MuniLand

Decades-long infatuation with financing our spending

Decades-long infatuation with financing our spending

Sheila Bair, who served as Chairman of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation for five years through the financial crisis, has completed her term. In a weekend op-ed in the Washington Post, she urges America to rid itself of its addiction to financing consumption and “growth” with debt. This is the core requirement for America to become financially stable again and to return to “real” growth. From Bair’s Washington Post oped:

Now that I’m stepping down, I want to sound the alarm again. The common thread running through all the causes of our economic tumult is a pervasive and persistent insistence on favoring the short term over the long term, impulse over patience. We overvalue the quick return on investment and unduly discount the long-term consequences of that decision-making.

Our decades-long infatuation with financing our spending through ever-growing debt, in the private and public sector alike, is the ultimate manifestation of short-term thinking. And that thinking, particularly in business and in government, is actually getting worse, not better, as we look for solutions to put our economy on a sounder footing.

Will pension transparency shake muniland?

Joan Quigley of the Bond Buyer is reporting on how proposed guidelines to place unfunded pension liabilities alongside other liabilities has shaken up municipal governments. It’s really just a proposal to clean up balance sheets and get the real numbers out where people can understand them. Many governments have buried these giant, problematic numbers deep in the footnotes. This proposal from the Governmental Accounting Standards Board would force the dirty laundry into the sunlight. From the Bond Buyer:

Currently, many governments disclose pension information in the footnotes to their financial statements and generally only report the contributions they are required to make in a given year, as well as what they actually paid.

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Or “who watches the watchmen?” Credit-rating agencies are the main watchmen of the financial system.  But can we judge their performance, or are they just black holes filled with “opinions?”

The credit-rating agencies continue to make headlines as they try and keep pace with a slowly sinking Europe and the efforts there to rescue bondholders. European banks, the ECB, and officials from the EU are trying desperately to concoct some kind of structured investment vehicle that will solve the Greek sovereign debt crisis without requiring a default. So far, the rating agencies are not eating their “inventive” cooking, and they have yet to bless any new “solution.”

Many observers believe that credit raters completely mis-rated mortgage bonds and that this caused the global financial crisis. Meredith Whitney implies that credit raters are vastly underestimating the riskiness of municipal bonds and have overlooked pension and other liabilities when judging state and local governments’ creditworthiness. But do we have any statistical evidence of any this? Are credit raters getting the ratings wrong on every type of bond?

The American Revolution was a beginning, not a consummation

“The American Revolution was a beginning, not a consummation.” ~Woodrow Wilson

Happy belated Independence Day to all! Step by step, the United States is transforming itself. It’s a good time to remember our founding principles:

Individual liberty
Personal responsibility
Constitutionally limited government
The rule of law

Muniland is the most transparent bond market

Agnes Crane, a columnist for Reuters Breakingviews, wrote an interesting column today about ending the municipal-bond tax exemption. This tax exemption, granted at the federal level, makes the interest earned on municipal bonds free from taxation on the local, state and federal level if it’s owned by an investor residing at the place of issuance.

The “triple tax” exemption is baked into the structure of the municipal market. There are several proposals floating about how to modify the muni tax exemption. Agnes Crane, in her column, calls it an “accident of history.” Accident or not, there are 50,000 muni issuers who will actively resist any legislation to change the tax code. It’s hard to imagine any lobbying group with more clout since state and local officials are deeply embedded in the political web of every federal legislator’s district. But politics being what it is, every legislative term brings new possibilities.

But what I really wanted to write about was Agnes’ idea that repealing the muni tax exemption would make the muni bond market more transparent and efficient. The municipal bond market is already miles ahead of other bond markets in transparency. Since the Municipal Securities Rulemaking Board made their EMMA system operational, transparency in muniland is an order of magnitude better than other any bond market, including the U.S. Treasury market, which is liquid but not transparent. To see individual trades in the Treasury market you need an expensive Bloomberg or Reuters terminal. But for the muni market all you need is an internet connection to reach EMMA. At EMMA you can easily get all the documents for an issuer and their individual bonds, credit-rating downgrades, annual issuer reports and more.

Don’t borrow in the dark, Governor Christie

Every family encounters times when bills are due and they don’t have money. If this happens to a state or local government, they go to the municipal bond market where they can borrow short- or long-term. In the current market they are likely to find a lot of willing lenders.  These lenders will lend at very reasonable interest rates, and the terms of the borrowing will be made public so taxpayers can see what their obligations are.

