Thursday, April 9, 2009

Will Jackson end up like Birmingham: beaten, broke, and bankrupt?

*Birmingham and other cities face bankruptcy or financial ruin due to interest rate swaps
*Interest rate swaps were sold to local governments by Wall Street as a way to save money
*In reality these swaps were the equivalent of financing a house note with an adjustable rate
*This week Jackson voted to use such swaps to finance $130 million for the 2002 and 2004 bond issues

Will Jackson meet Birmingham's current fate: a city slowly dragged into bankruptcy after it bet its municipal bonds on complex derivatives? The Jackson City Council approved (4-2 vote) a motion to enter into an interest rate swap for its 2002 and 2004 bonds with Duestche Bank and Rice Bank. Unfortunately for the rest of us, the gang of four who voted for this deal along with City Administrator Rick Hill (who promoted it) probably had no real idea of what they were doing, as many officials in other cities have discovered to their dismay.

Birmingham Blues
Birmingham suffered from a double dilemma: a mandate to upgrade its obsolete sewer system and an inability to pay for such an upgrade without exorbitant fee increases. It entered into an interest rate swap agreement for the bonds it issued to finance the upgrades with JP Morgan and Bear Stearns.

In its simplest terms, an interest rate swap gives a bond issuer (such as a city or county) the ability to take advantage of lower interest rates. While fixed-rate bonds are available to such entities, many choose to issue bonds whose rates (which are paid by the government to the bondholder) adjust on terms ranging from every 30 to 180 days. Issuing such bonds saves the issuer millions of dollars as they tend to have interest rates up to 100 basis points (a basis point is .01%) lower than more conservative fixed-rate bonds. However, the interest rate swap in theory gives the government entity issuing the bonds the security of a fixed-rate payment while allowing them to enjoy the benefits of a lower variable rate.

In an interest rate swap, the municipality enters into an agreement with a counterparty such as Citi or JP Morgan. The city will pay the counterparty an interest rate that is fixed (the length of which is defined in the contract) while the counterparty pays the city a separate payment based on a variable interest rate (This is a swap, which is a two-way cash flow). Remember how adjustable rate mortgages have wrecked the housing industry? Well, a little more complex wheeling and dealing based on adjustable interest rates have managed to blow up city budgets across the country as those variable interest rates devastated cities such as Birmingham when they adjusted in the wrong direction.

Bloomberg reported how Jefferson County, Alabama thought it could use these swaps to its advantage as it fell for some sweet talk from Wall Street:
"The county relied on advice from a bank, JPMorgan Chase & Co., to arrange its funding, rather than use competitive bidding. Like homeowners who took out mortgages they couldn't afford and didn't understand, Jefferson County officials rejected fixed- rate debt and borrowed instead at rates that varied with the market.
The county paid banks $120 million in fees -- six times the prevailing rate -- for $5.8 billion in interest-rate swaps. That was supposed to protect the county from rising rates for their bonds. Lending rates went the wrong way, putting the county $277 million deeper into debt..."
Bloomberg I

"Officials there (in Birmingham) relied on the advice of JP Morgan in 2002 and 2003 while refinancing almost all the $3.2 billion of fixed-rate debt that built sewers into variable-rate bonds coupled with interest-rate swaps.
Costs Spiral: When the insurers guaranteeing the bonds lost their top credit ratings and the auction-rate market seized up in February, the yield on the bonds jumped as high as 10 per cent, from about 3 per cent in January. At the same time, the swaps tied to the debt, instead of protecting against higher rates, backfired. That pushed the sewer system's annual debt costs to $460 million, more than twice the $190 million it collects in revenue
..." The trap closes on Jefferson County

When Birmingham tried to escape the death spiral it faced, the bankers from New York turned into Bruno and Vito from Jersey:
"Jefferson County failed to post $184 million in collateral in early March and has been in technical default since then. JP Morgan and other investment banks are on the other side of the swaps.The investment banks want Jefferson county to raise taxes to cover its obligations. Jefferson County wants the Wall Street brokers to renegotiate the swaps and insists it will not raise taxes.
"We are dealing with a virtual immovable force on Wall Street" the Birmingham News quoted Jefferson County Commission President Bettye Fine Collins as saying" Bruno and Vito

It should be noted that several commissioners are currently pushing for the city to declare bankruptcy. The Mayor faces criminal prosecution for allegedly receiving bribes and favors in exchange for the no-bid contracts with the Wall Street Banks. If Birmingham files bankruptcy, it will be the largest municipal bankruptcy in American history.

