Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Chicago Junk Bonds

Hard to believe it's come to this, but municipal bonds issued by the Second City are now considered junk bonds. Moody's lowered the rating on Chicago's bonds this week to "Ba1", below investment grade. The rating change was prompted by the rating agency's continuing concern with the city's public employee pension liabilities. The unfunded portion of the city's ten public pension funds now totals a daunting $37 billion. Standard & Poor's and Fitch continue to rate the city in the "A" category, however, showing a considerable divergence in views with Moody's on the depth of the city's woes.

The rating change for the city comes on the heels of a recent ruling of the Illinois State Supreme Court, which just last week struck down a pension reform measure championed by Governor Pat Quinn and passed by the Illinois State Legislature in 2013. That ruling, potentially disastrous for the state facing its own massive unfunded pension debt, also has negative implications for Chicago.

The rating change affects over $8 billion of bonds outstanding, with investors holding those bonds seeing their price degrade day by day. General obligation bonds issued by the City of Chicago in 2012 and due in 2033 yielded just 3.75%, or a spread of roughly 100 basis points to high quality municipal bonds. By 2014, however, with concerns already beginning to emerge about the city's pension problems, bonds of the city of equivalent maturity were sold at a yield of 4.87%. The yield represented a spread of 170 basis points to the high quality index.

As of today, those same bonds issued just last year at 4.87% are now trading at a yield of 5.51% or at a spread of 2.81% to the index.  With price moving inversely to yield, this represents a loss of $5.45 per $100 of value (or 5.45%) to investors who purchased the bonds at the offering just last year. If the bond ratings are similarly dropped by S&P and Fitch, the bonds will unquestionably fall much further in value.

Far higher interest rates on new borrowings of the City and the losses suffered by investors in the city's outstanding bonds may be the least of it, however, with interest rate swaps entered into by the city from years earlier posing a vexing problem for the troubled city. The downgrades may permit banks that had entered into interest rates swaps and other derivative products with the city to now demand payment on upwards of $2.2 billion of those agreements. Similar downgrade provisions helped force Jefferson County, Alabama into bankruptcy a few years earlier.

The past few years have seen some of the largest, and most frequent bankruptcy filings of local government in US history. Jefferson County, Alabama, the cities of Vallejo, Stockton, San Bernardino, Central Falls, Harrisburg and Detroit have all filed, largely due to excessive debts and pension liabilities. The Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, with a staggering $73 billion of US municipal debt outstanding now teeters. Chicago, now in junk status, is on deck.