saga of consumer debt difficulty continues to metastasize and generate tumors in far flung economic organs. Today (December
19, 2007) it became clear that cities and towns will be facing less available credit and paying more for the credit they get.
This is important because it means that Americans will be faced with a slowing economy and cash-strapped local service providers.
As the economy slows, more folks need more help from local social programs.
rising demands for help will collide with falling local budgets. American municipalities have been cutting taxes for some
time, and they have survived by reaping increased revenue from rising property values and taxing housing activity. When this
revenue left their budget short, they sold future tax returns to investors seeking insured bonds with tax advantages. In other
words, they sold insured municipal bonds.
municipal bonds are "safe" because they are insured by specialized firms -- monoline insurers. All at once, housing is in
trouble, property values are falling and municipal bond insurers are not looking good. This is not a minor technical or financial
matter that you can easily ignore. About half of all US municipal bonds are ensured by 4 companies: Ambac, FSA, MBIA and FGIC.
As of November 2007, these firms covered $2 trillion in bonds. These bonds and their insurance are essential parts of the
operation of American localities.
Municipal bond insurance assures investors that the debt issued by cities and towns will be repaid, principle and
interest. Thus, it removes risk and allows investors to confidently allocate capital to municipalities. On the other side
of the market, insurance allows city and town much greater access to funds at lower cost. Issuers must be regularly rated
by state insurance agencies and credit ratings agencies. New York and California State Insurance face regulation and in-depth
scrutiny from Moody, Standard & Poor and Fitch, which allows the highest ratings to be awarded to many bonds.
So, insurers regulate the quality of the municipal bonds and offer insurance to the cities and town that issue them.
Meanwhile, credit ratings agencies regulate the insurers to assure that they have the highest rating, AAA. This rating requires
that issuers meet minimum standards of management, risk control, capital and strength in the face of prolonged economic downturn.
Across the past several months ratings agencies have downgraded and warned about the economic health of bond insurers. When bond
insurers face questionable health, the bonds they insure are called into question. This means tens of thousands of municipal
bonds may be downgraded and lose value. For example, on December 19, 2007 S&P downgraded the small insurer ACA. This immediately raised suspicions regarding the four leading industry
Municipal bond issuance is vital to the ability of American cities and towns to improve roads, invest in schools,
provide affordable housing and invest in infrastructure. These bonds also allow cities and towns to fund mismatches between
tax revenues and community spending needs. Affordable bond insurance saves towns and cities money and allows them access to
more credit at lower cost.
Bond insurance is cost effective for an issuer as long as the interest cost savings exceed the premium paid to the
insurer. Since the inception of municipal bond insurance in 1971, municipalities have saved more than $37 billion in borrowing
costs through bond insurance, saving about $2 billion annually for the past decade. AFGI (Association of Financial Guaranty Insurers [pdf])
What is going on? Why the trouble now?
The four dominant firms in this business, Ambac, FSA, MBIA and FGIC, have been increasingly active in insuring
US home mortgage bonds and pools of home mortgage bonds. As of January 01, 2007, the four leading firms insured approximately
$570 billion in structured financial product -- largely home mortgage bonds, pools of home mortgage bonds. Included in the
structured product is $249 billion in mortgage and home-related debt and debt product. The firms that insure municipal bonds
have rapidly and profitably grown their business divisions related to insuring the payments and value of debt instruments
made up of home mortgage payments. This includes sub-prime home mortgages. The insurers have underwritten insurance on the
principle and interest payments of American home purchasers and refinancers. These payments have been defaulting at elevated
rates as house prices fall.
By now you should have guessed where this was going. The size of the commitments to insure against defaults
on bonds and other securities comprised of home mortgages is very large. Since we had not seen sustained declines in national
home prices since the Great Depression, insurers and ratings agencies accumulated huge default risk against home mortgage-backed
bonds and financial vehicles. As losses mount, there is increasing pressure and suspicion regarding the ability of some insurers
to stay healthy and highly rated. As defaults mount, insurers risk being forced to pay out on the insurance they sold. This
may put a long term and very expensive strain on these firms. These strains may result in downgrades in the credit quality
assigned to these insurers. This creates systematic risk to the credit ratings of the municipal bonds they insure.
on insurers are likely to pass on to municipalities looking to secure funds. The turmoil in mortgage markets is bleeding over
into municipal bond markets through stressed insurers. This will likely occur alongside stresses to local budgets from changes
associated with a national housing downturn. Claims for services will rise. We expect falling tax revenues whenever we have
an economic downturn at the end of consumption driven boom. Rising home value assessment will become falling home value assessment.
Revenue from home sales will slump. More households will be late or delinquent in making tax payments. These stresses will
motivate localities to raise cash by selling municipal bonds. When they attempt to enter this market, they are likely to confront
increased difficulty in getting insurance, increased costs for insurance and higher required interest payments from investors.
This is what a broad structural credit crisis means. It means metastasis. Disease in one vital economic organ
-- housing -- spreads to other vital economic organs -- local finance......
Max Fraad Wolff is an economist and free lance researcher/writer.
His work regularly appears in the Asia Times, The Prudent Bear and many other international outlets. His work can also been
seen regularly on his site www.GlobalMacroScope.com. Based in NYC, Max does contract research on international financial risks and opportunities while teaching
in the New School University's Graduate Program in International Affairs.