Muniland’s public officials are clueless, not corrupt

Matt Taibbi’s latest piece for Rolling Stone, “How Banks Cheat Taxpayers,” blasts a common municipal bond market practice in which a state or municipality selects an underwriter for an offering without soliciting competitive bids for the project. These are called “negotiated bond offerings” in muniland parlance, and Taibbi likens them to a legalized form of bribery:

By “negotiated underwriting,” what Bloomberg means is, “local governments just hand the bid over to the bank that tosses enough combined hard and soft money at the right politicians.”

I really hope that Taibbi’s is making a hyperbolic statement to draw attention to his main premise that new bond offerings should done on a competitive basis, with which I agree entirely. But he implies that all state and local politicians are standing around with their hands out and are actively being bribed by Wall Street banks. If our country is that corrupt, we are in for a lot of trouble.

In contrast to Taibbi’s view I think most public officials are overwhelmed by the complexity of the municipal bond markets, which are hard to understand, and rely on a “trusted” investment banker to guide them through the minefields. A great report from Claire McCaskill, who served as the Missouri State Auditor in 2005 and now represents the state in the U.S. Senate, contained the following:

Some issuers [local governments] used questionable reasons in choosing negotiated sales. In addition, officials contacted believed they achieved low interest rates on negotiated sales because underwriters offered rates below the national bond index. However, due to Missouri’s high credit rating, the majority of general obligation bonds issued in the state achieve rates below the national index.

Injustice fuels the mob

CNN’s Erin Burnett recently made a visit to lower Manhatten to assess the Occupy Wall Street protest. Based on accounts of her visit Ms. Burnett seemed a little dismayed that those protesting didn’t understand the financial crisis very well. reported:

The protester was asked if he knew that taxpayers had “actually made money” on the Wall Street bailout, to which he responded he was “unaware.”

“Yes, the bank bailout made money for the taxpayers, right now to the tune of $10 billion,” Burnett said. “Those are seriously the numbers. This is the big issue? So, we solved it.”

Expanding the force field

After the financial crisis crescendoed with the failure of Lehman Brothers (who filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy three years ago today) many unsound financial arrangements were exposed.

Many of the arrangements that failed were derivatives that had been created to hedge interest rate volatility for municipal debt. Following Lehman’s failure interest rates spiked rapidly as bond market participants withdrew liquidity and moved to cash. Because of this withdrawal of liquidity a lot of the municipal derivatives arrangements went upside down and exposed school districts and municipalities to large losses. Because of embedded penalties most were too expensive to unwind. A classic case involved interest rate swaps associated with Harvard University borrowings that lost at least $500 million on payments to escape derivatives.

Harvard has a highly professional staff overseeing investments but most municipal entities rely on outside counsel to advise them on municipal debt issuance and help negotiate derivatives arrangements. Although they play a central role these muniland players were not regulated until the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act gave oversight over them to the Municipal Securities Rulemaking Board. Overseeing muni advisors is part of the transformation of the MSRB from a sleepy, backwater financial overseer to an aggressive, forward looking regulator.

Where are muniland’s cross-over buyers?

It’s an odd moment in muniland. There is an irregularity in the pricing of municipal bonds. Generally muni bonds have a lower yield than U.S. Treasuries because munis give investors a tax advantage. Investors use them to shield their investment income since coupon payments on municipal bonds from their state of residence are generally triple-tax-free — that is, they are not taxed at the local, state or federal level.

In this Bloomberg video Timothy Pynchon, a portfolio manager at Pioneer Investment Management, talks about how 30-year muni bonds are trading at 105 percent of the value of the 30-year Treasury. These bonds would usually trade at less than 100 percent of Treasuries because of their tax advantages.  This is a very unusual situation and would usually attract so-called “cross-over” buyers from other parts of the bond market. In the video, Cumberland Advisors’ David Kotok suggests that since U.S. Treasuries are mispriced (too expensive with low yields as a result of a flight to quality) it’s having a carry-over effect for long-dated municipal bonds. Basically the long end of the municipal bond market has moved away from its normal pricing relationships and is cheap relative to Treasuries.


Bloomberg: Colorado Refunds Transport Debt as Yield at Lowest Since 1994: Muni Credit

Wall Street’s deepest muniland fear

Wall Street’s deepest muniland fear

Although credit rating downgrades for municipal bonds are grabbing the headlines, that is not a real worry for Wall Street. Underwriters and traders are used to adjusting their models and formulas for changes in ratings and interest rates; after all, they are extremely skilled at that. However, forces are taking aim at the way they are compensated, and that is Wall Street’s deepest muniland fear. It’s all about how they are paid to underwrite municipal bonds, and the state of Maine is leading the charge.

When states or municipalities issue bonds they use Wall Street banks to underwrite them. Wall Street banks or dealers either compete against each other for these mandates in a competitive process or one bank or dealer privately negotiates the terms of the bond offering with the issuer. A privately negotiated underwriting happens in approximately 80% of municipal bond deals. This often costs municipalities and states more in fees. Bloomberg has an outstanding piece about how the state of Maine is choosing the competitive style of bond underwriting and the political struggle that happened to get there:

Banks promote negotiated sales as letting them offer the lowest cost by tailoring the debt to specific types of investors. Yet academic studies of the municipal market show such sales often raise costs by as much as $4.80 on every $1,000 borrowed, according to Mark D. Robbins and Bill Simonsen of the University of Connecticut in West Hartford.

Wall Street drives a truck through mile-wide hole in the rules

The Wall Street Journal and my fellow Reuters blogger Felix Salmon have both addressed the issue of the Bank of New York Mellon giving off-market or false prices on foreign-exchange trades to one of their clients, namely California pension fund Calpers.

Morally the actions of BONY, if true, are reprehensible. But are they illegal?  Felix describes the specific problem:

BNY Mellon’s clients put in FX orders, the bank executed those orders and reported back a price. Only it lied to its clients about the price it was getting, padding its own profits while so doing. This is doubly evil: not only did the bank lie, but it lied while serving as a fiduciary to its clients, with an affirmative duty to give them “best execution.”

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