municipal bonds

Here’s a Bloomberg article about how banks made money by doing interest rate swaps with Detroit, and now Detroit is sad, because like a lot of municipalities Detroit swapped its floating rate bonds to fixed to hedge the risk of rates going up, and rates went down, and now the PV of Detroit’s swap liabilities is like $350mm, which is big, and that’s sort of that. I’m generally unmoved by the notion that municipalities should be able to get out of swaps that move against them for free, and while I’m sure there’s some nefarious record of mis-selling and fee-inflating in here somewhere, which would justify you getting all mad at Detroit’s banks, Bloomberg has not dug it up. The evidence so far is “rates went down,” so whatever.

Still this a pretty interesting story. The normal posture of these swaps cases is:

  • City has floating-rate bonds and swaps to fixed.
  • Rates go down but city is still effectively paying high fixed rate.
  • City says “WTF, why don’t we stop doing this?”
  • City goes to bank and says “remember that swap? never mind”
  • ?

  • Bank says “we’d be happy to tear up the swap, just pay us a $400 million termination fee.”
  • City freaks out, calls press, etc., shouts about windfalls, etc.1

But Detroit is different! Detroit, to its great credit, doesn’t want to tear up its swaps. The banks do. But they’re not exactly pushing it: Read more »

We talked the other day about municipalities and the Libor shenanigans. Quick recap:
1) Municipalities wanted long-term fixed-rate debt.
2) They got it indirectly by selling long-term floating-rate debt and buying interest rate swaps from banks.
3) At first, this was cheaper than issuing fixed-rate debt.*
4) Later, though, sometimes it turned out to be more expensive than having issued fixed-rate debt, or at least more expensive than it should have been, because municipalities pay a floating rate based on weekly reset auctions of their debt and that rate tends to track an interest rate called the Sifma swap rate,** while they receive a floating rate based on a percentage of Libor, and in 2007-2008 those rates diverged in weird ways.
5) Specifically, banks messed with Libor.
6) You can imagine tons of derivatives counterparties who could get screwed without politicians getting that worked up about it, but poor beleaguered Nassau County is not one of them.

Anyway an informed reader wrote in with some comments, of which this was my favorite: Read more »

There is a line forming to the left for people to beat up on Libor-manipulating banks, and it’s a long line so your beating time is limited and you have to make the most of it if you want anyone to care. Today’s the day for U.S. municipal borrowers. How’d they do?

The municipalities are important because they are the unusual case of a large class of politically sympathetic customers who would have been systematically disadvantaged by low Libor rates, as opposed to you and that mortgage that you won’t shut up about, on which Liborgate probably saved you money. Stephen Gandel nicely sums up the situation here: the problem was that, in astonishing droves, U.S. cities and counties borrowed at variable rates, paying their own idiosyncratic floating SIFMA rate, but they then swapped to fixed, receiving a floating rate based on Libor. This led to badness, as muni credit blew up and SIFMA spiked, while bank credit blew up and Libor mysteriously didn’t, because of the manipulating. So cities who had expected to pay a fixed 5% or whatever a year ended up paying 5% plus the suddenly widening gap between SIFMA and Libor.

Here is a graph I made you, comparing the SIFMA rate that munis paid to their bondholders versus a proxy for the Libor-based rate that they received from their banks*:

So that sort of looks okay outside of 2008, which looks sort of … not okay. Here is perhaps a more suggestive thing: Read more »

As you may have heard, Meredith Whitney has lately been saying that we’re going to be looking at the scariest environment imaginable when as many as 50 to 100 cities and other municipal issuers will supposedly default on their debt this year. Charlie Gasparino, however, is suspect. No one he knows has seen a copy of Whitney’s report (entitled “State Budgets: The Day of Reckoning”) and until he gets a peak and can evaluate it, Chaz doesn’t think we should be buying what this broad is selling. Read more »

The crisis in the auction rate securities market continued this week. While some issuers are preparing to refinance auction rate securities that have the highest interest rates, the suddenly turbulent market for muni bonds may leave many investors stuck in their illiquid positions.
“About 61 percent of auctions failed to attract enough bidders yesterday, in line with the average since mid-February, according Bloomberg.
The recent rally in the muni market, however, may make it easier for ARS issuers to refinance the products. Many auction rate securities are issued by government agencies. In order to repurchase the securities from investors, these agencies would likely have to issue plain-vanilla municipal bonds.
Accrued Interest has a good discussion of the breathtaking rally.
“On Monday, retail buyers (i.e., mom and pop investors) started coming out of the woodwork to buy bonds,” he writes. “The State of California came with a $1.7 billion deal on Monday. Demand was so strong that the underwriter cut the interest rate by 15bps across the board, and still $1 billion of the deal was done retail. Now maybe there has been $1 billion of a deal done retail in the past, but I sure as hell don’t remember ever hearing of such a thing. Smith Barney, Citigroup’s retail brokerage arm, supposedly had the best day for selling municipal bonds in their entire history on Monday. One large dealer I talk to regularly said they had sold every bond in their inventory by 11AM.”
Munis Rally as Highest Yields Since 2004 Lure Buyers [Bloomberg]
Municipal Bonds: Yeeeeaaaaahooooooo! [Accrued Interest]

