The Muni Market's Shifting Sands

Submitted by Mark J. Grant, author of Out of the Box,

I began my career in this space. Fresh off my internship I was assigned to cover small banks in Missouri and Kansas and sell them Municipal Bonds. My fondest recollection was of a small bank in western Kansas that said he couldn't buy bonds now because, "There are green bugs in the milo." I had no idea what green bugs were then and wasn't too sure about milo.

Almost forty years later and having supervised the municipal trading/sales and banking areas at four different investment banks I still am on the watch for the green bugs in the milo. Munis are the most decentralized and still the most "good old boy" part of the Capital Markets. Relationships are paramount in the municipal markets, and in non-competitive situations, who you know often trumps what you know in doing business. Municipals are a unique space.

For many years people and institutions paid less attention than they should to the financial statements of municipalities. This was because the mono-line insurance companies dominated any credit considerations. Then, as these companies wandered off and insured various mortgage bond transactions, they went bust or awfully close to it. The sands shifted, people started looking at balance sheets once again.

Detroit is now teaching us several lessons and you can feel the sand shifting yet again. The normal credit analysis performed by many money managers is insufficient in my estimation and because of this losses will be taken. The issue here is the pension funds that may have priority over the general obligation bonds. This is made clear, as an example, in the Michigan State laws and I am expecting new laws and new State and Federal regulations to be passed to guarantee this priority. Pensions will trump the bond holders and General Obligation bonds must now be viewed in the light of a subordinated position. This may shift ratings but it will certainly shift the appreciation of risk in Municipal Bonds and will most probably cause them to widen against both Treasuries and other forms of debt.

General Obligation bonds no longer have the first call on assets.

Specifically, if you are analyzing a Municipal credit, you should look carefully at the size of their pension obligations and calculate the ratio for pension obligations divided by their G.O. debt. Then you should examine the unfunded pension liabilities, add them to their pension obligations and divide that number by their G.O. debt. These calculations will help you get a more realistic handle on the risk that you are assuming when buying the G.O. debt of a municipality. It is not enough, any longer, to examine a Municipal credit in the same way that you examine a corporate credit because Detroit is setting a new standard where pension obligations have the first call on assets and General Obligation bonds have been pushed into a secondary position.

The psychology of the Municipal market is also shifting in the sand. It was once a widely held belief that the State would stand behind any large Municipal credit in its domain. Detroit is proving this to be an inaccurate observation. There was even the notion that if the Municipal credit was large and systemic enough that the Federal government might step in to help. Detroit is exemplifying that this was a second mistake in thinking. We are now learning that each Municipal credit is a stand-alone situation which is a break from the traditional thinking of days past.

I think it is true that Municipalities can meander along longer than corporate credits and certainly than mortgage credits because they can increase their taxes and/or increase what is taxed. So the time-line is longer when a credit is in trouble but, if a Municipal credit falls over the edge, the consequences for debt holders have now become more severe. Detroit brings Chicago to mind and then my caution widens as you look at other large cities. Greater care must now be exercised and I would suggest that many of you should begin a re-examination of what you own and whether you wish to keep owning it.

Do your homework now before another Detroit pops up its head and takes a chunk out of your posterior.