California Checking Under the Derivatives Hood
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Bill Lockyer, California’s State Treasurer, is in charge of driving “The Golden State’s” budget, but as he maneuvers the finances, he is hearing some strange knocks and pings as it relates to the pricing of Credit Default Swaps (CDS) on California debt obligations. CDSs, like virtually all derivatives, can either be used to speculate or hedge (see also, Einhorn CDS and Financial Engineering articles), so the existence of strange noises does not necessarily indicate foul play or problems that cannot be fixed.
Checking Under the Banks’ Hoods
At the heart of the CDS markets lie the major investment banks, so that is where Lockyer is looking under the hood and requesting information on the role the banks are playing in the municipal bond CDS market. Specifically, Lockyer has sent letters requesting information from Bank of America – Merrill Lynch (BAC), Barclays, Citigroup (C), Goldman Sachs (GS), JP Morgan (JPM),and Morgan Stanley (MS). California pays the banks millions of dollars every year to market bonds on behalf of the state. The I-banks operate in some way like a car dealership – the state produces the cars (bonds) and the banks buy the bonds and resell them to buyers/investors.
The financial transaction doesn’t necessarily stop there, because the banks can further pad their profits by selling and making markets in credit default swaps. After the state issues bonds, speculators can then pay the banks to place bets on whether the cars (bonds) fail (default), or investors can also buy insurance from the banks in the form of swaps. As you can probably surmise, there is the potential for conflicts of interest between the state and the banks, which partly explains why Lockyer is conducting his due diligence.
California…the Next Greece or Kazakhstan?
As the housing market came crashing down, credit default swaps were at the center of financial institution collapses and the billions made by John Paulson (see also the Gutsiest Trade Ever). More recently, CDSs were cited as negative contributors to the Greek financial crisis. Lockyer tries to deflect California comparisons with Greece by stating the European country’s budget deficit is 13 times larger than California’s (as % of GDP) and the foreign country’s accumulated debt is 25 times larger on GDP basis as well (read California’s Debt Hole story).
Beyond making sure the profit rules of the game are not stacked against California, Lockyer wants to understand what he perceives as a mispricing in the default risk of California debt obligations. He is worried that the state’s borrowing costs on future bond issues could be artificially escalated because he says the credit default swaps “wrongly brand our bonds as a greater risk than those issued by such nations as Kazakhstan, Croatia, Bulgaria and Thailand.”
Clarity on these issues is important because the state is exploring the expansion into taxable municipal bonds. The government has been subsidizing taxable munis, termed Build America Bonds (BABs), to stimulate the economy and bring down borrowing costs for municipalities. According to Thomson Reuters, BABS accounted for approximately 26% of overall muni bond issuance ($25.8 billion) in the first quarter.
If California were a car, I’m not sure how much cash they would get for their clunker ($16 billion budget deficit), but I tip my hat to State Treasurer Lockyer for holding the investment banks’ feet to the fire. All investors and financial product consumers stand to benefit by looking under the hood of their financial institution and asking tough questions.
Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®
Plan. Invest. Prosper.
*DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients own certain exchange traded funds, but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct positions in BAC, C, GS, JPM, and MS or any security referenced in this article. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC “Contact” page.