The Loopy Junk-Muni Market Makes Extra Sense Than Ever

(Bloomberg Markets) — Once I hear complaints about a few of the riskier municipal bond offers available in the market at this time, I believe again to my “map discuss” in 1999.

I used to be the lunchtime speaker on the Nationwide Federation of Municipal Analysts superior seminar on high-yield bonds in Santa Monica, Calif. With none props or projections, I took the roomful of bankers, analysts, and traders on a digital tour of lots of the attention-grabbing—even fabulous—transactions I’d written about in Grant’s Municipal Bond Observer over the last few years.

We visited a de-inker (which recycles previous newspaper into new rolls of paper) in Massachusetts and a 1938 classic aquarium in Florida. We stopped in Alabama to see VisionLand, a water theme park showcasing the historical past of Birmingham’s steel-smelting enterprise, then took a aspect journey to a close-by recycler of lifeless poultry (the backers used the time period “broiler mortality”) into rooster feed. Then we went to a museum, the Nice Platte River Street Memorial Archway, which the backers anticipated “just about each Nebraska resident [to] ultimately go to in his or her lifetime.” We noticed a collection of golf course housing developments within the California desert. And rather more.

All of those tasks, a couple of dozen in complete, have been constructed by municipal bonds. Nearly all had been offered in denominations of $5,000 to anybody prepared to abdomen the chance. And all of them both had—or would quickly—default.

The vintage-aquarium bonds have been initially supplied in minimal denominations of $100,000, however the underwriter couldn’t promote all of them. In order that they have been restructured to promote within the traditional $5,000 quantities, opening the deal, which featured 8.5% coupons, to every one, together with unsophisticated mother and pop traders. A number of members of the unique financing staff, together with the bond counsel, counsel to the city, and trustee, resigned in disgust.

After my discuss, I bear in mind trailing two analysts out the door and listening to one say, “That was fairly humorous,” and his companion responding, “Yeah, till he bought to your deal.” That made my day.

The underlying messages of my map discuss have been:

Aren’t these municipal bonds loopy?

And: You offered most of them to particular person retail traders.

And: Are you out of your minds?

After all, the Nineties was a very frothy interval in public finance, when it regarded like retail traders would purchase nearly something within the municipal market. Considered one of my prized relics from the time is a banker’s presentation from that very same convention that lays out the main points of quite a few proposed transactions, together with the Las Vegas monorail (financed and went bust) and a theme park known as the Great World of Oz, to be constructed, in fact, in Kansas (unfinanced).

On the time, I assumed this should characterize some form of a peak. In 2000, two Heartland Advisors’ high-yield municipal bond funds needed to write down their internet asset values as a result of so lots of the bonds they held defaulted. Of the 54 bonds in a single fund, 27 bumped into some form of misery, which nonetheless should be some type of muni market report. I assumed that absolutely would smash folks’s urge for food for danger. However no, this market was simply getting revved up and would hit its peak solely after the monetary disaster in 2008—when traders throughout the credit score spectrum rapidly turned rather more cautious.

It wasn’t till 2017 when, placing collectively the each day Municipal Market transient with my colleague Amanda Albright, I assumed, “Wow, junk is again.” Considered one of Amanda’s tales, actually a couple of rubbish recycler, was headlined “ Junk-to-Jet-Gasoline Firm Tapping Muni Market With Unrated Deal.” This wasn’t the one such transaction. There have been quite a few visionaries who tapped the muni marketplace for tasks designed to take one type of waste and switch it into biofuel that yr. In January 2018, I made a decision to provide one other digital map discuss, this time to the Bond Attorneys Winter Workshop in Palm Seaside, Fla.

I took the attorneys who attended the speech on a digital tour of a few of the most noteworthy tasks that had just lately issued municipal bonds: New Jersey’s American Dream Mall; a non-public aircraft terminal in Westchester County, N.Y.; Elvis Presley’s residence, Graceland, in Memphis; and a brand new high-speed prepare in Florida. To not point out two biofuel refineries in Nevada and Oregon. In complete we made 17 stops. So-called story bond issuance—gross sales of bonds which have a novel story behind the venture—had actually revived. This time nearly all of them have been offered in minimal denominations of $100,000, $250,000, or $500,000, and often solely to certified institutional consumers as outlined by the SEC’s Rule 144A. This reveals how muni junk has modified for the higher. Even simply utilizing excessive minimal denominations reminiscent of $100,000 reduces the chance that junk will wind up in unsophisticated traders’ accounts.

