Muni Debt: Bridges To Nowhere?

Jon Markman wrote an excellent article about “The big threat of muni debt.” In a previous post, I mentioned that the credit crisis can very easily spread to the muni market by various means, but most likely through a downgrade of some of the large bond insurers.

What could be the effect on municipal bonds? Here are some highlights from Jon’s article:

Stocks rallied in the last week of January on the hint of a glimmer of a sliver of hope that a series of big U.S. interest-rate cuts and the prospect of modest tax-rebate checks would mend all the rips in world credit and consumer-product markets and open a clear path to better days.

So far in February, though, this tooth-fairy scenario has been rudely interrupted by the harsh reality that startling dangers remain in the wings, just waiting their turn, and are likely to emerge vividly enough over the next month or two to spook investors and send stocks below their January lows and beyond. Bulls didn’t really think they were going to escape bears so easily, did they?

The culprit this time is probably going to come hurtling in from a corner of the finance world least expected to give anyone grief: the formerly sleepy world of municipal finance, or the conduit through which cities and states pay for civic infrastructure. It may be hard to believe that your local roads, bridges and sewers could have a connection to the crisis that has rocked world financial markets in the past eight months, but this could be one of the worst threats yet.

Here’s the problem: Citizens have for decades empowered their towns, states, school districts and regional mass-transit agencies, among others, to issue debt to pay for all the niceties of modern transportation, education and public health that we take for granted. These long-term obligations, which you may know as municipal bonds, or munis, are backed by civic agencies’ taxation powers. The agencies nick local homeowners and other consumers for a few cents here and there on sales taxes, property taxes and use taxes, and it adds up to enough cash flow to pay off the debts.

For the most part, this is a lovely setup, and there have been ridiculously few defaults on the debts over the decades. But because virtually all local governments are treated like country bumpkins by Wall Street, they aren’t accorded the top-quality ratings, known as AAA or AA, that would allow their debts to be sold to safety-seeking money market funds, private investors or overseas pension funds.

As a result, local governments for years have bought a type of guaranty known as a wrap from companies called monoline insurers. These insurance companies essentially agree to wrap their own AA or AAA ratings around the municipalities’ lower ratings, allowing the bonds to be sold easily in the global marketplace. The monoline insurers thus have had one of the greatest free lunches of all time: They’ve collected billions in premiums from muni issuers yet rarely, if ever, paid a claim.

Because the monoline business was so profitable, the biggest insurers decided a few years back to spread their wings a little and branch out into the business of guaranteeing some riskier credits. Egged on by ratings agencies that wanted them to diversify away from the poky world of munis, executives at Ambac Financial Group (ABK, news, msgs), MBIA (MBI, news, msgs) and PMI Group (PMI, news, msgs) threw common sense out the window and persuaded their boards and shareholders that they could guarantee a new type of highly leveraged debt we have come to know as the evil villains in the past year’s credit psychodrama: collateralized debt obligations, or CDOs.

CDOs, you may recall, are those bundles of high-yield securities backed by subprime home mortgages, subprime auto loans, credit cards and the like that have dripped acid all over the world financial system in the past year. As many mortgage holders have stopped making payments on loans amid rampant home foreclosures across the United States, the securities underlying the CDOs have been downgraded left and right by the ratings agencies — in many cases from AAA all the way down to junk-bond status in a single swat.

As you can imagine, these downgrades make the CDOs too risky for pension funds to hold, but they are illiquid and hard to sell. Holders have therefore obsessed over whether the monolines would make good on their insurance policies in the event of default and have concluded they are so frightfully undercapitalized that payoffs are unlikely. So the insurers have found themselves under the microscope of ratings agencies, which have been threatening for the past couple of months to downgrade their high ratings. Because high ratings are all they have to sell, Ambac and MBI shares have plunged 84% and 79%, respectively, since early October as their business prospects have collapsed and their solvency has deteriorated.

Now this is where it starts to get ugly for cities and states — which means you and me.

In many cases, munis are sold as part of “tender option bond,” or “put bond,” derivatives. In these programs, which became very popular among hedge funds in this decade because their low risk profiles permitted a lot of leveraging, a bond could be tendered back to the issuer if any of a variety of troublesome events triggered, ranging in severity from a default to a ratings downgrade. The programs required the issuer to buy the bonds back at par, or face value.

If the monoline insurers that guarantee the bonds lose even one notch of their high ratings, then every one of the hundreds of thousands of munis they have underwritten over the years likewise loses its high rating. And that would be an event that could lead bondholders to attempt to tender the bonds back to issuers. Only cities and states don’t have anywhere near the tens of billions of dollars it would cost to buy them back. They would need to issue more debt at higher interest rates, and, well, you can see this can spiral way out of control.

If you thought that the current credit/housing crisis was slowly but surely being brought under control, think again. As one reader stated: This whole credit problem is like an octopus with an indefinite number of tentacles and no brain. No one can foresee how this will play out or when the next shoe is going to drop.

I for one will not invest in tax-free municipal bonds at this time because I have no way of knowing or assessing what effect the issues addressed in this story will have on individual holdings.

Currently, we only have a tiny exposure to munis for a couple of clients, and I am planning to liquidated those holdings fairly quickly. As one famous investor once said: I am more interested in the return of my money than the return on my money. Given the financial times we are living in, these are wise words to live by.

About Ulli Niemann

Ulli Niemann is the publisher of "The ETF Bully" and is a Registered Investment Advisor. Learn more
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