Market Outlook

On the back of a powerful rally since February, the municipal market is now on track to erase most of the losses incurred during last year’s selloff. Since September 9, 2013, the high yield water mark from last year, the benchmark AAA yields, according to Municipal Market Data (MMD), have declined precipitously: down 36 BPs in 5 years, down 78 BPs in 10 years, down 125 BPs on 20 years and down 120 BPs in 30 years. If you’re one of those who bought into the industry consensus of sticking to the short end of the curve, you probably ended up missing the tremendous rally on the long end.

Tax-exempt securities also outpaced their taxable counterparts, with ratios dropping well below 100% throughout the curve. The 5-year, 10-year and 30-year ratios now stand at 75.3%, 86.5% and 97.0%, respectively.

So, once again, market participants are back in the same blissful mindset that prevailed in the first quarter of last year. Indeed, what can go wrong at this point, with virtually little supply going into the June/July reinvestment period? While favorable technicals can certainly drive the market up further in the next few weeks, at current valuation levels, our contrarian instinct is now flashing red. If nothing else, at current ratios, the threat of taxability is no longer fully priced in.

… once again, market participants are back in the same blissful mindset that prevailed in the first quarter of last year.

Certainly, the outlook for munis will also depend on Treasuries remaining in the recent trading range, roughly 2.50-2.70% for the benchmark 10-year notes. At this point, it appears that events in the Ukraine and an easing bias in Europe are the dominant market concerns. Even this morning’s much stronger-than-expected Producer Price Index (PPI) reading of 0.60% for April could not stop the 10-year Treasuries from re-testing the recent 2.57%% low in yield. Even though month-to-month variations in the PPI are easy to dismiss given that Index’s inherent volatility, further confirmation in the months ahead would not bode well for the rate outlook.

New Issue Market

This week’s new issue calendar is expected to gravitate back to the $5 billion mark, which appears to be the “new normal” for weekly issuance.

The negotiated calendar will once again have a transportation theme, headlined by a $1 billion offering from the New Jersey Turnpike, $514 million from the Pennsylvania Turnpike and $450 million from Met Washington Airports for the Dulles Airport Metrorail. The New Jersey Turnpike deal is notable for its attempt to fulfill investor demand for intermediate maturities in the 10-15 year range. With its Baa1/BBB+ ratings, the Met Washington Airports issue should be the week’s “yieldiest” issue, if only in a relative sense.

Could Rhode Island and Puerto Rico Share the Same Rating?

When it comes to the Puerto Rico fiscal situation, “one step forward, two steps back” seems to be the rule of late. As soon as investors got some degree of comfort from the Padilla Administration’s “balanced budget” initiative for fiscal 2015 and beyond, the revenue assumptions underlying such an initiative have come under question.

First and foremost, the PR Treasury was shocked by a $380 million shortfall in April corporate tax collections. Apparently, over half of Puerto Rico’s corporate taxpayers have filed for an extension on their April tax returns. Since corporate taxes account for almost a quarter of the Commonwealth’s revenues, this is an extremely disturbing development.

While a rise in extensions is not unexpected given the recent proliferation of new tax rules and new report filing requirements, the more worrisome trend is that corporate tax extension filers did not even bother to make estimated tax payments, at the risk of incurring tax penalties. Some of our sources attribute the shortfall to confusion over qualifying for exemptions under the new tax statutes. By failing to make estimated tax payments, the corporations in question appear to express confidence that they will, in fact, qualify for the exemptions.

Those were not the only negative tax development for the embattled island this week. As we reported last week, one of the local banks, Doral Financial, is now flirting with bankruptcy, because it is owed some $289 million by the Commonwealth. The Bank is demanding immediate payment on $230 million. Which begs the question of how much the Commonwealth still owes to other local financial institutions and whether that amount was accounted for in this year’s liquidity requirements.

S&P placed Rhode Island’s AA G.O. rating on Creditwatch Negative on Monday, threatening a “multi-notch” downgrade should the State choose to default on the 38 Studios bonds.

It’s probably unusual for anyone to mention Rhode Island and Puerto Rico in the same sentence, but here we are nonetheless. It all has to do with the renewed debate in the Rhode Island Legislature about whether or not the State should continue to make payments on the defaulted bonds issued on behalf of Curt Schilling’s 38 Studios project.

