The ratings firm Moody’s Investors Service this week upgraded Illinois’ credit rating one notch to Baa2, a level two notches above junk. It’s a major turnaround given that just one year ago Illinois faced the prospect of becoming the first state to ever be rated junk. In mid-2020, shutdowns ravaged the state’s tax base, Sen. Don Harmon asked for a $42 billion bailout from Congress and the state projected billions in multi-year budget shortfalls.
What changed so dramatically in such a short period of time? Ignore the claims by Illinois lawmakers of their heroic acts of “balanced budgets,” “fiscal discipline” and the like. Even if those claims were true – and they are not – they couldn’t by themselves create such a swing in Illinois’ short-term fortunes.
Credit, instead, the massive $138 billion in federal funds from the multiple COVID relief and stimulus packages – as compiled by the Committee for Responsible Federal Budget – that are now flooding Illinois’ public and private sectors. Those billions have significantly reduced the probability of a bond default – which is ultimately what Moody’s really cares about.
A proposed mandate to shutter the $5 billion Prairie State coal energy campus and a Springfield, Illinois? plant by 2035 would hit local ratepayers with the double burden of funding new energy sources while still paying down project bonds, a bipartisan group of state lawmakers warn.
Gov. J.B. Pritzker backs a state mandate to end coal generation by 2035 to meet de-carbonation targets included in pending energy legislation. The package stalled during the General Assembly?s spring session that ended last week, but Pritzker said he expects lawmakers will return in the coming weeks for a vote.
Retiring Prairie State early would mark the latest headache for some of the nine public utilities in Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Missouri, and Ohio that issued $4.5 billion of debt, some it under the federal Build America Bond program, to finance their ownership in project.
Peabody Energy Inc. initially sponsored the project in Washington County promoting it as an affordable source of energy with an adjacent mine and a cleaner one given its state-of-the-art technology at the time. Bechtel Power Corp. built it. It initially carried a $2 billion price tag that rose to a $4 billion fixed cost under the 2010 contract with utilities but cost overruns drove the price tag up to $5 billion.
Unlike FASB, the SEC has no control over GASB. But the Commission is obligated “to protect investors in the municipal markets from fraud, including misleading disclosures [emphasis added].” Taken together, the SEC’s own statements make a strong case that it is obligated to prevent fraud in state and local governments’ financial reports, which are confusing and obfuscate the truth.
The state and local governments’ annual financial reports are based on shoddy accounting practices. If confusing and misleading disclosures are considered fraud, then annual reports produce fraudulent disclosures.
It is confusing and misleading that the GASB requires state and local governments to keep two sets of books. Annual financial reports include governmental fund statements that are prepared using an accounting basis called the “modified accrual basis,” which in essence uses short-sighted cash accounting, while the consolidated financial statements are prepared using accrual accounting standards similar to those used by corporations.
Tillman, of suburban Golf, centered his claims on Article IX Section 9(b) of the Illinois state constitution. Tillman argued that provision of the state constitution limits the state’s ability to borrow money.
The complaint particularly focuses on text requiring lawmakers to identify “specific purposes” for debt when issuing new long-term bonds. Tillman argues that “specific purposes” clause should be read to forbid state lawmakers from borrowing money to finance deficits or “plug holes” in the state’s budget, such as the shortfall faced by the state when funding pension obligations.
Tillman has argued lawmakers in both 2003 and 2017 failed to identify “specific purposes” when it issued bonds, and then unconstitutionally assigned to the state comptroller the power to decide how the borrowed money was spent.
In 2021, the composition of municipal supply could be a key swing factor for high quality muni performance. Last year, taxable muni supply hit an all-time record of $181 billion, due in no small part to the elimination of tax-exempt advance refundings in the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA). The shrinking supply of tax exempts has provided a tailwind to muni market performance, particularly for high quality tax-exempt munis, which have enjoyed a full recovery to pre-pandemic levels.
The Federal Reserve has pushed down long-term interest rates by buying bonds and committed to keep short-term interest rates at near zero through 2023. While the central bank’s interventions were needed in March, it continued to buy corporate bonds well into the summer when markets didn’t need the support.
Chairman Jerome Powell last month reassured investors that the Fed won’t take away its market support until the economy makes “substantial further progress” toward inflation above 2% and maximum employment. The rush into high-yield corporate and municipal debt has since accelerated with yields dropping due to great demand.
Junk-rated Chicago Public Schools and the city of Detroit recently floated bonds yielding less than 2%. Spreads with the AAA muni-bond benchmark have collapsed. The sages at BlackRock last month recommended high-yield munis for their “diversification benefits” and “high levels of income” and saw “significant value” in Puerto Rican bonds.
