New York opens its Green Bank

New York’s Governor Andrew Cuomo announced the launch of the state’s Green Bank to provide financing for in-state alternative energy projects. Here is the skinny:

Governor Andrew M. Cuomo today announced the start of business operations for the New York Green Bank, which will work to stimulate private sector financing and accelerate the transition to a more cost-effective, resilient and clean energy system. The largest green bank in the nation, the NY Green Bank is seeking proposals from private-sector lenders, investors and industry participants that facilitate the financing of creditworthy clean-energy projects in New York State.

The proposed financing structures appear to put the Green Bank in the first loss position for some private sector risk:

Examples of the types of investment partnerships the NY Green Bank may engage in include credit enhancements, co-investing with the private sector in a loan fund for clean energy, loan warehousing/short-term project aggregation or other similar arrangements.

Who will be overseeing the investment process?

The NY Green Bank is a division of the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) and will operate within NYSERDA’s system of internal controls. In addition, the NY Green Bank will seek to apply banking and investment industry best practices with regard to risk management and compliance, including processes and procedures for evaluating and selecting proposals. An investment committee, which will include senior officers of the NY Green Bank and NYSERDA, will be required to approve any material financial transaction prior to closing.

What is Governor Cuomo’s end game?

This week, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo unveiled his proposal to create a Financial Restructuring Board to help distressed local governments manage their finances. One of the key features is an alternative binding arbitration process for unions and municipalities to resolve contract issues more rapidly. New York has an unusual employee provision that leaves all previous contract terms in place if municipalities and unions fail to reach an agreement. This provision could prevent old contracts from festering with rich wage increases and swelling employee and pension costs. Governor Cuomo said in a press release:

Growing retirement costs, declining populations, decreasing property values, and the recent fiscal crisis have all contributed to the difficult financial issues facing localities today…The Financial Restructuring Board will bring together state and local officials to help localities make tough decisions and solve this crisis now instead of kicking the can down the road.

Governor Cuomo pointed his finger at four New York cities that have balanced their budgets for years with substantial state aid. It includes a chart that details state subsidies to these cities via the Aid and Incentives for Municipalities (AIM) program:

Fitch Ratings to Governor Cuomo: Privatizing LIPA won’t work

The worst performing public service in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy was the Long Island Power Authority. There are a lot of different estimates floating around, including 2.1 million of LIPA’s electricity customers were without power; some for up to 3 weeks. It was a public health disaster of epic proportions as households had to face late October and early November weather with no way to heat their homes or turn on the lights. The latest LIPA fiasco followed years of criticism of the organization.

New York State governor Andrew Cuomo ordered a swift investigation into the slow response of LIPA after Sandy. His Moreland Commission delivered its interim report on Monday.

According to Reuters (emphasis mine):

The commission recommended a complete overhaul of LIPA and the system by which power is delivered on Long Island…It recommended that a private utility buy LIPA.

Broke New York municipalities have more choices than bailouts or bankruptcy

Things are heating up in Albany, New York’s capitol. Someone close to Governor Andrew Cuomo appears to have been whispering into the ear of New York Post reporter Fredric Dicker:

Several of New York’s biggest cities — including Yonkers, Rochester and Syracuse — are “close to bankruptcy’’ and are looking for a bailout from Gov. Cuomo’s administration, The Post has learned.

Mayors of the three cities, all of which face runaway labor, pension and education costs and shrinking property-tax bases, have held secret talks in recent weeks on their financial options, and the possibility of “bankruptcy’’ has been discussed, a source close to the mayors said.

The vigilante force of the Internet

America has lined up in support of Karen Huff Klein, a 68-year-old grandmother in Greece, New York, who was tormented by four teenagers while working as a bus monitor. Her ordeal was brought to the public’s attention with three postings on YouTube by that stated:

Note: I had nothing to do with this, I saw the video on Facebook and uploaded it here to show the world how messed up these kids are.

The public response has been deafening. YouTube is filling up with responses to the original bullying videos, and these reactions are nearly universal in condemnation of the teens. Meanwhile, an independent site that was originally established to raise $5,000 for a vacation for the victim has already raised over $533,000. More than 24,000 people want to make the situation right for Klein and have donated to the fund. America is pouring out its heart to this woman. Although public employees are increasingly being vilified in this country, Americans are rallying to the support of one who has been so egregiously wronged.

New York City’s public-private partnerships

New York seems to have developed the best form of public-private partnerships in the nation. The city revitalized itself, after its rapid decline in the 1970s, by allowing private, non-profit interests to take a larger role in public affairs. For example, the city hosts 67 business improvement districts (BIDs) and two major park privatizations, and these show that cities can receive support from the private sector without having to hand over, in exchange, major profit-seeking opportunities and assets to private interests.

