The Next Looming Bailout…Muni Bonds
Government politicians and voters have made it clear they do not want to bail out “fat-cat” bankers in the private sector, but what about bailing out “fat-cat” state pensioners in the public sector? States and cities across the country are increasingly under economic strain with deficits widening and debt-loads stacking up. California’s statewide budget problems have been well publicized, but you are now also hearing about more scandalous financial problems at the city level (read about the multi-million dollar malfeasance in the city of Bell).
Well if a 2010 $1.3 trillion federal deficit is not enough to tickle your fancy, then how does another $137 billion in state deficits over fiscal 2011 and 2012 sound to you (National Governors Association)? Unfortunately, the states have made no meaningful structural improvements. If you layer on general economic “double dip” recession fears with excess pension liabilities, then you have a recipe for a major unresolved financial predicament.
Despite the dire financial state of the states, municipal bond prices have generally survived the 2008-2009 financial crisis unscathed. With unacceptably poor state budget risks, muni bond prices have continued to rise in 2010. The downside…new investors must accept a pitiful yield of 2.75% on 10-year municipal debt, according to Financial Advisor Magazine.
One investor who is not buying into the strength of the tax-free municipal bond market is famed investor and CEO of Berkshire Hathaway (BRKA/BRKB), Warren Buffett. Here is what he wrote about munis in his legendary annual shareholder letter last year:
“Insuring tax-exempts, therefore, has the look today of a dangerous business…Local governments are going to face far tougher fiscal problems in the future than they have to date.”
Buffett has this to say about rating muni bonds:
“I mean, if the federal government will step in to help them [municipalities], they’re triple-A. If the federal government won’t step in to help them, who knows what they are?”
Safety Net Disappears
Like a high wire artist dangling high in the air without a safety net below, the states are currently borrowing money with little to no protection from the bond insurance providers. The shakeout of the subprime debt defaults has battered the insurers from many perspectives, leaving a much smaller market in the wake of the financial crisis. In 2007 about 50% of new municipal bonds were issued with bond insurance, while today only approximately 7% carry it (UBS Wealth Management Research). With decreased insurance coverage, the silver lining for muni investors is the necessity for them to perform more comprehensive research on their bond holdings.
Defaults on the Rise
On the whole, less insurance will result in more defaults. Although defaults are expected to decline in 2010, non-payments totaled $6.9 billion in 2009, up from $526 million in 2007 (Distressed Debt Securities). Even though the numbers sounds large, the recent default rate only represents a 0.25% default rate on the hefty $2.8 trillion market. That muni default rate compares to a more intimidating corporate bond default rate of 11% in 2009.
Bigger Bark Than Bite?
James T. Colby, senior municipal strategist at Van Eck Global, understands the severity of the states’ budget crisis but he believes a lot of the doomsday headlines are bogus. Riva Atlas, writer for Financial Advisor Magazine, summarizes Colby’s thoughts:
“Even those states in the worst straits like California and Illinois have provisions in their constitutions or statutes requiring them to pay their debts. In California, the state’s constitution says bondholders come second only to the school system, so the state would have to empty its jails before it stopped paying its teachers.”
Certainly municipalities could raise taxes to compensate for any budget shortfalls, but we all know most politicians are reluctant to raise taxes, because guess what? Tax increases may result in fewer votes – the main motivator driving most politicians.
If the states decide to not raise taxes, they still have other ways to weasel out of obligations. For starters, they can just stick it to the insurance company (if coverage exists). If that option is not available, the municipalities can look to the federal government for a bailout. Irresponsible actions have their consequences, and like consumers walking away from payments on their mortgages, municipalities will effectively be preventing themselves from future access to borrowing. Either way, the bark is less than the bite for investors since the insurance company or federal government will be making them whole.
BABs and Taxes Add Fuel to the Fire
A glut of Build America Bonds (BABs) issued by municipalities, driven by demand from yield hungry pension funds, along with expected tax hikes for the wealthy have created a scarcity of tax-free munis.
In the first half of 2010 BABs accounted for more than 25% of municipal bonds issued, which was a significant contributing factor to the robust muni market. The BABs tailwinds aiding muni prices won’t last forever, as the bond issuance program is expected to expire at the end of 2010.
On the tax front, the wealthy are likely to see higher federal tax rates in the future – upwards of 36% – 40%. If you include the double tax-exempt benefits in states like New York and California, the relative attractiveness becomes even that much better. Combined, these factors have elevated muni prices.
Despite higher defaults, scarier headlines, and the lack of insurance, the municipal bond market remains robust. General interest rate declines caused by macroeconomic fears have caused investors to flock to the perceived “safe haven” status of Treasuries and Munis, but as we have all witnessed, the fickle pendulum of emotions never sits still for long.
Managing the Munis
As is evident from the municipal bond discussion, states and cities across the country have been plagued by the same deficit and debt issues as the country faces on a federal level. Tough structural expense issues, and revenue generating tax policies need to be scrutinized in order to prevent federal taxpayer bailouts of municipalities across the country.
From a municipal bond investor perspective, it’s best to focus on general obligation bonds (GOs) because those bonds are backed by the taxing authority of the municipal government. On the flip side, it’s best to stray away from revenue bonds or privately issued municipals because revenue streams from these bond channels are not guaranteed by the municipality, meaning the risk of default is larger.
While Congress sorts out financial regulatory reform with respect to banking bailouts and “too big to fail” corporations, our federal government should not lose sight of the widespread municipality problems our country faces today. If not, get ready to pull out the checkbook to pay for another taxpayer-led bailout…
Read the Complete Financial Advisor Magazine Article: The Muni Minefield
Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®
Plan. Invest. Prosper.
DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients own certain exchange traded funds (including CMF), but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct position in BRKA/B or any other 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.