Examining muniland’s indices after the Libor scandal

The muni market’s overseer, the Municipal Securities Rulemaking Board (MSRB), is taking aggressive action to survey muniland indices following the Libor scandal. The board is asking index providers to disclose more about how certain indices are developed. The MSRB has no direct authority to regulate indices because, as with Libor, they are maintained by private companies and are outside of the board’s legislative mandate to regulate dealers. Alan Polsky, the current chairman of the MSRB, said in a press call that the board did not believe that there was any wrongdoing in this corner of the market, but that increasing transparency would enhance investor confidence. Here’s what he stated in a press release:

“Like other regulators, the MSRB is concerned about the transparency surrounding the development of market indices,” said MSRB Chair Alan Polsky. “We plan to review indices used by the municipal market – and develop educational materials about their use – to ensure that the market operates fairly and transparently.”

This is exceptionally good news because the municipal markets generally lag behind the equity markets in the transparency of their indices. You could easily calculate the value of the Dow Jones industrial average yourself, because information on all of the Dow’s components are publicly available. The same can’t be said for the Bond Buyer 20 index.

Here are some of the widely used indices in muniland:

The indices about which we know perhaps the least, though, are tied to Markit’s municipal credit default swaps. They describe their CDS pricing process generally like this:

Markit receives contributed CDS data from market makers from their official books and records. This data then undergoes a rigorous cleaning process where we test for stale, flat curves, outliers and inconsistent data. If a contribution fails any one of these tests, we discard it. By insisting on the highest standards, we ensure superior data quality for an accurate mark-to-market and market surveillance.

Meredith Whitney’s anniversary

Two big events happened on Tuesday in the municipal bond market: it was the annual conference of SIFMA, one of the industry trade associations; and it was also the one-year anniversary when Meredith Whitney began her campaign of predicting the collapse of the muni market. Whitney was of course way off-base with her prediction of hundreds of billions of dollars in bond defaults. In fact less than $1 billion of muni bonds have defaulted so far . But many believe that she did cause substantial damage to retail investors, mutual funds and insurance companies, all of whom were caught up in the downdraft of selling that followed her words of doom.

The reason that her words were so damaging to muniland was that there is little natural elasticity in the ebb and flow of the market structure — or, in market jargon, there is little liquidity. When large sell-offs happen in the equity or U.S. Treasury markets there is always a ready pool of buyers standing ready to pick up those securities at lower levels. These markets are favorites for traders and fast money because they encounter little friction, meaning the price rarely moves against them when entering and exiting the market. In contrast, there are few pools of buyers that understand the muni market and are able to do quick credit analysis of bonds for sale, not to mention the lack of shared pricing data that would let participants see if they are transacting at updated, fair-market prices. Because muniland is not really liquid, when Whitney yelled “fire” there was no orderly way for the crowd to exit the theater.

There are structural reasons why little liquidity exists in muni markets. For example, over 50,000 local and state governments have issued over 700,000 different municipal securities. On a given day only about 15,000 of these individual securities change hands in about 40,000 trades. The Municipal Securities Rulemaking Board stated in their annual fact book that about 10 million muni bond trades happened for the year 2010. In contrast, the New York Stock Exchange had 95 million trades in month of December 2010 alone.

Disclosure is the beat

Disclosure is the beat

On Tuesday at the SIFMA Muni Bond Summit in New York, much of the discussion by bond market participants related to transparency and disclosure issues. A lot of this was in response to new requirements in Dodd-Frank, but there was also an acknowledgement that many problems in the crisis of 2007-2009 came from a lack of information and data in many parts of the market. For example small municipal issuers had more trouble accessing the bond market to issue new bonds if their public reporting was deficient or out of date.

The heavy hitter of the bond summit was SEC Commissioner Elise Walter, who appeared by video link and broke news that the SEC would not ask Congress to overturn the Tower Amendment, a 1975 law that bars the SEC from interfering in the fiscal affairs of state and local governments. She discussed current legislation that would skirt the Tower Amendment and give the SEC authority to require municipal issuers to file disclosure, though it would grant no authority to review and approve those filings. From the Bond Buyer:

Walter repeated her call for Congress to increase the SEC’s authority so that it could set “baseline disclosure requirements.”

Muni sweeps: How does $775 billion of bonds go missing?

How does $775 billion of bonds go missing?

There is a sleeper story in muniland about a big pile of just-discovered municipal bonds. The story has some odd twists and turns. John McDermott of FT Alphaville scooped the details yesterday:

FT Alphaville typically estimates the size of the muni market at $2,900bn, based on year-end 2010 data from the Federal Reserve. The FT uses the same figure, occasionally rounding up to $3,000bn.

But the Fed is underestimating the size of the market by nearly $800bn, according to analysis by Citigroup’s municipal bond team.

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