Once I returned the next yr, I informed the attorneys “Bear in mind final yr’s tour? Properly, I might simply give an expanded one this yr!” And this tempo has continued, roughly unabated. Sure, the Federal Reserve is elevating rates of interest, and that has choked off some deal stream, particularly refundings, however there’s at all times some new recycler or non-public aircraft hangar operator or conference middle lodge developer who needs to convey a brand new deal. The warnings have began to get critical: In September, Matt Fabian and Lisa Washburn of Municipal Market Analytics urged vigilance as challenges mount throughout key industries together with hospitals, greater schooling, and senior residing facilities. The identical month, the Securities and Change Fee accused 4 municipal bond underwriters of failing to adjust to disclosure guidelines when promoting the debt to traders.

Now, in fact, “junk” and “municipal bonds” actually shouldn’t be utilized in the identical sentence. Municipal bonds stand for security and preservation of capital and predictable earnings and state and native governments pledging their taxing powers to holders of their securities. Junk represents hypothesis, the brand new and novel—and fairly probably monetary oblivion.

Good previous municipal bonds have a default charge of a fraction of 1%. In 2003, Fitch Scores did a research exhibiting the default charge on muni junk was nearer to fifteen%. I haven’t seen this research replicated, and it stays for me a great yardstick. Municipal Market Advisors, the impartial analysis agency, just lately mentioned that 0.37% of all excellent municipal bonds, excluding Puerto Rico’s, are presently in cost default. If somebody comes as much as you and says, “Now we’re promoting munis to finance a theme park known as the Great World of Oz, in Kansas,” your response ought to be, “You’ve bought to be kidding me,” not “After all you’re.”

Besides “After all you’re” is often the precise reply, has been for many years, is now, and can proceed to be. The rationale: Junk munis are used to finance all the things from constitution colleges, assisted-living amenities, and actual property developments to recycling mills and vacationer points of interest. Even when traders lose their style for the nuttier story bonds, they’re unlikely to stroll away from danger fully, as a result of it represents yield in a market the place returns are sometimes slim.

There’s junk, after which there’s junk, and quite a bit goes into the way you outline it. Is it simply offers rated non-investment-grade? What in regards to the unrated market? Loads of small, plain-vanilla, rare municipal bond issuers go to the market with out credit score rankings. I as soon as calculated that their tax-backed offers priced round an A stage. They’re not junk.

To me, the one approach to outline junk is to depend offers offered in minimal denominations of $100,000 and up. They’re often unrated, and so they’re often offered solely to certified consumers. This categorization would possibly miss some speculative-­grade offers, however not many.

A lot of the migration of junk to this minimum-­denomination, qualified-buyer market is the results of regulatory reform. Within the ’90s, after the Colorado actual property market went bust, the state demanded that the riskiest improvement bonds used to finance actual property development, which then defaulted, be offered in these greater minimal denominations.

I might provide the alphabet soup development of this, that includes exemptions from Rule 15c2-12 disclosure guidelines out to the codification of refined municipal market professionals in Municipal Securities Rulemaking Board Guidelines D-15 and G-48, however just a little of that goes a great distance. I prefer to assume that self-preservation and even perhaps a way of decency had one thing to do with it. Keep in mind that the MSRB is the business’s self-regulatory group.

As a result of what occurs when a speculative venture defaults? For a person investor who may need three or 4 names in his or her portfolio, it’s a disaster. For an expert supervisor with 300 or 400 credit, it’s a footnote.

And that is one more reason why muni junk is flourishing: the rising professionalization of the municipal market. Starting in 1981, the family sector turned the dominant holder of municipal securities, overtaking depository establishments, which had been the massive gamers since 1965, in keeping with the Fed’s Stream of Funds information. It’s little surprise that retail bought caught with junk within the ’80s and ’90s—retail traders have been the massive muni consumers.

Mutual funds solely turned a think about municipals within the mid-’80s (though they first present up within the Fed’s information in 1976). Right now now we have mutual funds, closed-end funds, exchange-traded funds, and worldwide consumers all pursuing municipal bonds and all on the lookout for yield. To not point out hedge funds, non-public fairness funds, private trusts, and individually managed accounts. The quantity and number of consumers has grown whilst annual gross sales of municipals have averaged round $350 billion over the previous 10 years, and needless to say most of that’s investment-grade, certain for the person, retail market.

This rising quantity and variety of refined consumers explains why junk lives. And because of this, in one other decade or two or three, whoever the municipal market columnist is at the moment will be capable of give a map discuss.

Mysak writes in regards to the municipal debt marketplace for Bloomberg Information in New York. This column doesn’t essentially replicate the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its house owners.