The Interest Rate Swap blight upon the land
Birmingham is not the only city suffering from the interest rate swap time bomb. The New York Times reported yesterday a plague of variable rates on these swaps afflicts many small towns in Tennessee:
"Lewisburg is one of hundreds of small cities and counties across America reeling from their reliance in recent years on risky municipal bond derivatives that went bad. Municipalities that bought the derivatives were like homeowners with fixed-rate mortgages who refinanced by taking out lower-interest, variable-rate mortgages. But some local officials say they were not told, or did not understand, that interest rates could go much higher if economic conditions worsened — which, of course, they did...."
Lewisburg, a town of only 11,000, saw its " annual interest payments on the bond had quadrupled to $1 million" this year."

Some municipalities tried to withdraw from these bond market traps:
"In Claiborne County, north of Knoxville, officials said they were recently told by Morgan Keegan bankers that extracting themselves from a municipal bond derivative would cost $3 million, a sum the poor county cannot afford...."
In Mount Juliet, a suburb east of Nashville, city leaders were surprised to discover that the payments on its bonds had increased by 500 percent to $478,000..." New York Times Story

While there are a variety of reasons why the debts skyrocketed, the cities suffering from these increases all had one thing in common: the use of interest-rates swaps that left them exposed to variable interest rates.

Jackson picks up the interest-rate swap gauntlet Jackson's leaders ignored these dangers, as well as the fate of Birmingham, and plunged headfirst into the interest rate swap pool. This week the city council voted 4-2 (Crisler proposed the motion, McLemore seconded it, Bluntson and Tillman voted for it, Weill and Barrett-Simon voted against it) to approve Mr. Hill's recommendations to approve such a swap for nearly $130 million in 2002 and 2004 public works bonds.

Mr. Hill glossed over the exposure to adjustable rates in a story published last week in the Northside Sun:
"The city hopes to swap the fixed interest rate of 4.99 percent for a lower rate on two water and sewer bonds issued in 2002 and 2004.
Officials are now negotiating the terms of the agreement with Duetsche Bank and Rice Financial Products, the two banks that will actually conduct the rate swap. The city has brought on Sterne Agee and Leach Inc., a national investment firm with an office in Jackson, to serve as its financial advisor, as well as two local law firms - Baker Donelson Bearman Caldwell and Berkowitz, and Anthony Simon - to serve as legal counsel for the transaction. In the transaction, the city would hire an underwriter to issue new bonds with variable-rate interest to pay off its current debt. Duetsche and Rice would take those bonds and exchange them with an investor for bonds with a lower fixed interest rate. If a lower interest rate isn’t found, the bank would wait a year and try again. The transaction would save the city between $10 million and $13 million in interest payments over the life of the bond, money that will be paid to the city up front if the city agrees to the deal. Hill said the transactions wouldn’t occur until 2012 and 2014.
HILL said the city can do this because investors search for different types of debt to boost their portfolios. Despite the benefits of the transaction, there are a number of risks the city has to consider. “Right now, the markets are in such a shape that investors might not want to buy variable-rate debt,” he said. In that case, the city would have to re-pay the up front money...."
Sun story

One must ask what kind of dope Mr. Hill thinks we are smoking if he expects us to buy this malarky. Investors will be more than happy to buy variable rate debt as long as they think they can squeeze us for every cent of it. The reporter failed to ask Mr. Hill what would happen if the rates adjust? How exposed is Jackson to these toxic variable interest rates? No serious person expects the interest rates to remain near zero as they are now. As interest rates increase (not to mention the effect Obama's deficit spending will have on the bond markets) over the next few years, any deal using these variable rates will cost Jackson much more money. Something ignored by Mr. Hill while he pimped this deal for the loan sharks.

It is also troubling that the city did not advertise for bids on the refinancing. Since the fees for these refinances will cost us up to nearly $3 million, Mr. Hill should have sought competitive bids. What was his criteria for choosing these banks? What are the fees going to be and why are we awarding contracts worth millions in fees without any bidding whatsoever? In fact, the story says the terms are being negotiated. The city council approved these swaps without even knowing the final terms of the agreement. As Mac would say, you CAN'T be serious.

