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.”
Between August and mid-December of 2020, at least one-quarter of large bond issuances in the municipal market involved some form of deficit financing, according to an analysis by Municipal Market Analytics (MMA). The firm analyzed 442 municipal bond issuances that totaled at least $100 million.
MMA’s Matt Fabian and Lisa Washburn added that their tally was conservative and that as many as half of those 442 issuances may have involved deficit financing because the ultimate use of the money wasn’t always clear.
“These are not typical uses of the municipal bond market, where an overwhelming majority of financing is for long-term infrastructure projects,” they told the Pew Charitable Trusts. “But last year, with state and local governments seeking as much as possible to avoid cutting spending, raising taxes, or postponing pension payments, they shifted their emphasis to short-term and temporary solutions. As the pandemic continued and federal stimulus money dried up, they increasingly took on debt for budgetary help.”
The potential impact of Covid-19 on the municipal bond market
The coronavirus pandemic and the related economic slowdown are expected to cause a persistent drag on state and municipal tax revenues, which may apply pressure to the municipal bond market. Current estimates from the Brookings Institution suggest that, relative to 2019 tax receipts, state and local general revenues will decrease by $155 billion in 2020, $167 billion in 2021, and $145 billion in 2022—or by about 5.5%, 5.7%, and 4.7%, respectively.3 These estimated declines are in line with those experienced during the Great Recession of 2008–09, which averaged 5.8%.4 States face additional budgetary pressures from increased expenditures related to the pandemic, particularly from increased payouts of unemployment insurance (UI) benefits. Between March and October 2020, states paid a record $125.1 billion in UI benefits. The UI benefits paid thus far in 2020 are 30% more than the $96.3 billion in benefits states paid in all of 2009.5 However, states are better positioned to weather these budget stresses than they were prior to the Great Recession due to the increase in state revenue stabilization funds, commonly referred to as “rainy day funds.” At the start of 2020, the median state rainy day fund was equal to 7.8% of state general revenues, compared with 4.6% at the start of 2008.6 This should provide some cushion for the expected decline in revenues due to Covid-19.7 And the second Covid-19 stimulus package signed into law at the close of 2020 is expected to help stabilize state and local budgets and ease stress on municipal bond markets, although direct aid to states and municipalities was removed from the final bill. The bill does provide direct payments to individuals of up to $600, paycheck protection loans for businesses, extended federal UI benefits, $30 billion for vaccine distribution and testing, $54.3 billion for K–12 schools, $22.7 billion for higher education, and $45 billion for transportation-related relief spending. President Joe Biden is proposing $1.9 trillion in additional stimulus spending focused on vaccine distribution, aid to states, and direct benefits to individuals. However, this plan has yet to be enacted and is therefore subject to change. In summary, states and localities are likely to experience significant variation in Covid-19-related revenue declines, and their budgetary strength also varies. As such, certain muni bonds may face downgrades and default.
Investors on the hunt for yield with few pickings scooped up Chicago Public Schools? junk paper Wednesday driving down the district?s yield penalties paid in the primary market to their lowest in years.
The 10-year in the $560 million sale that marked the Chicago Board of Education?s first COVID-19 era sale settled at a yield of 1.94%, a 117 basis point spread to the Municipal Market Data?s AAA benchmark.
The BBB benchmark was at an 89 basis point spread Thursday. The new-money and refunding bonds carried one investment grade rating and two speculative grade ones and while high yield investors snapped up the paper, Alliance Bernstein?s high impact social fund shunned the transaction. The fund said the district has failed to provide sufficient evidence it?s protecting students from in-school sexual misconduct in the aftermath of a scandal that drew a rebuke from the U.S. Department of Education.
Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker tapped incumbent Illinois Sports Facilities Authority board member Leslie Darling to replace outgoing chairman Manuel ?Manny? Sanchez, putting her at the helm of the agency hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic?s deep wounds to hotel taxes, which are used to repay its debts.
The board governs the agency that owns and operates and issued $150 million of bonds in 1989 for Guaranteed Rate Field where Major League Baseball?s White Sox play and served as the issuer for $400 million of 2001 bonds that financed the renovation of the Chicago Park District-owned Soldier Field ? home of the National Football League?s Chicago Bears. About $430 million of debt is outstanding.
Chicago’s school district is heading into the market for its first COVID-19 era deal with a balance sheet shored up by federal relief.
The district is selling this week $560 million of tax-exempt, dedicated revenue-backed general obligation paper that carries two junk ratings and one at investment grade.
The deal offers $450 million of new money to finance capital work and $110 million of bonds that will refund 2006, 2009 and 2010 debt for savings with no extension of the original maturity. State aid is the pledged dedicated revenue on both pieces with other intergovernmental agreement-related revenue also pledged on the new money series.
A federal judge ordered Harvey, Illinois, to rehire a consultant and prove the status of management reforms the city agreed to in a 2014 consent judgment that settled charges the Chicago suburb fraudulently used bond proceeds.
After a series of communications over the last year about the status of the impoverished city’s compliance, the Securities and Exchange Commission dragged the city back to court in October.