SEC Commissioner Elisse Walter spoke at the SIFMA Municipal Bond Summit yesterday, and her message came across loud and clear. She said that despite enormous advances in technology, decentralized muniland trading is still too hard to understand from the outside. She said that although 75% of municipal bonds are held by retail investors through direct ownership, money market funds, mutual funds and closed end funds, retail investors are still “afforded second class treatment.”
The retail investor is king in muniland, holding about $1.81 trillion of municipal securities in the second quarter of 2012, according to the Federal Reserve Flow of Funds report. But where are the other big players in the municipal bond market, and what are their investment objectives? Here’s a quick rundown of the different parts of the financial business that held $1.789 trillion in muni bonds in the second quarter of this year.
In 2010, the small town of Moberly, Missouri issued $39 million in municipal bonds for a private manufacturing facility that the town hoped would add 600 jobs to its community of 14,000. Yesterday the Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster filed felony theft and securities fraud charges stemming from the collapse of that project, the Mamtek sweetener factory. The charges were made against California businessman Bruce Cole who was the CEO of Mamtek. Cole was arrested at his home in Dana Point, California and Attorney General Koster said extradition proceedings would begin immediately.
Municipal bond trading volumes are on a downward march. The Municipal Securities Rulemaking Board (MSRB), which oversees muniland, publishes trade statistics on its website. You can see on the chart below, which shows daily trade volumes, how “customer bought” trades especially have been trending down. These are trades done by retail and institutional clients to acquire bonds.
Now that three California towns have declared bankruptcy in the past few weeks, the mainstream media is abuzz with headlines of imminent doom for state and local governments. Adding fuel to the fire were Warren Buffett’s comments on Bloomberg TV about how cities may find it easier to declare bankruptcy after seeing others do it:
I’m often critical of municipal bond issues that either appear to be configured to avoid the necessary approval processes or appear to benefit private interests over public interests. The opacity of muniland creates plenty of dark places for odd dealings to occur. But earlier this week I read about the small Massachusetts town of Leverett, which had just conducted the most open and transparent bond approval process that I’ve seen. What was being decided was a $3.6 million project to build a broadband network connecting the 632 households in the community. The whole process is about as commendable as you could hope for.
A little-known provision in the Dodd-Frank financial reform law expanded the board of directors of the Municipal Securities Rulemaking Board (MSRB), the self-regulatory organization that oversees muniland. The board used to be composed of employees of municipal bond dealers and big banks, and many would say privately that MSRB rulemaking favored industry players rather the public. Dodd-Frank radically altered the board’s composition to balance representation from the municipal industry and the public. The law firm Duane Morris explained the change (emphasis mine):
Like U.S. Treasury debt, muniland securities have been hot, hot, hot. Investors have been piling into municipal bonds for about 16 consecutive months. At first, demand was driven by investors who were attracted to the high yields in the wake of Meredith Whitney’s predictions of default, which scared retail investors out of the market between November 2010 and February 2011. Demand then accelerated as the Federal Reserve kept interest rates at artificially low levels, driving investors out of Treasuries and into riskier assets. Steady municipal bond mutual-fund flows, coupled with the reinvestment of muniland proceeds into new bond issues, has also helped keep demand elevated.
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.