What we’ve learned from municipal distress

This is a guest post from Joe Rosenblum, the director of Municipal Bond Credit Research at AllianceBernstein.

Is the municipal bond market on the verge of collapse? You might think so, given the blaring headlines about a few big disasters in the last year. But the truth is that poor decision making, not systemic issues, has caused the most serious problems.

Jefferson County, Alabama, and Vallejo, California, filed for Chapter 9 bankruptcy protection. Receivers were appointed for Central Falls, Rhode Island, and Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Stockton, California, is deferring debt-service payments (though bondholders continue to get paid from other sources) as it goes through a state-authorized mediation process with its creditors. And most recently, Detroit agreed with the State of Michigan on a shared fiscal oversight process to avoid bankruptcy.

There is no question that state and local governments are facing financial hardship as a result of the weak economic recovery and its impact on tax receipts. But this is not the first time local governments have been challenged or have defaulted on their debt or filed for bankruptcy protection.

In the 37 years since New York City’s brush with default in 1975, there have been a slew of other bankruptcies, defaults and near-defaults. Prominent among them were cases involving the Washington Public Power Supply System (WPPSS); Cleveland, Ohio; Bridgeport, Connecticut; Yonkers, New York; Erie County, New York; and Orange County, California. All of them also grabbed headlines in their day.

Buying individual bonds

I’ve previously featured a guest post about the advantage to retail investors of buying municipal bond mutual funds. Retail investors can also directly buy individual municipal bonds. This is a tiny part of muniland, but I could see it growing in the future. Today, I welcome a guest post from Andrew Wels, the head of retail fixed income and vice-president for retail at E*Trade Securities. Wels writes about the advantage of buying individual bonds and “laddering” them.

Buying individual bonds
by Andrew Wels

Most financial professionals would agree that a mix of stocks and bonds is essential to a well diversified portfolio. Stocks provide growth potential, and bonds offer both regular income and return of principal upon maturity. Many individual investors are familiar with selecting stocks, but bond investing tends to be viewed as more complex.

Bond funds vs. bond ladders

A bond fund, an investment in a portfolio of individual bonds, is a popular investment vehicle for accessing the fixed-income markets. Bond funds offer diversification and some characteristics of the underlying individual bonds in which they invest. Unlike individual bonds, the interest income from a bond fund is not fixed, so there is no fixed maturity date. For the past several decades, declining interest rates have generally boosted the net asset value of bond funds. Consider the inverse: When interest rates rise, bond fund values tend to decline, exposing an investor’s principal to risk.

Muni exchange traded funds

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A small but growing corner of muniland consists of municipal bond exchange traded funds (ETFs). I know very little about these products and asked Matt Tucker, a managing director on BlackRock’s fixed income portfolio management team, to write a short introduction to the product.

ETFs: The new way to access the municipal bond market

Traditionally, the only two options available for those who wanted to invest in the municipal bond market were through mutual funds or laddered bond portfolios. In the past five years, though, exchange traded funds (ETFs) have come on to the scene. They provide a combination of diversification, index performance and exchange liquidity, making them a compelling addition to anyone’s municipal bond investments.

A smarter way for Congress to talk about muni tax code

Chris Mauro, head of U.S. municipal strategy at RBC Capital Markets, sent around a comment note suggesting that the media coverage of the Senate Finance Committee hearing Wednesday that included discussion of possible changes to the taxation of municipal bonds was overheated:

Yesterday, the Senate Finance Committee held a hearing entitled “Tax Reform: What It Means for State and Local Tax and Fiscal Policy”. A simple reading of the media accounts of this hearing would lead one to believe that the entire event was dedicated to a detailed discussion of the future of the tax-exempt status of municipal bond interest. So we decided to review the tape of the hearing in order to see what in fact was discussed. In reality, the vast majority of the hearing was focused on two issues – the deductibility of state and local taxes by federal taxpayers and the ability of state and local governments to collect sales taxes on internet and catalog purchases.

Both Committee Chairman Max Baucus and Ranking Member Orrin Hatch made some passing comments about tax-exempt bonds and the federally subsidized taxable Build America Bond (BABs) program, with Baucus making generally positive statements about BABs and Hatch making generally negative ones. Senator Maria Cantwell of Washington State expressed some concern about the importance of tax-exempt bond financing to public power utilities in the northwest, but beyond that, there wasn’t a whole lot of discussion about the muni tax exemption.

Does the market trust corporate issuers more?

Darrell Preston of Bloomberg News wrote a great piece comparing the yields on trades of comparably rated corporate and municipal bonds. He highlighted that corporate bonds have a much higher risk of default than municipal bonds but have similar yields. His analysis suggests that risk is not being properly priced if in fact ratings between asset classes are comparable and that municipal issuers are paying interest rates that are too high.

Two years after Moody’s Investors Service and Fitch Ratings changed standards to put municipal credits on the same footing as corporates, California and Illinois are among states that still pay more for debt than similarly or lower-rated corporations, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. Yet Moody’s says companies default at 86 times the municipal rate.

“Taxpayers continue to get a raw deal,” said Tom Dresslar, spokesman for California Treasurer Bill Lockyer, who pressed for the rating changes. “Not much has changed.”

Municipal bonds don’t always have the best after tax returns

The following is from guest commentator Terry Hults, Senior Portfolio Manager of Municipal Investments, at AllianceBernstein. It’s helpful to see municipal bond investing in a broader light and the data above really frames the discussion well.