Minnesota-based SJ Advisors was hired to study the potential market impact of reneging on the moral obligation pledge and issued its report this week. The report makes one fundamental assumption that drives all its conclusions: that Rhode Island’s rating will end up below investment-grade, basically on a par with Puerto Rico! Does this potential response from the rating agencies even make sense?

Certainly, there has been quite a bit of saber-rattling on the part of the bond raters. S&P placed Rhode Island’s AA G.O. rating on Creditwatch Negative on Monday, threatening a “multi-notch” downgrade should the State choose to default on the 38 Studios bonds.

As a long-time observer of the muni market, Muninetguide’s own Richard Ciccarone summarized the traditional view on moral obligation bonds as follows:

“For the investor, moral obligations shouldn’t be viewed as an end security. It’s clearly stated that it is not legally binding as a bond security.

For the party that offers to consider replenishment of a debt service deficiency, it puts its own moral standing and credit worthiness on the line.

Failure to deliver on a moral obligation will likely carry serious repercussions in the market relative to the cardinal credit quality principle related to “willingness to pay”. Under rare circumstances, the good name and long-term stigmatism to breaking a moral commitment might be ameliorated, but not erased, if it can be shown that it was fraudulently duped into the transaction or that it just doesn’t have the ability to make good on the promise. However, in the latter case, the inability to cover your promises has its own credit downside”.

While we would never, ever condone any kind of default on any State obligation, moral or not, there do appear to be some extenuating circumstances in this case.

First, there’s always the question of whether or not fraud was perpetrated. Given the relative speed at which the 38 Studios project unraveled, the State must look into the quality of the disclosure from Schilling and Company when the issue was brought to market.

Lost in this whole debate, we believe, is the fact that the 38 Studios issue was clearly a private activity financing. After all, the bonds were issued as taxable instruments, with corporate style call provisions, a clear sign that they were never viewed as an essential service financing.

Furthermore, since all the bonds are insured by Assured Guaranty, we would strongly advise the State to continue to seek a compromise solution with the insurer, one that is limited to the specifics of this one issue, as opposed to taking a hard stance on its moral obligation pledge in general and establishing an undesirable legal precedent that may affect all its future debt financings. Easier said than done, however: According to the Bond Buyer, “38 Studios bond insurer Assured Guaranty Municipal Corp. was ’clear and emphatic’ that it had no interest in renegotiating debt unless Rhode Island defaults.” We’re not sure it would really be in Assured’s interest to force a default at this point.

In the end, while we agree there should be a clear cost to Rhode Island for reneging on its moral obligation pledge, a downgrade by the rating agencies to below-investment grade would be a wild over-reaction, in our view, one that the market may end up ignoring. After all, we’re still talking about a AA-rated sovereign credit here, not a small local issuer with limited resources. It should matter whether or not the State is walking away from an essential service financing or one clearly designed to benefit a private party. We believe market participants will see through this and may, in fact, view any potential downgrade of RI debt as a buying opportunity.

Although most of us are loath to admit it, the muni market has shown itself to have a very short memory, particularly when it comes to major issuers. Barring a dip into “junk” levels, which we still consider unlikely, the actual yield penalty may, over time, prove fairly modest, particularly in the currently tight credit spread environment.

On the flip side, this should serve as a reminder to muni investors that they cannot keep trying to have their cake and eat it too. They knew there was a risk of non-appropriation going in and were presumably compensated with higher yields and very attractive call protection. In fact, if asked, those investors would’ve told you at the time that they gave little heed to the moral obligation pledge and focused instead on the underlying credit (most likely, they just relied on the bond insurance, but they would never admit to that, would they?).

If all “moral obligations” are always treated as “full faith and credit general obligations,” then what’s the point of making that distinction at all? Recent credit debacles, including the ongoing Detroit case, have taught us to stop relying on customary – but legally untested – interpretations of certain G.O. pledges. The time has come to ask bond attorneys to clearly define the exact nature and enforceability of any type of G.O. pledge, moral or otherwise.

Disclaimer: The opinions and statements expressed in this column are solely those of the author and Axios Advisors, who are solely responsible for the accuracy and completeness of this column. This column does not reflect the position or views of RICIC, LLC or MuniNetGuide.

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