Municipal Credit Consultant
SOME INTELLECTUAL STUFFING FOR YOUR TURKEY
There has been much speculation about what a Trump administration might mean for municipal bonds – credit, valuation, issuance. Some of it has been informed, much of it misinformed. There really isn’t a municipal bond beat that has a pool of reporters dedicated to covering it at least in terms of the national press. Bylines usually belong to reporters who cover something else primarily. So the speculation isn’t particularly informed, it relies on a small number of sources, and nearly all of what results is agenda driven.
The recent trend of major press stories have revolved around underinvestment. The term “third world airport” is thrown around a lot. You would think that the muni business has been nonexistent. Is there a lot to do? Yes. But just look at the transportation sector. What do the Big Dig, the Bay Bridge replacement, Chicago O’Hare, Miami International, and the three New York metropolitan airports have in common? All have or are undergoing major expansions and improvements to their infrastructures. And yes, municipal bonds were the major source of financing.
So a method of financing infrastructure exists. From this standpoint, we see the will to move forward and actually pay for projects is often the major stumbling block impeding progress.
So should one be optimistic? In the present environment, a number of caveats must be acknowledged. The lack of a government record for the President-elect, the anti-government rhetoric of the campaign and the support for it by the people who voted for him only muddy the speculative waters. The rather tumultuous impression of the transition and questions about who actually have influence render things even less clear.
Then there is the whole issue of what everyone means when they talk about infrastructure. Is infrastructure meant to mean the end result of a planned, thought out strategy? Is it a way to implement an industrial policy through some back door? Is it a short term jobs program or is it part of a coordinated program of sustained economic development? Is it just another way to enrich investments in real estate?
Let’s state some obvious points. Infrastructure makes lots of people happy – politicians, voters, suppliers, contractors, construction workers, developers, bankers, businessmen. So if that is true, there shouldn’t even be an issue. Or should there? The recent election did not exactly generate a “profiles in courage” environment regarding taxes and other new revenues. Infrastructure requires funding and that requires revenues – taxes, tolls, fees. And those would be paid by the aforementioned voters, suppliers, contractors, construction workers, developers, bankers, businessmen. So nothing in this debate can be assumed.
And what about the incongruity of the President-elect’s on the record views in opposition to taxes, his belief in the incompetency of government, his belief that infrastructure spending is just another term for income redistribution. This in addition to a Republican House that has shown a clear lack of support for many categories of infrastructure spending especially in the category of transportation.
As for the notion that change in outlook towards regulation – financial, environmental or administrative reflects a stronger outlook for the municipal bond market think about this. Two diametrically opposed administrations both have proposed fiscal policies that would be most negative to our market. The outgoing administration included limits on the value of tax exempt interest as part of its budget proposals. Short of outright elimination, can someone tell me how a cut in the marginal tax rate from 39 to 15% is in any way “muni positive”. So where is the joy coming from. The muni market has already shown its ability to creatively finance a wide range of projects. We’ve seen tax credit bonds, BABs, and other creative responses. But we need buyers to digest the bonds necessary to finance an infrastructure binge.
Which brings us to another aspect of this discussion. In addition to tax cuts, a hawkish view towards deficits will influence policy as well. Fed Chair Yellen will likely be replaced by a deficit hawk. That implies moves to raise rates which will increase the cost of infrastructure spending. Put those factors together and the resulting combination of pressures does not add up to robust support for this type of spending.
And please do not forget how the municipal bond industry fared during the last major effort at tax reform. At the time, tax reform led to a record year of issuance in 1985. What drove that? The proposed limits on tax exempt issuance that would have taken effect on January 1, 1986 under Representative Al Ullman’s reform proposal. As a result we got AMT bonds, limits on private activity issuance, pressure on issuance spreads and a large scale exodus of dealers from the municipal market. In the ensuing 30 years, the number of regional and boutique houses has continually diminished and the attractiveness of our market as a source of return on equity continually diminishes.
Now the industry faces additional regulatory challenges. The Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) said the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission had approved a plan that would require brokerage firms to disclose how much they mark up the price of most bonds they sell to retail customers. The SEC also approved a similar plan by the Municipal Securities Rulemaking Board.
None of this helps the overall municipal sector. By limiting the ability and flexibility of intermediaries to provide the widest range of options to issuers, we weaken their ability to address their credit challenges. That will be true for traditional governmental credits as well as a number of non-governmental 501c3 credits.
So the view here is that a Trump administration will provide more challenges than many anticipate. We would continue to emphasize credit selection, a reliance on sound fundamental analysis, and a sober assessment of the value of a few basis points relative to the risk offered. These are the characteristics of credit that allow investors to remain calm while the debate goes on and the impact of the give and take of the legislative process unfold.
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