(Bloomberg News) There will be between 50 and 100 "significant" municipal bond defaults in 2011, totaling "hundreds of billions" of dollars.
So said banking analyst and new municipal bond expert Meredith Whitney on the 60 Minutes show on Sunday, in perhaps the boldest, most overreaching call of her career.
Hundreds of billions of dollars? The one-year record, set in 2008, is $8.2 billion. You can see how an estimate of "hundreds of billions" would get people's attention.
There are a lot of reasons to be doubtful about the health of the municipal market right now, as elucidated by "60 Minutes" correspondent Steve Kroft. Tax revenue is down, public pension and health-care liabilities are up, the federal government's bailout money to the states is running out and the chances that those funds will be replenished are remote.
And yet--hundreds of billions of dollars in default? The number is in the realm of the fabulous. If pressed, I would say that we might see between 100 and 200 municipal defaults next year, maybe totaling in the $5 billion or $10 billion range.
Whitney doesn't believe the states will default. That leaves us with local governments and authorities as the ones failing to pay debt service on their bonds, which makes this an even bolder call.
Most defaults in the modern era aren't governmental or what we might call municipal at all. The majority are corporate or nonprofit borrowings in the guise of some municipal conduit--nursing homes, housing developments, biofuel refineries--so they could qualify for tax-free financing.
And those are the ones I think will still comprise the majority of defaults in 2011.
This isn't the Whitney scenario. No, she envisions between 50 and 100--or more--counties, cities and towns making the choice to renege on their bonded debt.
My question is: Why?
Why would a governmental entity go out of its way to provoke or alienate its best source of finance? In the old days you might say that bondholders were a distant class of banks and plutocrats mainly centered in the Northeast. That's no longer true, and hasn't been since at least the passage of the Tax Reform Act of 1986, which made bonds less attractive for banks and insurance companies, among other things. Today, a city's bondholders might live in the municipality itself, and almost certainly reside within the state.
Why would a governmental entity choose to default on its bonds, especially if they make up a relatively small proportion of its costs?
"Debt levels for U.S. local and state governments are relatively low, with annual debt service representing a relatively small part of budgets," Fitch Ratings said in a special report in November.
Entitled "U.S. State and Local Government Bond Credit Quality: More Sparks Than Fire," the report said, "The tax- supported debt of an average state is equal to just 3% - 4% of personal income, and local debt roughly 3% - 5 percent of property value. Debt service is generally less than 10% of a state or local government's budget, and in many cases much less."
The lead analyst on the report was Richard Raphael, who has been covering municipal finance for 31 years. He is not one of the analysts "who got everything wrong in the housing collapse," in the words of correspondent Kroft. In his report, Raphael said, "debt service is a relatively small part of most budgets, so not paying it does not do much to solve fiscal problems (particularly as compared to the costs of such an action)."
What irks me about this Whitney call is that it generalizes about a market that resists generalization, a market that is particular and specific to a remarkable degree. And it doesn't answer the question "Why?" It is instead an assertion aimed at getting attention.
Whitney made headlines in 2007 when she predicted Citigroup would lower its dividend and that it was time to sell bank stocks. She made headlines in September when she said she produced a report on 15 states' financial condition, and said the federal government might be called upon to bail them out. Whitney only let clients see the report, so I don't know if her conclusions are supported. She said it was 600 pages long and had taken two years to produce.
Perhaps Whitney should stick with bank stocks.