Municipal Bonds: A Clear Case of Buyer Beware

 |  Includes: AMBC, MBI, MCO, MFL, NUV
by: Edward Harrison

I have really started to dislike municipal bonds as an asset class. They have seen a huge rally along with almost every other financial asset but the underlying fundamentals are weak because of financial distress at states and municipalities.

Last week, I wrote a first piece on this topic, based on some work by Philip Greenspun and Fred Sheehan. I also just wrote a piece about Ambac Financial’s (ABK) likely bankruptcy, which will impact this market because of Ambac’s municipal bond guarantees. But, a Barron’s piece about Jim Chanos of Kynikos called “Short Seller: Dump Munis” piqued my interest and precipitated this particular article.

Chanos is bearish

The Barron’s piece by Tom Sullivan said:

James Chanos, the famed short seller who was among the first to foresee the collapse of Enron, recently sounded the alarm on the municipal-bond market — in the hallowed halls of the New York Historical Society, no less.

The "cracking of state and local municipalities is coming," he predicted at a recent meeting attended by Barron’s staffer Susan Witty, adding that he wouldn’t touch munis.

In a subsequent telephone interview with this columnist, Chanos said, "State and local municipal finance are a mess and going to get worse."

Sullivan went on to use New York and New Jersey as other examples of what is amiss for state bonds.

Revenue shortfalls

A New York Times article which I linked to Tuesday morning makes the situation in New York plain, ending with this:

The comptroller’s office numbers are more pessimistic than those from Mr. Paterson’s budget office. They project that the deficit for the remainder of the current fiscal year stands at $4.1 billion, with deficits of $7.8 billion and $15.7 billion in the succeeding years.

Mr. Ravitch, who helped steer New York City through its financial crisis in the 1970s, said, “The numbers are real and my own personal view is that they’re going to get worse.”

New York and New Jersey are suffering the same problems that California suffered, namely a huge fall in income and property tax revenue. This is true all over the country in places as far apart as Oklahoma, Hawaii, Texas, and Georgia.

Assets falling, liabilities ballooning

But, it’s not just about revenues versus outlays – the income statement. It’s also about assets and liabilities – the balance sheet. recently I spoke to Peter Schweich, a retired vice president of Boston University and founder of Boston University Academy, who had done some research on municipalities in Massachusetts and he explained that his research indicated that municipalities had seen a 30% fall in investment portfolio values during the credit crisis (much obviously gained back since). Even worse, he pointed me to enormous looming liabilities not reflected on balance sheet or considered by the ratings agencies. In a recent Forbes article, he wrote:

While municipalities are able to raise property taxes to cover current salaries, not without considerable pain to the taxpayer, few of them, if any, are prepared for the future financial demands of their grossly underfunded or completely unfunded Other Post Employment Benefits (OPEB) obligation. OPEB obligations are primarily associated with health benefits for retirees.

In 2006, the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago held a pension conference. In a short note, it reported that a "back of the envelope guess" for OPEB was $700 billion and that "other estimates suggest that OPEB exposure could range from five to 10 times current outlays for retiree health care."…

Cambridge, Mass., now known to most Americans as the city where a homeowner can be arrested for "breaking into" his own home, serves as a good example of the overwhelming burden residential and business property owners across the country are about to confront. Current and future Cambridge residents are now facing a completely unfunded OPEB obligation of $602 million. That figure, alone, is nearly one-and-a-half half times greater than the city’s entire 2009 budget. In addition, like most municipalities, the recent economic downturn has resulted in a significant loss to Cambridge’s regular pension fund: a 28.6% loss in 2008 in the amount of $225 million.

These are circumstances that are being repeated across the United States. One notable example in the news is San Diego, where the top pension administrator is exiting after last year’s over 25% loss, is also being buffeted by a conflict of interest scandal.

Ratings agency problems

Then there are the rating agencies. Remember the whistleblower scandal from last month? It was all about municipal bonds and the Moody’s (NYSE:MCO) allegedly putting their revenue generating relationship with municipalities ahead of the rating function. If you recall, it was exactly this conflict of interest which led to Arthur Andersen’s downfall in the Enron scandal.

This is what Reuters said about the Moody’s whisteblower scandal last month:

Two former Moody’s executives — Scott McCleskey and Eric Kolchinsky — testified that senior managers were willing to silence employees who raised concerns about the ratings process or compliance efforts.

McCleskey said that while he was the head of compliance at Moody’s, he voiced concerns that the firm was not properly monitoring ratings on municipal debt. McCleskey, who was dismissed by Moody’s in 2008, said he was instructed not to mention the issue in e-mails or writing.

Kolchinsky, a Moody’s managing director who was recently suspended by the firm, said senior managers pushed revenue over ratings quality and were willing to fire employees who disagreed.

No doubt, there are those who are still recommending munis because of their tax-free status, as a recent WSJ article demonstrated. But, the fundamentals are weak and getting worse – both in terms of the income statement and the balance sheet. These governments are soon to lose their guarantees from Ambac (and eventually MBIA (NYSE:MBI) despite hiving off the muni business). To my surprise, these governments are getting no federal government backstop as the California situation has demonstrated. And the Fed and Treasury are on record as saying they will not guarantee any municipal bonds. Finally, I question whether one should rely on the ratings these bonds have to make an informed investment decision. Even the junk-bond king Michael Milken, a credit analyst of note, is now warning that credit ratings are inflated.

Municipal bonds are a clear case of buyer beware.