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Thursday, February 14, 2008

Bond market and bond insurance implosions can't be helping Portland

The City of Portland's supposedly sterling credit has never looked shakier to me. As we've documented on this blog in recent months, the city is around $4.6 billion in long-term debt, which is more than its tax base can reasonably support over the long haul -- at least if we're going to have police officers, a fire department, and street lights.

The reaction, quite frankly, has been widespread indifference. No one in the mainstream media seems to care in the least about the city's massive and ever-growing liabilities. And it seems none of our local media wizards read the national financial press, where all the signs of a fiscal disaster for Portland are being laid out.

About the only feedback we've received on our observations about the muncipal debt has been the oft-repeated mantra that the city has a high bond rating. But the events of the last few months have made it clear that (1) bond ratings are highly suspect, and (2) whatever ratings the city's bonds have had so far may very well be about to head south.

Let's start with the reliability of bond ratings. So much of the mortgage-related paper that is now in the toilet, around the country and around the world, enjoyed wonderful, high bond ratings not long ago. So far off-base were the rating agencies' recent opinions of various packages of junky debt that now the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission and various other regulators are on their case with serious investigations. And investors in the bond market simply don't trust them any more. Can't say as we blame the investors; they also got burned by bum ratings from the same "experts" in the Enron scandal. A high Moody's or S&P rating doesn't mean anywhere near what it used to, and for good reason.

Even if you're willing to get past that, you need to consider the impact on Portland of the sudden crisis in the bond insurance market. Many of the bonds Portland has sold in recent years have received top ratings only because they were insured by an outfit called MBIA (once known as the Municipal Bond Insurance Association), which guaranteed that the bonds would be fully paid when due. Look at the prospectuses for the city's recent bond offerings -- many are touting MBIA insurance on the front page. Here, and here, and here, and here, for example. Alas, in recent years MBIA and some of its competitors (whom Portland has also bought insurance from) took some ill-advised flyers guaranteeing risky private debt that has now gone bad, and an MBIA insurance policy doesn't mean nearly as much as it used to, again with good reason. Indeed, without a bailout from someone like Warren Buffett, the house of cards known as MBIA could well collapse.

Meanwhile, Portland continues to rack up "interim" debt for urban renewal pork that will have to be refinanced in three to five years. Who knows what kind of credit Portland will have then, or even what its credit is now? (A couple of new bond issues have just recently been listed as scheduled for April, and I suppose we will see then more about what's what. Curiously, however, a previously announced bond measure for emergency facilities has disappeared from the radar screen.) If nobody trusts the rating agencies, and the bond insurers' promises don't mean jack, the interest rate on a lot of that $4.6 billion of long-term debt that city taxpayers are staring at is going to be mighty high.

I keep talking about a municipal money crisis. No one in power is listening. Indeed, the City Council members keep crowing about all the extra money they have lying around. "Where should we put the new streetcars?" It's all fake, folks. When is the city going to wake up? And is it already too late to avert a disaster?

Comments (26)

The Newshour had an interesting discussion on this.
So at least Public Broadcasting had something on it and I did see a similar story in the Business Section. Buffet is not doing it for nothing, he is charging 50% more than what was paid originally, and only taking the muni bonds. The other number that is striking is there are $1.2 Trillion in municipal bonds out there. I think that was one of the questions someone asked was how Portland's Municipal Debt compared, if you divide the $1.2 trillion by the population you come out with just under $4000 a head. So comparing it to your debt clock looks like Portland is double per capita.

Here is a wake up! Enjoy.


I don't know what you are worried about?

The Senate Banking Committee hearing is going on as I write and the powers that be explain they are keeping an eye on the bond situation.

they are keeping an eye on the bond situation

If you are talking about the United States Senate, I think you mean the Bonds situation.

Jack: Many thanks for the great analysis of the City's shaky finances. Anyone who has been reading the Wall Street Journal in recent months has to be aware of the problems with ratings services. Of course, don't count on the excuses that write for the BOREGONIAN to publish much of anything about it.

I have filed for mayor and I'm a cheapskate.

Also I read the financial press. The omens are alarming.

As a physicist I'm pretty numerate. Compound rates of "economic growth" ultimately cannot be sustained. The planet is headed for a severe financial downdraft, and Portland will go with it.

So I'm trying to think of ways to ameliorate the effect on us. Any suggestions?