While the article was short on details, the resolution passed by the city council contained some details:
1. There was an original swap agreement in 2002 with two other banks, one of which was replaced by another as its credit rating declined. Someone should ask Harvey why he decided to enter into these loans (One can hear the Melton administration jumping up and down squealing with glee "Its Harvey's fault! It's Harvey's fault!)
2. The swap obligations (payments on the swap) are junior in lien only to the bond liens themselves. Text of resolution

It is interesting to note the resolution says nothing about the city receiving ten million dollars from the banks although it is probably spelled out in the master agreement. Councilman Jeff Weill of Ward 1 voted against the bill and sent this statement to Jackson Jambalaya explaining his vote:
"I had no comfort level with the swap initially proposed last November. Since that time the mayor of Birmingham's been indicted and Attorneys General across the US have convened grand juries looking into these schemes. They are purely fee driven. Even the 'independent' financial advisers who advised the council had an interest in the transaction, not to mention the players and the bond lawyers.
Most of those proposing this deal worked hard to obscure the costs of issuance. As a lawyer and former prosecutor that was a giant red flag to me

The media and citizens of Jackson should hold Melton, Hill, Crisler, Bluntson, McLemore, and Tillman accountable for trying to push this crap on us. There was no competitive bidding. Jackson is exposed to an adjustable rate agreement similar to those that have devastated other local governments. The fees were not even mentioned or made available to the public yet we are expected to fork over millions of dollars of our money to shysters, bankers, and money pimps, oops, I meant "advisers". While every other municipality is running away from these instruments of financial self-destruction as fast as they can, our leaders instead choose to chain us to a ticking time bomb with these variable rates. If these variable rates go south, Jackson will pay dearly for that ten million dollars of juice it got from the Krauts. We should hold the council's feet to the fire and demand a thorough hearing on this matter as well as opening this entire process to competitive bids. Thanks to these guys, Jackson is going to be just like Birmingham in more ways than one.

Note: Efforts to reach Rick Hill and Harvey Johnson were unsuccessful.
Additional articles:
JP Morgan, facing criminal probe, exits municipal swaps
Same firm advising Birmingham in trouble in New Mexico did similar work after making donations to Richardson
Interest rate swaps nightmare for non-profits, hospitals
Jefferson County can't make $636 million debt payment


Anonymous said...

Gee Kingfish. Why aren't we getting these kind of analyses out of the Jackson Free Press?

Kingfish said...

Screw the JFP.

what about the CL or MBJ?

Jane said...

Is there still a Clarion Ledger? They toss a couple of pages onto my driveway every morning but I hadn't noticed that it was a newspaper.

Anonymous said...

This whole city is blessed to have Jeff Weill.

Anonymous said...

You can never take the bloodhound out of some former prosecutors. Even the faintest whiff activates those former life senses. This is Jackson. I'd guess the old bloodhound in Weill has picked up numerous scents and tracks. The challenge is where to start.

Anonymous said...

I don't think the people of Jackson realize what a HUGE mistake this is.

Kingfish said...

They don't and they don't care. They will care when they are suddenly facing bankruptcy one day and I'm not being hysterical. Study the path Jefferson County went down and you will we are heading on it as well. This is sheer lunacy. There was little debate, no notice of any merit, no competitive bidding, no independent advice whose compensation was not contingent upon the closing of the deal.

Anonymous said...

Some of your best work ever KF.

Kingfish said...

Thanks. As of Monday I knew nothing about this stuff. Tuesday night I was reading about Birmingham and came across a resolution by Jackson online on this deal after I got curious and googled "interest rate swaps and Jackson Mississippi" and have been learning alot about these things ever since.

FIRE Rick Hill said...

Kingfish did you see this?

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) - As a government shutdown loomed, residents of Alabama's most populous county [Jefferson County] lined up Friday to renew their car registrations and settle their tax bills.

By Monday, at least a quarter of the county's 3,600 employees will be on unpaid leave and many county offices will be closed or cutting back hours.

The county, with 640,000 residents, has been on the brink of filing the nation's largest municipal bankruptcy for the past year due to a sewer bond fiasco that remains unresolved.

PLEASE Harvey Johnson fire Rick Hill. God forbid don't let him propose any more esoteric and reckless bond schemes. You campaigned on fiscal responsibility and we surely need you to live up to that promise.

Kingfish said...

Supposedly even the scaled-down refi has quietly died and some of our former council members were not too happy it did.

Unknown said...

Very informative post. I hope the government will ponder upon this kind of experience.

Anonymous said...

If the numbskulls in Jackson elect Chokwe, then yes. Jackson will be broke and bankrupt.

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Trollfest '09

Trollfest '07 was such a success that Jackson Jambalaya will once again host Trollfest '09. Catch this great event which will leave NE Jackson & Fondren in flames. Othor Cain and his band, The Black Power Structure headline the night while Sonjay Poontang returns for an encore performance. Former Frank Melton bodyguard Marcus Wright makes his premier appearance at Trollfest singing "I'm a Sweet Transvestite" from "The Rocky Horror Picture Show." Kamikaze will sing his new hit, “How I sold out to da Man.” Robbie Bell again performs: “Mamas, don't let your babies grow up to be Bells” and “Any friend of Ed Peters is a friend of mine”. After the show, Ms. Bell will autograph copies of her mug shot photos. In a salute to “Dancing with the Stars”, Ms. Bell and Hinds County District Attorney Robert Smith will dance the Wango Tango.

