part of the answer likely rests with state lawmakers. Given that fiscal restraint has been a crucial ingredient to the state’s strengthening financial position, we think the budget process itself contains some risk.

The big muniland tax exemption dud

Alarm bells are ringing across muniland because the discussion about capping the municipal bond tax exemption at 28 percent has surfaced again. Bloomberg reports:

“If and when there is a serious attempt to make substantial reforms to the tax code, I think that there’s a risk that the [municipal bond] tax exemption could be curtailed or eliminated,” said Decker, the co-head of SIFMA’s municipal securities activities.

The possibility of municipal-bond income losing its exemption from tax is as great as any time since 1986, when major tax reform was ushered into law during the Reagan administration, said George Friedlander, Citigroup Inc. senior municipal strategist.

Muniland’s greatest hits of 2012

The municipal bond market is one of the smaller corners of the bond market. It is dwarfed by the U.S. Treasury, government-sponsored organizations, mortgage and corporate bond sectors. Yet, muniland is larger than the equity market, as the data above (2011 and 2012 3Q year to date) shows, and it probably has more issuers than every sector combined. Muniland is a hopping place.

Thomson Reuters released its 2012 summary of municipal bond issuance data. Here is how it looked:

US municipal bond volume in 2012 reached $366 billion, a 32 percent increase over last year, but still behind 2010′s record setting underwriting volume of $430 billion by 14.8 percent.

The SEC rounds up muniland’s bad guys

The SEC – the top law enforcer for muniland – has been riding the range. With 17 municipal securities enforcement actions in 2012, the SEC cops have come up with a nice collection of scalps.

The Bond Buyer held a webinar Wednesday on municipal disclosure with John Cross, who heads the SEC’s Office of Municipal Securities, Jay Goldstone, who heads the Municipal Securities Rulemaking Board and various municipal attorneys. It was an excellent summary of muniland disclosure laws, but what I found most interesting was John Cross’ discussion of the top SEC enforcement actions in muniland for 2012. Rounding up the bad guys. Here are the top four enforcement actions according to Cross:

1) The General Electric and Wells Fargo bid-rigging cases: In the case of General Electric, the U.S. Justice Department prosecuted criminal charges. Reuters reports:

Get ready for more public toll bridges and roads

Governor John Kasich of Ohio and Governor Steve Beshear of Kentucky are forming a bi-state team to research funding options to replace the 50 year-old bridge that crosses the Ohio River and connects their states. The Brent Spence Bridge carries about double the volume it was designed for on Interstate 71. It is an example of valuable U.S. infrastructure in need of replacement. The big question is where the funds will come from. AP has the story:

The two governors were joined by U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, and all three said that charging tolls would need to be a part of any financing plan.

“Uncle Sam is not coming in on a white horse to pay for all of this. Those days don’t exist anymore,” [Kentucky governor] Beshear said. “We need to find all kinds of sources.”

California moves toward open source ratings for city bonds

In the past year, three California cities have filed for bankruptcy. This casts a pall on the bonds of other California cities, because investors wonder if they also contain buried fiscal issues. In an effort to create more transparency, a new open source ratings project was recently launched:

Responding to market concerns about municipal credit quality, the California State Treasurer’s Office has commissioned a San Jose State University economist and a government-bond research group, Public Sector Credit Solutions, to develop a default probability model for city bonds.

The “default probability model” (which is what most credit rating agencies use as a model) was created by former Moody’s executive Marc Joffe of Public Sector Credit Solutions. Here is what the California State Treasurer is hoping that it will do:

Time to ride the muniland tax exemption pony

At the Bloomberg Link conference on Thursday, Matt Posner, of Municipal Market Advisors, said that discussion of the municipal bond tax exemption would likely be rolled over to the next session of congress, which begins January 3. Yes, the long awaited muniland battle is upon us. Strap on your armor.

Ever since President Obama created the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform (Simpson Bowles) in 2010, the subject of reducing or eliminating the federal tax exemption for muni bonds has been kicked around. The administration proposed, in 2011, to “reduce the value of itemized deductions and other tax preferences to 28% for families with incomes over $250,000.” Muniland’s tax exemption has a big fat target on its back.

Will Atlantic City’s Revel be washed away by Sandy?

Hurricane Sandy made landfall near Atlantic City, New Jersey, but the damage did not set back the city’s gambling and hotel economy by much. Fitch Ratings reports:

Gaming operators in Atlantic City, NJ, and across the mid-Atlantic region appear poised to re-open properties affected by Hurricane Sandy relatively quickly, limiting the storms impact on cash flow. However, Fitch believes longer term effects on physical infrastructure and consumer sentiment in New Jersey and surrounding states could have a material impact on fourth-quarter gaming demand.

Muniland’s flight risk

I’m not a big fan of municipal bond-related mutual funds because some of their structural features work the opposite way that municipal bonds work. Mainly, the value of muni bond funds decline as interest rates rise. The has a useful description:

Advisers and investors appreciate being able to obtain even the current 1.8% yield from 10-year U.S. Treasurys. But many likely don’t realize the effects when interest rates rise, said James Swanson, chief investment strategist at MFS Investments. With the 10-year Treasury at a duration of about nine years, an investor faces a 9% cut to principal if interest rates rise 1% over the next 12 months and an 18% cut if rates increase 2%, he noted.

Did you catch that? If interest rates rise 1%, an investor could lose 9% of the value of his/her mutual fund. This negates one of the prime reasons to own municipal bonds for the long term:  the preservation of principle. If you are looking for the highest returns and you are willing to rotate into and out of bond funds as markets move, you might not suffer any principal loss. But that requires paying close attention to market direction and timing. Retail investors who are choosing retirement funds or putting aside cash are not generally good market timers. If an investor makes a choice and then sticks with it, the investment principal may be gone before they realize it.

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