Hey Abe try this dose of reality.

University of Kentucky and Toyota Partnership

or this

Toyota To Build Highlanders in Mississippi by 2010

or this
Granholm: Bringing Toyota to Michigan

It looks to me like the Fed and surplus dollars swashing around overseas are going to bail us all out again this business cycle. The problem is the next down cycle will be less escapable because inorder for the Fed to bail the economy out it will not be letting the "core" consumer price index rise from 2% to 3% but will be letting it go to 6% or more. This rate would edge the country back to the late 70s in economic performance, after which the economy got deflated by the sharp recession of 1980/1981. Oregon was more timber dependent then, and the result was 10%-plus unemployment.

We may have a few more years to escape PDX before Portlanders are made to realize the true bill for all this local government spending on public luxury goods.


Any comment on Warren Buffet's offer? He was going to charge MBIA and AMBAC a bunch ($2B+) to take over their muni bond portfolios and leave them the riskier stuff. Sounds like a loser for MBIA et al, but who knows - he must think muni bonds are worth something (or that they are less risky than subprime loans.)

Ok I'll bite. Now this comment has really nothing to do with the COP Bonds specifically. But even though Buffett would be charging a premium to take the Muni Bonds doesn't the fact that he is willing to take them at all indicate that he thinks wide spread Muni Bond default unlikely?

Just asking.

Greg C

Hard to figure why other media around these parts doesn't make a peep about this issue? Same with national media and natonal debt. If we ignore it, it doesn't exist....? IMO the debt should be front and center for next 20 yrs.--frugal me.

As Bob Clark pointed out, the debt problem isn't just a risk for the city of Portland, it's happening at all levels of government, and the worst offender is the federal government. I believe the per capita federal debt is at least 20 times as much as Portland's. I'm very concerned about these debt levels, but there is not a single mainstream politician who is urging a return to fiscal responsibility. I have no one to support on this issue.

We'll just have to wait for a total debt meltdown, then our great political leaders will get around to trying to fix the problems. By then, though, it will be too late. But you can be assured that after the crash, our politicians will fall all over themselves to falsely take credit for having tried to prevent the crash.

Hehe. This is a funny post. Endless fodder for the economists.

"Bonds doesn't the fact that he is willing to take them at all indicate that he thinks wide spread Muni Bond default unlikely"

I think it says a couple of things:
- Subprime portfolios are prob at best - Muni bonds are better than B- paper
- Muni bond defaults are historically low low enough that he can make money with existing premiums PLUS his mega-billion fee - so premiums may be too low in his eyes.

Warren may have under-estimated the changing (ie getting worse) risk nature of muni bonds also. However, he has been making money longer than me, so I'd respect his opinion (albeit, like mine, just one' man's opinion).

"- Subprime portfolios are prob at best "

Sorry, that should have read:

"- Subprime portfolios are prob at best worse than B- paper"

They have a fresh set of polls saying that a big majority of voters think the city is "going in the right direction". So, everything is for the best in the best of all possible worlds; and the party is not about to stop now.

It is all about musical chairs in that sense. The current incumbents are betting that they won't be left standing when the music stops, if it ever does.

So, to those of us cursed with any kind of education in public finance, and old fashioned ideas about safety and soundness, fiscal discipline, transparency, etc., it looks like a house of cards. But, as long as the majority of voters see a shiny palace, we are just a crackpot minority.

I miss Mildred Schwab.

Check out this link... Munis are no longer selling at auction rates. That means future bond offerings will go at the rate the market bids them out to be. Portland could easily end up like many other cities and have to push yeilds to 2-3x the auction rate of interest to sell the issue.

It's easy to be a politician when the liquidity spigot is open and there's easy money to throw around. Not one member of the current City Hall (or the past few) had the leadership to stand up and call for saving for a rainy day. ...This is Portland, after all.

Throw them all out! We need emergency measures FAST to stem a major fiscal crisis.

All of the crises in the bond market don't necessarily affect one of the major variables - the City's ability to repay the debt. Oregon has been a very stable environment for municipal borrowers and as far as I know, hasn't had a default in decades.

I think there are things worth worrying about in regards to Portland's finances - I'm just not sure this is one of them.

one of the major variables - the City's ability to repay the debt

To pay off $4.6 billion over 30 years at 5 percent interest would take about $300 million a year in debt service. The city's total property tax take is well under $400 million a year. These numbers don't lie. You need to start worrying about them.