Most of the current national discussion about public-private partnerships (P3s) is about selling public assets or leasing them long term to private investors. A recent example is the long-term lease of two major Puerto Rico toll roads to a consortium led by Goldman Sachs whose investors will likely reap revenues of $3.6 billion over 40 years for a $1 billion investment. In the project, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico granted a monopoly right to private investors to control the asset and charge users for access.

In contrast, the New York City P3s to date have been true partnerships between the public and private sectors with no profit motive. The largest P3 is the Central Park Conservancy:

Governor Cuomo has the privatization flu

The governor of New York has announced his intent to ask the state legislature for a new law allowing him to auction off the cash flows of the state’s public assets. Bloomberg reports:

Governor Andrew Cuomo is seeking legislation that would allow private-equity firms to help finance construction of public-works projects, including a new $5.2 billion Tappan Zee Bridge.

The bill would authorize the state to lease bridges, roads and state buildings to help pay for construction, maintenance and operations of infrastructure, said Thomas Madison, executive director of the New York State Thruway Authority. Cuomo doesn’t want to sell state assets, said Karen Rae, deputy secretary of transportation. Carlyle Group LP (CG) and Macquarie Group Ltd. (MQG) are among companies expressing interest in the Tappan Zee.

Fracking’s externalities

Fracking is under increased scrutiny in the U.S. and in Australia, in the state of New South Wales. Both nations have undertaken studies to examine the effect of fracking on groundwater supplies. But there are other potential socialized costs that need to be included in these public studies, including the possible cost of wastewater treatment plants, damage to local roads, air and water pollution and the linkages to earthquakes. The costs of these possible side effects to local communities may exceed the gains they’ll receive from extraction royalties and increased tax revenues. We need some accounting.

In the U.S. the Environmental Protection Agency has begun a study on fracking and water supplies, and it released a status report in December 2011. The EPA anticipates a first round of results by the end of 2012 and a final report to be released in 2014. The agency has conducted literature reviews, requested data from manufacturers of fracking fluids and scheduled case studies with landowners. It also released a startling preliminary report on possible groundwater contamination in Wyoming.  From USA Today:

The EPA found that compounds likely associated with fracking chemicals had been detected in the groundwater beneath Pavillion, a small community in central Wyoming where residents say their well water reeks of chemicals. Health officials last year advised them not to drink their water after the EPA found low levels [of] hydrocarbons in their wells.

Muniland’s most active states

In the municipal bond market, one of the most insightful ways to examine a state is to look at how actively its bonds trade. Broker-dealers make money by trading, so naturally they go where the action is and commit market-making resources to those states. It’s generally true that the most populous states are the ones with the most traded bonds, but if we map the wealth of a state’s citizens to how often that state’s bonds trade, we get some interesting results. For example, New Jersey, which has only 2.8 percent of the national population but a high proportion of its wealthy citizens, might have the highest number of municipal bond owners as a percentage of state population.

The municipal bond market does not trade on an exchange but rather on “alternative trading systems” (ATS). These are systems where dealers post inventories of bonds to be aggregated. The largest of the retail ATS is Bonddesk, which does some excellent data analysis for both the municipal and corporate bond markets.

From Bonddesk’s December Transparency Report I pulled the data for these charts showing the seven most actively traded states’ bonds. Bonddesk uses “investor buys” data, which represents trades that end up in a retail investor’s account. In the bond markets there are often many trades between broker-dealers before the securities land in an investor’s account, so Bonddesk scrubs the data to show the real level of investor demand.

Reading the muni CDS tea leaves

I saw a strange tweet this morning that said “State CDS blew out yesterday per Bloomberg. Not sure what I missed here.” The anonymous tweeter attached the image above of graphs of credit-default swaps for 9 big states. Notice the very sharp one-day spike for every state except Ohio. Those spikes mean that those who trade muni CDS suddenly thought U.S. states were riskier, by anywhere from 2.09 percent to 17.02 percent, in one day. That is a big gap up.

Municipal CDS reference the equivalent cash bonds of the obligor. So a NY10Yr CDS references New York State general obligation bonds that mature in 10 years. CDS and cash bonds use different units of measurement but generally move proportionally to each other. So if investors no longer want New York State general obligation bonds and their price declines, one would usually see the CDS sell off too.

But municipal cash bond markets didn’t sell off yesterday. You can see in the Thomson Reuters Municipal Market Data chart below that New York State general obligations have been trading pretty steady recently. There certainly wasn’t a 17 percent drop yesterday like there was in the NY10Yr muni CDS. What’s going here?

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