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The Municipal Bond Crisis Is About to Begin

Interest-Rates / Credit Crisis 2010 Feb 17, 2010 - 09:09 PM GMT

By: Graham_Summers


Best Financial Markets Analysis ArticleThus ends one more safehaven.

For decades municipal bonds have been considered one of the safest income plays on the planet. If you’re unfamiliar with these investments, municipal bonds or muni bonds as they’re commonly called, are bonds issued by lower tier governments (state, city, or even county) to raise capital for public projects like building a highway, sewer, or what have you.

These bonds ARE NOT backed by the Federal government (with its printing presses). Because of this, muni bond interest payments (the yield) are usually tax-free (meaning no Federal or State income tax) in order to attract investors. They also typically yield much more than Treasuries (debt backed by the US Federal Government) due to the perceived increase in risk (again, there is no printing press behind these bonds, so there is no “guarantee” against default).

Historically, muni bonds have been an extremely safe source of income for investors. Between 1970 and 2000, the default rate for all muni bonds was only 0.04%. In contrast, the default rate on corporate bonds (bonds issued by corporations) was 0.09% during the same period.

Thus, historically muni bonds were considered an extremely safe means of securing a massive tax-free yield. Regrettably that “extremely safe” status is now being challenged by the massive deficit problems of state governments.

Many commentators like to point out that the US government has a debt problem. But this issue extends WAY beyond the Federal Government.

Many US states are running major deficits this year. California is the most glaring example, but all in all the US now has 48 states facing deficits ranging from 15% (Arizona) to 0.6% (Florida). In nominal terms, we’re on pace to see $178 billion in state deficits: an amount equal to 26% of total state budgets.

The picture doesn’t get prettier in the future either. When you add in 2011, you’re looking at a total $350 billion in deficits for the two years (2010-2011). And that’s assuming unemployment and other economic issues don’t worsen from here (meaning tax revenues don’t continue to fall).

The only problem is they are.

As of last week, the US Treasury’s “withheld income and employment taxes” is down some $48+ (roughly 7%) billion from last year. Similarly, non-adjusted jobless claims continue to rise: a whopping 500,000+ for the first week of February 2010.
The logic here is quite simple:

Lower wages + higher unemployment= lower tax revenues.

Lower tax revenues + greater government spending= greater deficits.

Greater deficits eventually = insolvency or default.

Which brings us to today. The city of Vallejo, CA declared bankruptcy back in May 2008. Now we see Harrisonburg Pennsylvania passing a 2010 budget which doesn’t include debt payments (as in payments on Muni bonds and other debts the city owes) which is essentially a default.

We’re only just getting started here. I’ve said several times that bonds, not stocks, would be the big story of 2010. That includes muni bonds which are a $3 trillion market. With tax revenues falling and major debt issues to consider we are going to be seeing a heck of a lot more defaults and bankruptcies coming from local, city, and state governments.

But what about a Federal bailout from Uncle Sam?

Obama already threw $140 billion towards helping state deficits over a 2.5 year period. But remember, states are facing $350 billion in deficits. So the Federal Government could DOUBLE its handouts and states would STILL be underwater.

Given the increased outcry against additional bailouts/ Stimulus (see the Massachusetts election), the likelihood of another massive Stimulus plan to help states is small. Regardless, if the Federal government DID start issuing handouts to states, it would require another $160 billion in cash just to meet demands for the next two years assuming NO increase in unemployment or decrease in tax revenues.

Good luck with that.

The fact of the matter is that we are on the verge of a muni bond crisis. The issues plaguing Greece and other Eurozone countries are taking place in our own backyard just on a smaller level (for now). Muni bonds were often thought to be a safe haven, but given the economic outlook in the US, that may no longer hold true.

If you hold any muni bonds in your portfolio, I strongly urge you to examine the backing governments’ finances. A little preparation can go a long way towards avoiding major losses especially if you’re counting on those income payments for retirement.

Good Investing!

Graham Summers

PS. I’ve put together a FREE Special Report detailing THREE investments that will explode when stocks start to collapse again. I call it Financial Crisis “Round Two” Survival Kit. These investments will not only help to protect your portfolio from the coming carnage, they’ll can also show you enormous profits.

Swing by to pick up a FREE copy today!

Graham Summers: Graham is Senior Market Strategist at OmniSans Research. He is co-editor of Gain, Pains, and Capital, OmniSans Research’s FREE daily e-letter covering the equity, commodity, currency, and real estate markets. 

Graham also writes Private Wealth Advisory, a monthly investment advisory focusing on the most lucrative investment opportunities the financial markets have to offer. Graham understands the big picture from both a macro-economic and capital in/outflow perspective. He translates his understanding into finding trends and undervalued investment opportunities months before the markets catch on: the Private Wealth Advisory portfolio has outperformed the S&P 500 three of the last five years, including a 7% return in 2008 vs. a 37% loss for the S&P 500.

Previously, Graham worked as a Senior Financial Analyst covering global markets for several investment firms in the Mid-Atlantic region. He’s lived and performed research in Europe, Asia, the Middle East, and the United States.

    © 2010 Copyright Graham Summers - All Rights Reserved
    Disclaimer: The above is a matter of opinion provided for general information purposes only and is not intended as investment advice. Information and analysis above are derived from sources and utilising methods believed to be reliable, but we cannot accept responsibility for any losses you may incur as a result of this analysis. Individuals should consult with their personal financial advisors.

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© 2005-2019 - The Market Oracle is a FREE Daily Financial Markets Analysis & Forecasting online publication.


18 Feb 10, 08:01
This article

Nothing but a bunch of alarmist blow. "We are going to see a heck of a lot more defaults..."

If the default rate for muni bonds DOUBLES, it is still below that of corporate bonds. If it increases by a factor of 25 it is still 1%. 1%.

Sure unemployment and economic growth are high and low, respectively. But right now, the upside potential is 1,000 times the downside potential.

Three years from now anyone reading this article will know you are nothing but sensationalist.

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