The municipal bond ratings debate made the front page of the New York Times this morning, no doubt giving succor to fans of the Eisinger Thesis and its correlative, the Radically Inefficient Markets Hypothesis. By way of background, in the last issue of Portfolio senior writer Jesse Eisinger argued that ratings agencies were being burdened with ratings that are too low and therefore forced to pay higher interest rates or buy bond insurance to raise their ratings.
The evidence for the Eisinger Thesis is that municipal bonds default at much lower rates than similarly rated corporate bonds. But to suppose that this means that their interest rates get set too high requires a belief that investors have ignored the evidence of lower default rates in favor of blind adherence to ratings. The evidence of low muni default rates has been available for close to a decade, so this conclusion amounts to a belief that the muni market is radically inefficient. Hence the term Radically Inefficient Markets Hypothesis.
At the heart of the matter is the claim by the ratings agencies that muni investors demand a ratings scale that rates the ability of muni issuers to repay loans on a relative scale that compares them against other muni issuers, rather than other types of debt issuers. Some, like Felix Salmon, have doubted that such market demand for finely-tuned ratings exists. He even issued a challenge to DealBreaker to name at least one bond investor who wants this type of ratings system.
This morning the NYT does the job so we don’t have to.

Some sophisticated bond investors say that if municipalities were rated on the same scale as corporations, it would be harder to distinguish the relative riskiness of various cities, states and school districts, and mutual fund companies would have to evaluate bonds issue by issue.
“If you rate 95 percent of the issues the same, the ratings cease to be useful, and investors need and utilize these ratings to differentiate credits,” said John Miller, chief investment officer at Nuveen Asset Management in Chicago, which manages about $65 billion in mostly tax-exempt bonds.

Salmon, faced with such evidence, just rejects it out of hand. “I still don’t see why tiny differences which would be comfortably absorbed within the AAA range were they in the corporate arena suddenly become hugely important when they’re in the municipal arena,” he writes.
Well, we’ve explained all this before, so after the jump, we’ll simply quote ourselves.

States and Cities Start Rebelling on Bond Ratings

Read more »

Felix Salmon is skeptical that there is a market demand for bond ratings the differentiate between various issuers. His skepticism, however, is built on a simplistic image of who invests in bonds. To Salmon, it seems that muni bond investors are mostly old ladies in tennis shoes who buy bonds when they aren’t protesting water fluoridation. With this image in mind, he simple can’t believe that there would be a market demand for muni bonds to be rated relative other muni bonds rather than corporate bonds.
Our response begins with the observation that the alternative is simply implausible. If there is no market demand for the relative rating of muni bonds, why on earth is it happening? Jesse Eisinger hints at some kind of grand conspiracy between the ratings agencies and bond insurers but doesn’t really have any evidence for this conspiracy other than the fact that because he rejects the idea—on some principal that’s never been articulated—that there’s a market demand for relative ratings, he think there must be a conspiracy. This is question begging and violates Occam’s razor.
What’s more, Salmon’s image of bond investors is inaccurate. They are a heterogeneous lot made up of households, mutual funds, pension funds and banks. Even if a good deal of the investors are uninformed, the demand by sophisticated investors at the margin is enough to create the demand for relative bond ratings. Many of these investors have been so sophisticated that they created a demand for services which provide them with the underlying ratings of muni bonds regardless of bond insurance. In short, muni bonds are not the simplistic retail customers Salmon thinks they are.
It may help to take a look at why muni investors require such granular credit analysis. The reason is relatively easy to understand: municipalities have far less and less consistent financial transparency than corporations, especially public corporations. We can see this in the different ways bond prices respond to ratings downgrades. In the publicly held corporate sector, bond prices often don’t move much after a ratings change because the ratings are late to the game. The information driving the ratings change is typically already reflected in the bond prices (as well as the stock price). But for municipalities the situation is very different. Without an equity market and free from many financial disclosure rules governing public companies, muni investors are dependent on the ratings agencies to discover information about the financial health of muni issuers. This makes muni investors far more focused on ratings showing small gradations in issuers health than corporate bond investors.

On Munis, Ratings And Contrarianism

We get called contrarian often enough that we’re nearly resigned to the label. From our perspective, of course, we’re not contrarians at all. We’re so deficient when it comes to having a decent respect for the opinions of mankind that we aren’t even aware of the prevalence or rarity of the positions we take. If we seem contrarian, we suspect it’s just because so many others are wrong so often.
The debate over municipal bond ratings is a good example of this. Over at Portfolio—published out of an august tower located in Times Square—they are convinced that Moody’s, Fitch and the like assign ratings that are too low to municipal bonds. This supposedly forces our towns, cities and states to pay higher interest rates or purchase bond insurance to achieve higher ratings. Jesse Eisinger, who holds the esteemed title of Senior Writer at Portfolio, estimates that this costs municipalities around $5 billion a year.

Read more »