Do muniland’s flare-ups signal a bigger fire?

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:

“The stigma has probably been reduced when you get very sizeable cities like Stockton or San Bernardino to do it,” Buffett, 81, said in an interview today on “In the Loop with Betty Liu” on Bloomberg Television. “The very fact they do it makes it more likely.”

He said the nation isn’t on the brink of hundreds of billions of dollars in defaults, as banking analyst Meredith Whitney predicted in 2010. “I don’t think we’re at the precipice,” Buffett said. “People will use the threat of bankruptcy to try and negotiate, particularly pension contracts, with their employees.”

Unlike Buffett, I’m not sure that public unions will yield to local politicians who wave the threat of municipal bankruptcy at them. As soon as there is a case when labor and pension contracts are actually crammed down in a bankruptcy proceeding, then public unions might start to worry. The closest muniland came to this kind of restructuring occurred in the bankruptcy proceeding in Central Falls, Rhode Island. There, labor and pension contracts were modified, but its situation is unique because of Rhode Island’s law prohibiting any haircuts for bondholders. Unions had to take all the losses in the bankruptcy proceeding because no one else would.

Furthermore, Buffett might be talking his book here. Bloomberg reports that Berkshire Hathaway held municipal bonds valued at about $3 billion as of March 31 – about 9 percent of its fixed-maturity portfolio – and as much as $16 billion in derivatives tied to such debt. That his company’s position in muniland CDS is much bigger than his position in municipal cash bonds indicates that he is very pessimistic about muniland’s prospects and is willing to bet on that outlook.

Why America won’t pay for more stimulus

This morning’s jobs report revealed that 79,000 net new jobs were created in the country in May, nearly 50 percent below the consensus forecast of 150,000. Almost immediately following the release, there were loud and insistent calls for another round of monetary and fiscal stimulus. “Job growth stumbles again, raising pressure on Fed,” the Reuters headline ran. My fellow Reuters blogger Felix Salmon called for immediate federal stimulus funded by more debt issuance. Felix’s rationale, like many others’, is that with U.S. borrowing costs so low, stimulating current economic activity is a higher priority than worrying about paying down the debt in the future. Or to put it differently, a little more debt is preferable to enduring the economic pain of the economy rightsizing itself.

However, economic weakness is concentrated in just a few regions, and the solutions that many are pushing for – additional fiscal stimulus from Congress or further monetary easing from the Fed – are too diffuse to make much of a difference or require a national constituency that is unlikely to materialize. Unemployment fell in 37 states in April, but in California, Rhode Island and Nevada, there are still massive employment problems. The National Conference of State Legislatures reports (emphasis mine):

Unemployment rates were down in 37 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico in April 2012. Only five states saw unemployment rise and eight states had no change for the month, according to figures released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics on May 18, 2012.

States receive crumbs from mortgage settlement

The $25 billion mortgage-fraud settlement that was announced yesterday came after 18 months of coordinated action by the Department of Justice, the Department of Housing and Urban Development and 49 state attorneys-general. The settlement is carved up so that homeowners and governments at the state and federal levels each receive some compensation. Given the scale of national losses, it’s a tiny penalty for banks that engaged in egregious servicing and foreclosure practices, and it will do little to repair the widespread economic damage.

More important for states, the amount they are set to receive far from covers the shortfalls they will suffer from lower property tax collections, which are pegged to property values.

A little background: Municipalities and school districts collect substantial revenues from property taxes, and they benefited from inflated housing values during the boom. With higher property tax collections, they ramped up municipal services. Starting in the first quarter of 2010, property taxes began to flatten, but property appraisals did not, as they lag behind property values by several years. We are just now starting to experience what could be a big decline in property tax collections.

Is Meredith Whitney a ratings’ driver for CNBC?

It’s more than a little frustrating that CNBC continues to feature equity analyst Meredith Whitney as she talks about municipal bonds over and over again. I’m not really sure she evens knows what she is talking about.

Matt Fabian, managing director at Municipal Market Advisors, shined on this same topic in this interview with Tom Keene on Bloomberg Television in May. Matt Fabian of MMA or Daniel Berger of Thomson Reuters Municipal Market Data would both be far superior in terms of talking accurately about muniland. Both have analyzed muni bonds for over a decade and can talk about the unique conditions each issuer is facing. Neither of them work for a sell-side firm, so they would not be arguing for issuers that they favor or that their firms hold inventory in.

Here is what the National League of Cities said in May about Ms Whitney (emphasis mine):

8 weakest U.S. states

According to the credit rating agencies and the bond markets, these are the 8 states with the weakest credit profiles. These states may be weak because their debts are too big, because their economy is flagging or because they haven’t adequately funded the retirement of their employees. If this were a school, these would be the students sitting in the back of the class. Maybe it’s time for these states to do a little more homework.

We start with the weakest Puerto Rico, a United States commonwealth. #1 – Puerto Rico

#2 – Illinois

#3 – California

#4 – Michigan

#5 – Nevada

#6 – New Jersey

#7 – District of Columbia

#8 – Rhode Island

Muni sweeps: How much job creation?

Job creation or program pass-through?

The Congressional Budget Office has published a new report entitled “Estimated Impact of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act on Employment and Economic Output from January 2011 Through March 2011.” It makes some large claims about how many jobs stimulus funds have created:

Various recipients of ARRA funds (most recipients of grants and loans, contractors, and subcontractors) are required to report, after the end of each calendar quarter, the number of jobs funded through ARRA. The law also requires CBO to comment on those reported numbers.

During the first quarter of 2011, recipients reported, ARRA funded more than 571,000 full-time-equivalent (FTE) jobs.

Let’s give Meredith some credit

Everybody beats up on Meredith Whitney for her muniland panic call.

Yesterday she doubled down on her prediction of “hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth” of municipal-bond defaults.

Whitney was speaking on a panel, Reading the Tea Leaves: What Lies Ahead for Financial Markets?, at the Milken Global Conference.

I want to give Whitney some credit.

Whitney has a very good macro view of the U.S. economy. At the Milken conference she said that housing has contracted for four consecutive years. States have spent at a 30% higher CAGR rate than consumers.

Muni sweeps: Riding the Federal cash flow

It’s an important week  for the fixed income markets: Ben Bernanke, the chairman of the Federal Reserve, will hold his first press conference on Wednesday.

Bernanke joins his European Central Bank counterpart Jean Claude Trichet in the practice of fielding questions after the central bank announces its policy stance.

Pundits and bloggers are weighing in with questions and Reuters reporter Kristina Cooke (twitter handle @kristinacooke) is encouraging her followers to tweet her questions for the chairman.

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