Muniland needs defenders when Meredith Whitney talks her book

Yesterday DealBook announced the dreariest news possible for muniland: Meredith Whitney is publishing a book entitled Downgraded: Why the Next Economic Crisis Will Be Local, which is due out in November. DealBook says:

In the book, Ms. Whitney — who shook [municipal] bond markets with a 2010 appearance on “60 Minutes” in which she predicted scores of municipal defaults –will “reveal why America’s cities and states are in deeper trouble than is commonly realized,” according to the publisher.

The truth is that when Whitney made her infamous muniland prediction, she spooked retail investors into fleeing the municipal bond market in droves. These investors suffered tens of billions of dollars in losses, thanks to her.

The biggest problem at the time of Whitney’s call was that no muniland market professionals stepped up to refute her “opinions.” There are several reasons for the lack of push back: Muniland professionals thought her call was so outlandish no one would believe it; the media didn’t have a deep bench of municipal bond professionals to call upon to refute her; and by tradition and compliance rules, most municipal bond professionals are hesitant to speak in public. So Whitney had the stage pretty much to herself to knock down the municipal bond market.

Now Whitney is altering her story. Whereas she previously proclaimed that weak fiscal conditions will cause hundreds of billions of dollars in municipal bond defaults, she now says only that horrific fiscal conditions are hidden away from public view. The truth is that practically every state and local entity is down in the trenches fighting the hard battles to right its fiscal position. Day after day local and national media are full of stories of program cuts, shrinking numbers of government employees, pension reforms and very low municipal bond issuance. For example Illinois, the nation’s weakest state fiscally speaking, commences its budget battle today with the governor releasing his proposal for the coming fiscal year. From the Illinois Statehouse News:

Munis are the star performer of 2011

Bloomberg had a great piece that rounds up the factors that made municipal bonds the best performing financial asset of the past year. The story is framed as a knock on Meredith Whitney for her scare call a year ago:

This was supposed to be the year the $3.7 trillion state and local debt market would be rocked by an exploding pension time bomb and “hundreds of billions of dollars” of defaults, according to analyst Meredith Whitney.

Whitney’s Armageddon never came. Instead, munis became the star performers of 2011.

More Whitney rebuttals

The media is full of municipal bond market participants rehashing Meredith Whitney’s prediction of muni collapse which began last September. From Bloomberg:

[Meredith] Whitney, the banking analyst who predicted Citigroup Inc.’s 2008 dividend cut, said on “60 Minutes” on Dec. 19, 2010 that there would be “hundreds of billions of dollars” of municipal defaults within 12 months.

Data from [John Hallacy, Bank of America Merrill Lynch’s head of municipal research in New York], Standard & Poor’s and Municipal Market Advisors show the opposite.

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.

Regulator wants to require “fair dealing”

Regulator wants to require fair dealing

In a far-reaching proposal, the Municipal Securities Rulemaking Board (MSRB) has asked the Securities and Exchange Commission for permission to impose new rules to protect municipalities. These rules would vastly expand the disclosures that dealer underwriters are required to give their municipal clients who issue bonds.

MSRB’s executive director Lynnette Kelly Hotchkiss said in a statement:

Dodd-Frank explicitly requires the MSRB to protect municipal entities. This gives us the ability to establish detailed requirements for underwriters and make important information more readily available to state and local governments that sell bonds.

The rules would require disclosure of “conflicts of interest” to municipalities before they enter into contracts to issue bonds. Specifically the new rules would require banks to:

Is Meredith Whitney a ratings’ driver for CNBC?

It’s more than a little frustrating that CNBC continues to feature equity analyst Meredith Whitney as she talks about municipal bonds over and over again. I’m not really sure she evens knows what she is talking about.

Matt Fabian, managing director at Municipal Market Advisors, shined on this same topic in this interview with Tom Keene on Bloomberg Television in May. Matt Fabian of MMA or Daniel Berger of Thomson Reuters Municipal Market Data would both be far superior in terms of talking accurately about muniland. Both have analyzed muni bonds for over a decade and can talk about the unique conditions each issuer is facing. Neither of them work for a sell-side firm, so they would not be arguing for issuers that they favor or that their firms hold inventory in.

Here is what the National League of Cities said in May about Ms Whitney (emphasis mine):

Save the $100,000 that Meredith Whitney charges for research

Just the numbers please

You can save the $100,000 that Meredith Whitney charges for her research. Reuters has the data on municipal bond issuers with the weakest profiles by bond-market standards. Puerto Rico leads the pack as the least credit-worthy issuer. Issuer Weekly Yearly Outstanding Unfunded S&P Moody's Spread* Average Tax-supported Debt Pension Rating Rating Puerto Rico 225 203.7 $40 bln $24 bln BBB A3 Illinois 174 175.5 $24 bln $62 bln A+ A1 California 95 106.3 $87 bln $50 bln A- A1 Michigan 80 81.2 $7 bln $12 bln AA- Aa2 Nevada 70 68.0 $2 bln $2 bln AA Aa2 New Jersey 65 54.7 $32 bln $37 bln AA- Aa3 D.C. 60 57.3 $6.4 bln $0 A+ Aa2 N.Y. City 47 55.7 $61 bln $76-122 bln AA Aa2 Rhode Isl. 47 45.9 $2 bln $4 bln AA Aa2 Ohio 38 31.9 $11 bln $2.9 bln AA+ Aa1 *In basis points for the week ended June 17, 2011, Sources: Municipal MarketData, Moody's Investors Service, Standard & Poor's Ratings Services, local government budget reports, official statements

The roots of delusion

Small snippet from an excellent piece in the New York Times on the roots of the unfunded pension mess (emphasis mine):

Flight three of muniland’s harpy

I had really hoped that Meredith Whitney had gone back to analyzing banks and trying to interpret how the new Basel 3 liquidity ratio would be phased in. Unfortunately, she is back touring the mainstream financial media with another shrill message for muniland.

Muniland’s loudest harpy threw out some real doozies yesterday on CNBC and in a Fortune interview. The most outlandish claims Ms. Whitney made related to the proportion of state’s budgets that were going to service their debts. The substance of her statements were expertly demolished by Nicholas Johnson of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities:

Whitney wildly exaggerates what states are spending on interest, claiming for instance that “debt service absorbs half of Nevada’s budget.”

Muni sweeps: Lockyer rides again

CA Treasurer launches another derivatives investigation

We often see Wall Street selling sophisticated products to state and local governments which are not appropriate for them — think interest rate swaps and Jefferson County. So it’s always refreshing to find a government official who actually tries to keep Wall Street in line.

Sharp-eyed California State Treasurer Bill Lockyer has been monitoring the spread (price) levels for the state’s credit-default swaps. He noticed a very significant one-day drop in CMA Datavision (one of two muni CDS price aggregators) and wants to understand what caused this. Katy Burne at Dow Jones has done an excellent job reporting the story:

California’s state treasurer is looking into what he believes were erroneous prices reported last month for credit-default swaps tied to the state’s debt.

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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