Municipal bonds have an after-tax yield edge over Treasuries, corporates and other taxable bonds most of the time—but not always, as the display above  shows. Opportunities are driven by sector supply and demand, credit-quality trends, volatility, and changes in tax law. Treasuries did best in 2007 and 2008, corporates did best in 2009, and mortgages did best in 2010.

Adding a judicious allocation to these taxable sectors during those years would have meaningfully added to the returns of a tax-aware portfolio. Today, low interest rates and the fear of future rate increases have driven some bond investors into shorter bonds and cash. But an investment strategy that considers municipal and taxable bonds across the full credit spectrum provides greater ability to pursue return without taking undue risk.

Boston funds publicly, while Chicago goes private

Two major American cities are embarking on large capital programs, but in very different ways. Boston Mayor Thomas Menino has a $1.8 billion, five-year plan that he will fund with municipal bonds, while Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel is trying to push a $7 billion plan, which will be paid for by private investors, through the city council. It would be hard to find to two more dissimilar approaches to rebuilding America’s urban infrastructure or two more different lists of who will reap the monetary benefit of the improvements.

Boston approaches its infrastructure needs with a rolling five-year schedule of projects that is updated on an annual basis. This allows for more controlled expensing and planning. In contrast, Chicago’s Emanuel announced his infrastructure privatization plan in January with very few details and buy-in only from the private investors who will benefit from their involvement. The Chicago proposal gives control of infrastructure decisions to a panel of four private citizens and one city council member with no ability for the city council to have oversight on projects and contracts. Chicago has a terrible history of leaving taxpayer money on the table in its privatization efforts. In 2008 the city’s parking meters were leased out to private investors for a tiny sum:

Chicago drivers will pay a Morgan Stanley-led partnership at least $11.6 billion to park at city meters over the next 75 years, 10 times what Mayor Richard Daley got when he leased the system to investors in 2008.

The Marlins’ new home, courtesy of taxpayers

Kevin Grey of Reuters wrote a delightful piece describing the opening of the the new home of the Miami Marlins. The stadium has all the touristy bells and whistles that you would expect from a state that brought us Walt Disney World, Universal Studios and Sea World:

When baseball’s Opening Day kicks off next week, the Miami Marlins will inaugurate a new $515 million ballpark built with all the trappings of South Florida – two enormous fish tanks, palm trees and a kitschy (of course) home run celebration display.

With all its fancy trappings, the Marlins’ new stadium could very well set the national standard for family-friendly sports destinations. But after the opening-day fireworks dissipate, it will become clear that the ballpark sets a low bar for public diligence and oversight and that it could result in an SEC sanction (or worse) for some local public officials.

Muniland’s bad boys

Last week I called Puerto Rico “America’s Greece” partly because of its financial statistics and partly because of its inclusion in the muniland bad-boy list maintained by Thomson Reuters Municipal Market Data. What the bad-boy list tells us is how much the bonds of the weakest issuers trade over the AAA benchmark. To put it another way, that difference is the premium the market charges for the risk of owning these bonds; it also reflects the premium the bad-boy issuers would have to pay to bring new bonds to market. For example, Puerto Rico, currently the weakest borrower on the list, would have to pay 225 basis points more than a AAA 10-year bond to borrow. Given that MMD AAA benchmark closed on Tuesday at 2.33 percent, that would mean an investor would demand a yield of 4.58 percent to buy a 10-year Puerto Rico general obligation bond. Also using Tuesday’s numbers, investors would demand a yield of 3.88 percent to own a 10-year California GO bond. This is how the market works — it punishes the weak.

Studying the chart above and table below you get a sense of the relationship between credit quality and the interest surcharge. The weaker the credit quality — that is, the lower the number or rating — the higher the interest paid. There are other factors that affect the premium, including the tax rates in the state (higher-taxed and wealthier states have lots of demand from their citizens for tax-exempt municipal bonds) and the recent supply of new bonds in the state. But the fundamental bond market truism remains: The riskier you are, the higher the interest rate you pay. In muniland these are the bad boys. Issuer Spread S&P rating Moody’s rating Debt & unfunded pensions Puerto Rico 225 BBB (6) Baa1 (6.5) $ 64 B Illinois 155 A+ (8) A2 (9) $ 86 B California 90 A- (7) A1 (8) $ 137 B Nevada 65 AA (9) Aa2 (9) $ 4 B Rhode Island 55 AA (9) Aa2 (9) $ 6 B Michigan 53 AA- (8.5) Aa2 (9) $ 19 B D.C. 43 A+ (8) Aa2 (9) $ 6 B New York City 43 AA (9) Aa2 (9) $ 161 B Ohio 35 AA+ (9.5) Aa1 (9.5) $ 14 B New Jersey 30 AA- (8.5) Aa3 (8.5) $ 60  B

Source: Municipal MarketData, Moody’s Investors Service, Standard & Poor’s Ratings Services, local government budget reports, official statements.

The SEC’s startling refresher on due diligence

The SEC’s Office of Compliance Inspections and Examinations, muniland’s uber-regulator, issued a “Risk Alert” yesterday directed at underwriters of municipal bond offerings. The alert basically said: If you offer new bonds for sale, you must perform due diligence on the issuer. And you better document what you did.

I have to wonder about all the sudden fuss. The SEC’s “Risk Alert” was just restating a fundamental law in securities markets that requires securities dealers to investigate and verify what they are offering to investors. In other words, dealers must know their product, because there is no immunity for selling bad stuff. It’s a little shocking that the SEC has to remind securities dealers that they are required to do due diligence, but they went further and detailed some specifics on what had to be done (Page 3, emphasis mine):

the Commission also stated that sole reliance on an issuer will not suffice in meeting an underwriter’s “reasonable basis” obligations.

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