MuniLand

Let Europe kill municipal CDS

The solution to Greece’s debt crisis that Europe’s leaders announced on Thursday has market participants and commentators howling. It includes a provision that changes long-established rules for credit-default swaps mid-game. Mike Dolan, Reuters’ Investment Strategy Editor in Europe, said this:

For all the ifs and buts about the latest euro rescue agreement, one of its most profound market legacies may be to sound the death knell for sovereign credit default swaps — at least those covering richer developed economies.

I’d suggest that death knell just rang for U.S. municipal credit-default swaps (CDS), too. They’ve recently been on their last legs amid collapsing volumes, but actions in Europe just might have delivered the deathblow.

Credit-default swaps play an arcane role in financial markets. Firms allegedly buy them for protection against the default of bonds they hold in their portfolios. For example, if XYZ Investment Group owned $10 million worth of Greek government bonds that matured in 10 years (GGGB10YR:IND) and the Greek government couldn’t pay their obligations, then the seller of the CDS would step in and pay the CDS owner. Think of the CDS seller as a guarantor or insurance provider of sorts.

CDS are marketed as protection against the risk of default of the cash bond that they reference. Contrary to standing convention though, when the announcement was made that Greek bondholders would be asked to take a 50 percent haircut (or markdown) on the value of their bonds, the CDS governing group announced they would not be triggered. Their rationale was that the bond swap would not be compulsory and that CDS sellers would not need to make payouts to make up losses. Here is how a twitter user responded:

State taxes on fire

State tax collections are hot, hot, hot. The taxman rustled up 16 percent more in state income taxes for the second quarter of 2011 compared to the same period in 2010. Where is this phenomenal growth coming from?

Based on the most recent data collected by the Rockefeller Institute, states are raking in about $900 billion a year from their three major tax categories: the sales tax, personal income tax and corporate income taxes. Revenues from these three taxes total about 6.25% of U.S. GDP.

But it’s the personal income tax (PIT) that’s really driving the show. In the state of New York the PIT makes up about 60 percent of total tax revenues. In Oregon the PIT is an astonishing 72 percent of the state’s tax haul. Although the national employment level improved slowly the PIT was up on average 11.4 percent across the country year over year, according to Rockefeller. This contrasts sharply with the 4.6 percent national increase in state sales tax collections, especially given that 21 states cut their PIT tax rate while only 12 states cut their sales tax rates.

Vermont rebuilds while Congress fights

The state of Vermont is struggling to gather funds to repair the flood damage from Hurricane Irene, the state’s worst natural disaster since the floods of 1927. Generally the state would rely on support from the federal government to replace and repair this infrastructure, but the U.S. Congress is locked in a fight over funding the Federal Emergency Management Agency as part of a larger fiscal battle that could shut down the federal government. From CBS News:

Congress is headed for a showdown over disaster relief funding that could bring the government to the brink of a government shutdown again.

House Speaker John Boehner has scheduled a vote tomorrow on a bill that would keep the government operating through Nov. 18. If the Senate and the House do not approve the stopgap measure, known as a continuing resolution, before the fiscal year ends Sept 30, the government would be forced to shutdown.

Irene damage estimated at 0.214% of GDP

Irene has come and gone. She was a big girl but fortunately she didn’t cost a lot in terms of economic damages. The biggest toll was the 25 lives she claimed. I mourn those deaths and know their loss is incalculable to their families.

Local, county and state officials responded to the disaster admirably. Local newspapers and television stations are full of stories of families evacuated and emergency measures taken. New Jersey and New York City preemptively evacuated millions of people and shut down mass transit and other infrastructure systems. Given the scale of potential damage the losses have not been that great.

The economic loss of Hurricane Irene has been estimated at approximately $3 – 4 billion. Measured against a gross domestic product of $14 trillion Irene will ding the economy for about 0.214% of its annual output. Some have suggested that this will give the construction industry a boost, but it’s not significant. Irene’s damage, on its own, is not a substantial blow to the U.S. economy, but nine other “weather disasters” have caused more than $35 billion in damages this year, according to the National Climatic Data Center at the U.S. Department of Commerce (hat tip Empty Wheel).

We have everything we need to battle Irene


Hurricane Irene, an enormous storm of unimaginable power, is bearing down on the east coast. Although there could be loss of life and substantial property devastation, America has more than enough resources to meet her and survive mostly intact. Unlike third-world countries we have the people, equipment and money in reserve to clean up. But it maybe the human locusts that follow in her wake that are hardest to battle against.