Earlier this year, the $3.9 trillion market where states, cities, schools and other issuers sell debt had been resisting a steep sell off in Treasuries that lifted yields, putting the historically close correlation between the two markets out of whack.
Now, munis are catching up, with the 10-year yield on Municipal Market Data’s (MMD) benchmark triple-A scale, which started 2021 at 0.720%, climbing 45 basis points since Feb. 12. It closed up 5 basis points at 1.14% on Thursday.
The iShares National Municipal Bond exchange-traded fund (ETF) fell on Thursday to its lowest level since November at 115.14. The largest muni ETF, which reached an 11-month high of 117.95 on Feb. 11, was last down 0.43% at 115.30.
The impasse between the governor and a board that oversees Puerto Rico’s finances threatens to throw into limbo attempts to end a bankruptcy-like process for a government that six years ago declared unpayable its more than $70 billion public debt load.
The deal was reached with creditors who hold general obligation bonds and Public Building Authority bonds sold by Puerto Rico’s government and would resolve $35 billion worth of debt and non-debt claims, according to the board. It also would reduce debt held by those creditors from $18.8 billion to $7.4 billion, a 61 percent reduction, and would provide them with $7.4 billion in bonds and $7 billion in cash, among other things.
The board said the deal would free up more than $300 million a year for government services, and that instead of 30 cents for every dollar in taxes and fees that Puerto Rico’s government collects going to creditors, it would be less than 8 cents.
A settlement between creditors in Puerto Rico’s bankruptcy case lifted prices of the commonwealth’s municipal bonds and shares of insurance companies that guaranteed payments on the bonds.
Traders have driven up prices of the island’s benchmark $3.5 billion general obligation bond due 2035 by 3.3% to around 78 cents on the dollar after the Tuesday deal removed one of the last logjams in Puerto Rico’s nearly four-year journey through bankruptcy court. Roughly $400 million face amount of the bond changed hands Tuesday and Wednesday, making it one of the most actively traded securities in the municipal-bond market, according to data from Electronic Municipal Market Access.
Shares of the insurers that guaranteed payments on billions of dollars of Puerto Rico’s defaulted bonds also rose as the settlement removed some uncertainty about the amount of claims they would need to pay. MBIA Inc.’s stock has jumped around 13% this week, while Ambac Financial Group Inc.’s shares have gained about 7.2%.
A flood of money pouring in? Check: Muni bond funds added about $2 billion in the week ended Feb. 17, according to Refinitiv Lipper US Fund Flows data, building upon a $2.6 billion inflow in the prior period that was the fourth-largest on record. Scarce supply? You bet: Some analysts estimate that states and cities in 2021 will bring to market the smallest amount of tax-exempt bonds in 21 years. Fiscal stimulus supporting its case? Indeed: The prospect of $350 billion in aid to state and local governments should help stave off any widespread credit stress.
Perhaps most remarkably, though, muni investors appear to have fully embraced the “HODL” mentality of the crypto crowd. In typical times, February’s sharp selloff in U.S. Treasuries, which has sent the benchmark 10-year yield up almost 30 basis points to 1.35% (for a monthly loss of almost 2%), would have reverberated by now across the market for state and local bonds. Instead, tax-exempt yields have been borderline immovable; they only finally started to budge toward the end of last week.
By that time, municipal bonds became arguably the most expensive asset class anywhere. As Bloomberg News’s Danielle Moran noted, yields had fallen so low on top-rated tax-free debt that even after accounting for the exemption from federal taxes, it still made more sense for investors to purchase Treasuries instead. It’s certainly fair to argue that Bitcoin isn’t worth more than $50,000, or that shares of Tesla Inc. shouldn’t be trading at more than 1,000 times earnings. But it’s at least possible to make the case that they should. It’s not every day that a corner of the bond market rallies to such an extent that it’s objectively a bad deal.
Municipals ended weaker Friday with triple-A benchmark curves rising the most in a week since COVID-19 disrupted all markets in March and April of last year.
Muni yields rose another five basis points on the 10- and 30-year Friday, bringing the total cuts to scales to 18 and 17 basis points, respectively, from Tuesday as the asset class moved closer to U.S. Treasury movements after lagging weakness in taxables since the start of the year. Treasury yields hit 1.35% in 10-years and 2.15% in 30 after news of stimulus out of Washington gaining ground.
“In the past several days, tax-exempts have finally started to react, and while it remains to be seen if the adjustment will be minor or a bigger move, an overall defensive portfolio stance is warranted,” said Mikhail Foux, municipal strategist at Barclays (BCS). “At the current extremely low ratios, one could consider whether to buy extremely rich high-quality tax-exempts or simply purchase Treasuries instead, which even accounting for the tax-exemption make more sense, especially for short and medium-dated bonds.”