Since there is so much demand in the muni bond market I was surprised to see that the State of New Jersey was going to set-up a “bridge loan” with J.P. Morgan Chase, one of Wall Street’s biggest banks. The specific details of the borrowing have not been announced, but tidbits released in the media suggest that the lending rate from the bank will be twice the rate from the muni bond markets.

The consumer analogy would be using a neighborhood payday lender rather than taking a cash advance on a credit card. The payday lender would charge you 10% and the credit-card company would charge 5% for the same loan. These are made up examples, but give a glimpse into the most important variable when comparing the state’s borrowing choices.

The declining welfare rolls

The ever-shrinking welfare rolls

Stateline has done some very good reporting on the decline of the welfare rolls. Welfare funding was switched to block grants in 1996, and the funding level has remained the same since then. From Stateline:

Welfare is not a big budget item for most states, taking up less than 2 percent of all state spending, according to the National Association of State Budget Officers (NASBO)…

…When Congress overhauled that system in 1996, it changed welfare from an “entitlement program” guaranteeing coverage to everyone who was eligible and instead created the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) block grant that hands out lump-sum payments for welfare. States are essentially given a set amount of money and allowed to use it as they wish. The amount has stayed level since 1996.

Standardizing AAA

For many years, a AA-rated municipal bond did not have the same risk of default as a AA-rated corporate bond. In fact, the corporate bond was about 6 times more likely to default.

Over the last two years, credit rating agencies have standardized the municipal and corporate rating scales. This was a substantial change for the municipal bond market and had the effect of raising the credit rating of thousands of municipal issues. Many don’t understand why this large structural change was made, so I thought it would be helpful to share the history.

Many professionals within muniland have said that a substantial amount of “granularity” was lost in the municipal rating scale when it was equalized with the corporate bond scale. A municipal bond previously rated A2 was likely moved four notches up the rating scale to Aa1. This has the effect of “bunching” municipal ratings into a tighter band than they had previously been in, and it obscured the prior “granularity” that the muni scale had.

Auctioning off the infrastructure


Fiscally-stressed municipalities have leased roads, airports and statehouses to private entities. I’ve never seen a good compendium of how these privatizations worked for various stakeholders. But it is fair to assume that private investors are attracted because there are ways to increase margins and make profits. A 2008 New York Times article identified some of the approaches used by investors:

Private investors recoup their money by maximizing revenue — either making the infrastructure better to allow for more cars, for example, or by raising tolls. (Concession agreements dictate everything from toll increases to the amount of time dead animals can remain on the road before being cleared.)

There is a lot of cash sitting on the sidelines to take public assets private.

Reeling from more exotic investments that imploded during the credit crisis, Kohlberg Kravis Roberts, the Carlyle Group, Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley and Credit Suisse are among the investors who have amassed an estimated $250 billion war chest — much of it raised in the last two years — to finance a tidal wave of infrastructure projects in the United States and overseas.

Datapooloza

The thing I hear most often about muniland is how murky the market is. It is rather astounding that the municipal market is so little understood given its size and its effects on state and local governments and tax rates. To help shake the market up and create more transparency, I thought it would be helpful to start gathering muniland data sets for people to start playing with. Have at it, friends. Please send over any interesting findings.

Data pools

USA.gov: Statistics at the State and Local Levels

Office of Management and Budget: Historical Tables

Bureau of Economic Analysis: Gross Domestic Product (GDP) by State and Metropolitan Area

US Census: Quarterly Summary of State & Local Tax Revenue

US Census: Government Employment & Payroll

Bureau of Labor Statistics: Local Area Unemployment Statistics Map

Bureau of Economic Analysis: Federal Recovery Programs and BEA Statistics

The National Association of State Budget Officers: Spring 2011 Fiscal Survey of States

Tri-level sunshine

Centers of power, by their nature, seek to control and hide information, but civil societies and stable governments require transparency to create the bedrock of confidence among their citizens. Every government must commit itself to open dealings and renew that commitment on an ongoing basis. We have good news from the state of Vermont that this commitment has spread to the state and local level.

Transparency at the federal level got a big boost when President Lyndon Johnson signed the Freedom of Information Act in 1966. Wikipedia says the Act “allows for the full or partial disclosure of previously unreleased information and documents controlled by the United States Government” and that it also “defines agency records subject to disclosure, outlines mandatory disclosure procedures and grants nine exemptions to the statute.”

Some have argued that Congress has carved out too many exemptions to the law, but there are many instances where the FOIA has been an effective tool for opening up the records of important government actions.  Without FOIA requests from deceased Bloomberg reporter Mark Pittman, for instance, the public would have never learned the details of the Federal Reserve’s facilities that funneled $3.3 trillion to financial institutions during the financial crisis.

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