Oregon has been a very stable environment for municipal borrowers and as far as I know, hasn't had a default in decades.

No Oregon municipality has never had its debt grow as large or as quickly as Portland has since Vera Katz took over. The details are here. Check them out at your convenience.

I think a lot of the City's $4.6 billion in debt is issued by the enterprise funds -- Water, BES, PDOT, etc. So comparing it to property tax revenues may not be apples to apples, since much of it is being repaid from non-property tax revenues.

So paying back the debt costs about $300 million annually out of something like a $2.3 billion annual budget -- roughly 13% of the total budget.

Brian, It is good to have an optimist in the mix, to make a market . . . in ideas.

"Stephen Roach: America's inflated asset prices have to fall

Forget central bank intervention, fiscal stimulus and China-bashing - what America needs is a sharp decline in asset prices, and to stand back and let markets do their work, says Stephen Roach, chairman of Morgan Stanley Asia, writing in Tuesday's FT."

Perhaps you could approach the PERB and Portland to ask them to make an updated calculation of Portland's actuarial liability for employees and retirees. It could include a range, low and high, by tweaking a few assumptions.

a lot of the City's $4.6 billion in debt is issued by the enterprise funds -- Water, BES, PDOT, etc.

Maybe, but the majority of it is not. $2 billion right off the top is police and fire pension, which is payable out of your property tax bill. $600 million more (soon to be $700 million) is urban renewal.

If you think PDOT is an "enterprise" with cash flow to pay debt service, you need to start reading the papers.

Moreover, the $4.6 billion debt number does not include bonds that are payable only from funds other than tax revenues. If you add those bonds in, you'll get an annual debt service number that's a lot higher than 13 percent of the total budget.

Krugman on the bond market meltdown. Note penalty rates. Ouch.


But remember that the police and fire pension amounts are backed by a dedicated property tax. I'm not saying this is right, but the City just gets to ratchet up the tax rate to pay whatever the obligation is for police and fire pensions.

What would be interesting to know is how PDC's predictions for growth in assessed values in the urban renewal districts compares to what is actually happening. I wouldn't worry about the debt for the City's rate-driven utilities (sewer and water), but if the urban renewal districts don't perform then the general fund is on the hook for the debt service.

And don't forget about the new "public safety bonds" from MultCo, the schools upgrade bonds for PPS, the PCC bonds, and the inevitable library and Tri-Met follow on offerings. It will total more than $2 billion (probably closer to $3 billion), and that's just the principal. Interest is on top of all those face values.

Did I mention Metro already? Something about a hotel on their drawing board.

MultCo/CoP property taxes are going up, the only question is when, and how much.

I hope those who are living on the edge of foreclosure can sell their homes before the realtors start doing the math.

Also note the "auctions" that failed were for a particular slice of the muni-bond market: Municipal Auction Rate Securties (aka "MARS") which usually offers 7 to 35 day "liquidity" on long maturity (20-40 years) bonds. The interest rate are almost always subject to a weekly rate reset (theoretically determined by supply and demand).

The marketing guys "positioned" these "MARS" as short term instruments that paid (roughly) 2/3 of the long-term yield. Worst case scenario: you might not be able to cash them in at the auction, so your 35 day "maximum" holding period becomes a 20, 30, 40 year holding period. And the interest rates continue to reset weekly, typically (but not always) with to a cap around 5%.

In most cases, the "failed" MARS will be replaced by long maturity bonds issued in the next few months (at a lower interest rate). Until then, the investors who thought they could cash them in every 7 to 35 days are experiencing what is euphemistically referred to as an "illiquid market".

I don't believe the City of Portland has issued any MARS. The only local issuer I've heard of is the Deschutes County Hospital.

The wealthy will continue to buy tax free bonds, especially those that are backed by essential services (water/sewer, trash) or the general tax obligation of a prudent municipality.

If Portland continues to increase it's total borrowings, they are setting themselves up for a ratings downgrade if the economy tanks. The City of Portland has very little cash or savings that isn't spent nearly as fast as it comes in (hence the bank credit line): imagine how different city finances will look if 5% of houses are in foreclosure and 10% aren't paying their property taxes at all.

Will the City reduce expenses or headcount when tax collections decline? Heck no, not as long as they can issue more debt and pass new taxes. Why stop partying when you can always make more punch?


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