Irene is expected to make landfall in North Carolina, but it is the northeastern states that have made extraordinary efforts to evacuate the population and shut down public transportation systems. The corridor stretching from New Haven, CT to Atlantic City, NJ is one of the most densely populated areas in America; 55 million people are currently preparing for this large natural disaster.

Cities, counties, states and utility companies are on standby. Funds have been reserved to respond to emergencies and the federal government has a large department, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, ready to provide local assistance. The public sector is ready to go.

Relying on the rich uncle

State and local governments earn their “wages” primarily by collecting taxes, although states get significant “flow-throughs” from the federal government for Medicaid and other social entitlements. Every state varies in where they draw tax revenues from. For example, states that are highly dependent on tourism will see substantial revenues from hotel and sales taxes.

New York and New Jersey are two well-to do states that have historically relied on sharing in the largesse of their rich uncle from Wall Street. The Federal Reserve Bank of New York published an interesting paper last year that talked about how these two states were heavily reliant on tax revenues from the financial sector and were especially affected by the financial crisis of 2007-2009. Wall Street revenues rebounded sharply in 2009 and 2010 but are now sputtering and projected to decline going forward due to financial reform and the slow pace of recovery.

One recommendation of the Federal Reserve’s research staff was to have a reduced reliance on personal-income taxes, which fluctuate with the economy, and a greater reliance on sales taxes, which tend to be more stable. Unfortunately, sales taxes tend to be regressive and place a heavier burden on the poor, who spend the bulk of their income on consumption.

Muni sweeps: Important deals for CA and NJ

New Jersey municipal employees to pay more for benefits

The Wall Street Journal is reporting that New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and the state Democratic leadership have reached agreement on reducing employee benefits:

In the face of heavy opposition from unions, the Democratic leadership of the New Jersey legislature and Gov. Chris Christie reached an agreement on major cuts to public-worker pensions and benefits…

…Democrats worked into Wednesday evening to get union support, offering weaker proposals, to no avail, a person familiar with the negotiations said. Instead, top lawmakers went ahead with a comprehensive bill submitted earlier this week that requires workers to pay more toward their pensions and new hires to work longer to reach retirement age, while eliminating annual cost-of-living increases for current and future retirees, among a slew of other changes.

Something smells funny around Yankee Stadium

Bloomberg covered an interesting story today about the bonds which financed the parking garages at Yankee Stadium in New York. The $237 million of securities are “revenue” bonds issued by the Empire State Development Corporation. They have no guarantee and no rating, and it looks likely that the bonds will default.

The main reason that the bonds face default is that attendance at Yankee games is off about 10% from last year. I don’t follow baseball so I’m not sure why that is happening (if you have ideas please leave in the comments below). But the revenue for these parking garages has declined much more steeply than baseball attendance. Bloomberg says this about the garage revenue:

Revenue from the garages and parking lots managed by the nonprofit is almost 40 percent below projections as the facilities face competition from public transportation and other parking at a mall near the stadium.

Muni sweeps: Taxes are the fuel for public sphere

Taxes are the fuel for the government. Without taxation the state withers. Our governments have taken on so many responsibilities but have become starved for fuel. There is much debate on how much we as a country should spend on entitlements and defense, but often these arguments are made on the premise that the United States has higher taxes than other nations.

The Center for American Progress developed the following charts to help visualize the state of American taxation. If you check out “Ten Charts that Prove the United States Is a Low-Tax Country” you will see that our nation, on a relative basis, does not have especially high taxes. It also helps explain why our nation is running massive deficits and is close to defaulting on its debt. We have choked off the fuel to support the public realm.  These charts almost make the case for the need to increase taxes on the wealthiest Americans in the short term to help reduce the deficit and bring the nation to a sounder fiscal footing:

Party is approach

An excellent piece by John Gramlich in Stateline about how party affiliation is driving state agendas. Here are the money quotes:

Muni sweeps: New growth or decay?


The New York Times food writer, Mark Bittman, has written the loveliest piece about his visit to our nation’s most devastated urban area, Detroit. He says there are little seeds of hope and change growing there:

Imagine blocks that once boasted 30 houses, now with three; imagine hundreds of such blocks. Imagine the green space created by the city’s heartbreaking but intelligent policy of removing burnt-out or fallen-down houses.

Now look at the corner of one such street, where a young man who has used the city’s “adopt-a-lot” program (it costs nothing) to establish an orchard, a garden and a would-be community center on three lots, one with a standing house. (The land, like many of the gardens, belongs to the city and is “leased” for a year at a time. But no one seems especially concerned about the city repossessing.)

  • # Editors & Key Contributors