Munis About to Blow Up

By: John Rubino | Mon, May 24, 2010
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So I'm sitting here trying to turn a pile of (mostly terrifying) data on muni bonds into a post that explains why this is the next domino to fall, and here comes Time Magazine with a feature on that subject:

Municipal Bonds: The Next Financial Land Mine?

As Wall Street nervously watches the sovereign debt crisis unfold in Greece, another potential landmine is looming closer to home, one that could bring U.S. cities and towns to their knees, force the federal government to cough up another bailout package, and potentially send the unemployment rate much higher. The danger this time? Municipal debt.

State and local governments are frantically scrambling to meet budget shortfalls as high unemployment and shaky consumer confidence mean less income tax and smaller sales tax revenue for government coffers. At the same time, falling home prices and rising foreclosures will start to hit municipalities hard this year as all those property reassessments done over the past 18 months kick in.

A couple of municipalities, such as Los Angeles and Detroit, have even whispered the "B" word. Former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan argued in an editorial in the Wall Street Journal earlier this month that the city will likely have little choice but to declare bankruptcy between now and 2014. Also, several smaller markets, such as Harrisburg, Pa., and Jefferson County, Ala., have openly talked about filing for Chapter 9 bankruptcy -- a reorganization available only to municipalities.

In general, municipalities try to avoid Chapter 9 filings. Although such filings make it easier for a city to break onerous labor contracts or make other politically tough cost cuts, they can have hidden costs, such as distracting politicians, alienating business and making it more difficult for a city to raise cash in the capital markets going forward. The city of Vallejo, Calif., for example, has been in Chapter 9 since spring 2008, and observers say the process has been costly and hurt the city's ability to attract new business. "It's been two years and the case is still going on and there's still significant disputes with the unions," says Eric Schaffer, a partner at Reed Smith LLP. "Ultimately you hope to bring everybody to the table and share the pain, but that can be a messy process."

Bankruptcy is a particularly unnerving prospect for bondholders. Municipal securities are a $2.8 trillion market, according to Municipal Market Advisors. An avalanche of investors sought refuge in the sector in recent years, lured by the stable, tax-free nature of muni bonds. More than $69 billion flowed into long-term municipal bond mutual funds in 2009, up from only $7.8 billion in 2008 and $10.9 billion in 2007, according to the Investment Company Institute. Another $15.2 billion has been added so far in 2010.

But increasingly munis are seen as vulnerable to the same forces that have put companies and some sovereign governments in crisis. "The whole system is pretty fragile," says Brian Fraser, a partner at the law firm Richards Kibbe & Orbe LLP. "The assumption has always been that municipalities aren't going away and that they can always raise taxes to pay debt," but that's no longer the case, he says. He noted how Jefferson County, which is teetering on bankruptcy, was unable to raise sewer rates to meet its sewer bond obligation. Adds Richard Raphael, executive managing director at Fitch Ratings: "This is the worst downturn ... and most pressured environment for municipals in decades." Read the rest of the article here

Some thoughts:

 


 

John Rubino

Author: John Rubino

John Rubino
DollarCollapse.com

John Rubino is author of Clean Money: Picking Winners in the Green Tech Boom (Wiley, December 2008), co-author, with GoldMoney's James Turk, of The Collapse of the Dollar and How to Profit From It (Doubleday, January 2008), and author of How to Profit from the Coming Real Estate Bust (Rodale, 2003). After earning a Finance MBA from New York University, he spent the 1980s on Wall Street, as a currency trader, equity analyst and junk bond analyst. During the 1990s he was a featured columnist with TheStreet.com and a frequent contributor to Individual Investor, Online Investor, and Consumers Digest, among many other publications. He now writes for CFA Magazine and edits DollarCollapse.com and GreenStockInvesting.com.

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