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Tuesday, December 08, 2009 12:49 PM

Coming Collapse of Municipal Bonds; States, Cities Dig Deeper Holes

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In New Jersey, governor-elect Christie opposes (and rightfully so), the state going deeper in debt but that is not stopping the current administration of Jon Corzine.

Please consider N.J. to Borrow $200 Million Amid Incoming Governor’s Opposition.

New Jersey, the third-most indebted U.S. state, will sell more than $200 million in bonds today to finance voter-approved capital projects a week after Governor- elect Christopher Christie said he opposed borrowing more money.

The state will issue $209.1 million of bonds, including $205 million of tax-exempt securities, the largest such competitively bid offering in the market today, according to Bloomberg data. Christie, a Republican who defeated Democratic incumbent Jon Corzine last month, said he opposed new bond sales after the state last week detailed $2.7 billion in borrowing it plans for the remainder of the fiscal year, which ends in June.

The state’s bond sale today will finance clean water and open-space preservation projects, according to a preliminary official statement. The state is also planning to sell $1.4 billion of bonds for transportation and $1.1 billion for school construction before June 30, according to a Nov. 30 report.

Christie, 47, a former U.S. attorney, told Bloomberg News last week that New Jersey “can’t have any more debt” and that any projections for borrowing will be “rendered meaningless” when he takes office on Jan. 19.

New Jersey has $36.5 billion of gross tax-supported debt, the third highest of the 50 states, according to a report released in July by Moody’s Investors Service. Moody’s rates the state’s bonds Aa3, the fourth highest ranking. California has the most, at $75.2 billion.

New York City is leading the municipal market this week as issuers seek to borrow more than $10 billion, according to Bloomberg data. New York, the largest borrower among U.S. cities, is selling $1.4 billion of taxable and tax-exempt securities, including $616 million of Build America Bonds. By yesterday, the city had taken orders from individual investors for $440 million of the tax-exempt bonds, and for $20 million in Build America Bonds that it expects to finish pricing on Dec. 10, according to Ray Orlando, a spokesman for the city Office of Management and Budget.

Yields on conventional 20-year municipal debt fell to an eight-week low of 4.24 percent, down 1.34 percentage points from a year ago, according to a weekly Bond Buyer index.
New Jersey Perspective

New Jersey has $36.5 billion of gross tax-supported debt.
California has $75.2 billion of gross tax-supported debt.
New Jersey has a population of 8,682,661.
California has a population of 36,756,666.

Let's do the math.
New Jersey has 23.6% of the population of California and 48.5% of the tax supported debt.

Municipal Bond Bubble

It is not just New Jersey going nuts, California clearly did as well, and cities like New York are in deep trouble.

The city of Vallejo, California fired a huge warning shot by declaring bankruptcy. However, that warning shot has largely been ignored.

Given there is no realistic way for this debt to be paid back, municipal bonds are in a bubble.

People are chasing municipals because of tax exempt status but they are not compensated for for the risk. Please consider the following table courtesy of Investing Bonds

Assuming a 28% tax bracket, the effective yield on a 4% yield muni is 5.56. 20 year treasuries are yielding about 4%. A lousy 1.5% is all you get for the additional risk that a municipal bond blows up. I hardly see how it can possibly be worth it.

Although there is no provision for states to declare bankruptcy (there should be), cities, municipalities, and counties can.

I expect several counties in Florida to default. Major cities like Houston are a distinct possibility as well. Please see City of Houston is Bankrupt (So are California, Oregon, and Pension Plans in General) for details.

When counties and counties start declaring bankruptcy, municipal bond yields are going to soar across the board.

If there is little to no compensation for this risk (and there isn't), then why take it? As with the "free lunch" of Asset Backed Commercial Paper, investors are going to learn the hard way once again.

Mike "Mish" Shedlock
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