"Municipal bond investors have to share the burden in state bailouts" writes my colleague Josh Rauh, and he is exactly right.
Background: State and local governments borrowed a lot of money and blew it. They borrowed further by not funding their pensions. Now covid comes along, people are fleeing cities, and they don't have tax revenue to fund ongoing expenses.
The big question hanging over Washington: If we are going to help state and local governments weather the storm of their current expenses, does that mean federal taxpayers bail out the bondholders who lent state and local governments all this money?
As in the Greek crisis, bond investors and their allies like to clam "contagion," that any losses will spark a financial crisis.
Whether that argument has any merit in other cases, as Josh points out it does not hold for municipal bonds in the current financial environment. Municipal bonds are illiquid and tax-exempt and thus well targeted at very wealthy high-income individuals who face high tax rates, and whose saving is thus beyond IRA, 401(k) and other tax-free investment possibilities. And we are not in a systemic financial crisis.
...as of this spring, around 12 percent of municipal bonds were owned by banks. This implies only about $130 billion of total exposure to all general obligation municipal debt by the banking sector, compared to well above $1 trillion of tier one bank capital. Similar amounts of general obligation municipal debt reside on the balance sheets of the insurance companies, where municipal bonds are 7 percent of assets.
The remaining municipal bonds are directly owned by individuals, or in mutual funds and exchange traded funds largely owned by individuals. Municipal bond defaults would primarily affect individual investors, and especially individuals who buy tax exempt municipal debt because they are looking for tax free income.
Of a piece with the effort to restore the state and local tax deduction, the effort to bail largely blue states and cities out of their debts to largely blue high income taxpayers is just a little bit inconsistent with tax the rich and tax their wealth rhetoric.
Daniel Bergstresser and Randolph Cohen presented a paper a while ago at a Brookings conference, measuring that 42% of municipal bond value was held by the top 0.5% of the income distribution. Now that so many including the Fed are interested in racial justice, similar breakdowns of who holds municipal bonds would be interesting. Given the racial disparity in wealth, it would be astounding if the disparity in municipal bond holding were not very large as well.
Josh's solution is straightforward:
Congress has to therefore condition any further bailout funds on shared losses by municipal bond investors. For instance, the law can mandate that state governments pass legislation that would write off a dollar of municipal bond debt for every dollar of additional grants given to a state or local government.
If we ever are to have any sort of market discipline, if a Fed put is not going to protect all large and politically potent issuers and all large and politically potent investors, who got outsized returns for many years by holding risky assets, from actually taking those losses when it counts, rather than one more taxpayer bailout, this seems like the time and place.
Municipal bonds are already highly subsidized, by their tax deduction. State and local governments have responded predictably by borrowing a lot. (Universities also get to borrow at municipal bond rates, and effectively use the money to invest in their hedge-fund endowments.) If municipal bonds now enter the too big to fail regime, the subsidy and incentive to over borrow explodes.
This situation is part of a general conundrum. The government and the Fed has taken on forestalling bankruptcies of large businesses and governments in the covid recession. (Restaurants, small landlords, and other small businesses no. But AAA bond issuers, and municipal bond issuers yes.)
To forestall a bankruptcy, you do not just lend money for current operations -- you end up taking on past debts.
Fortunately the recession seems to be ending quickly, because the magnitude of debt that might end up in federal hands under the no-bondholder-may-lose-money regime is pretty frightening.