Wrestling returns, except this time it will be a Battle Royal with Othor Cain, Ben Allen, Kim Wade, Haley Fisackerly, Alan Lange, and “Big Cat” Donna Ladd all in the ring at the same time. The Battle Royal will be in a steel cage, no time limit, no referee, and the losers must leave town. Marshand Crisler will be the honorary referee (as it gives him a title without actually having to do anything).

Meet KIM Waaaaaade at the Entergy Tent. For five pesos, Kim will sell you a chance to win a deed to a crack house on Ridgeway Street stuffed in the Howard Industries pinata. Don't worry if the pinata is beaten to shreds, as Mr. Wade has Jose, Emmanuel, and Carlos, all illegal immigrants, available as replacements for the it. Upon leaving the Entergy tent, fig leaves will be available in case Entergy literally takes everything you have as part of its Trollfest ticket price adjustment charge.

Donna Ladd of The Jackson Free Press will give several classes on learning how to write. Smearing, writing without factchecking, and reporting only one side of a story will be covered. A donation to pay their taxes will be accepted and she will be signing copies of their former federal tax liens. Ms. Ladd will give a dramatic reading of her two award-winning essays (They received The Jackson Free Press "Best Of" awards.) "Why everything is always about me" and "Why I cover murders better than anyone else in Jackson".

In the spirit of helping those who are less fortunate, Trollfest '09 adopts a cause for which a portion of the proceeds and donations will be donated: Keeping Frank Melton in his home. The “Keep Frank Melton From Being Homeless” booth will sell chances for five dollars to pin the tail on the jackass. John Reeves has graciously volunteered to be the jackass for this honorable excursion into saving Frank's ass. What's an ass between two friends after all? If Mr. Reeves is unable to um, perform, Speaker Billy McCoy has also volunteered as when the word “jackass” was mentioned he immediately ran as fast as he could to sign up.

In order to help clean up the legal profession, Adam Kilgore of the Mississippi Bar will be giving away free, round-trip plane tickets to the North Pole where they keep their bar complaint forms (which are NOT available online). If you don't want to go to the North Pole, you can enjoy Brant Brantley's (of the Mississippi Commission on Judicial Performance) free guided tours of the quicksand field over by High Street where all complaints against judges disappear. If for some reason you are unable to control yourself, never fear; Judge Houston Patton will operate his jail where no lawyers are needed or allowed as you just sit there for minutes... hours.... months...years until he decides he is tired of you sitting in his jail. Do not think Judge Patton is a bad judge however as he plans to serve free Mad Dog 20/20 to all inmates.

Trollfest '09 is a pet-friendly event as well. Feel free to bring your dog with you and do not worry if your pet gets hungry, as employees of the Jackson Zoo will be on hand to provide some of their animals as food when it gets to be feeding time for your little loved one.

Relax at the Fox News Tent. Since there are only three blonde reporters in Jackson (being blonde is a requirement for working at Fox News), Megan and Kathryn from WAPT and Wendy from WLBT will be on loan to Fox. To gain admittance to the VIP section, bring either your Republican Party ID card or a Rebel Flag. Bringing both and a torn-up Obama yard sign will entitle you to free drinks served by Megan, Wendy, and Kathryn. Get your tickets now. Since this is an event for trolls, no ID is required. Just bring the hate. Bring the family, Trollfest '09 is for EVERYONE!!!

This is definitely a Beaver production.

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Trollfest '07

Jackson Jambalaya is the home of Trollfest '07. Catch this great event which promises to leave NE Jackson & Fondren in flames. Sonjay Poontang and his band headline the night with a special steel cage, no time limit "loser must leave town" bout between Alan Lange and "Big Cat"Donna Ladd following afterwards. Kamikaze will perform his new song F*** Bush, he's still a _____. Did I mention there was no referee? Dr. Heddy Matthias and Lori Gregory will face off in the undercard dueling with dangling participles and other um, devices. Robbie Bell will perform Her two latest songs: My Best Friends are in the Media and Mama's, Don't Let Your Babies Grow up to be George Bell. Sid Salter of The Clarion-Ledger will host "Pin the Tail on the Trial Lawyer", sponsored by State Farm.

There will be a hugging booth where in exchange for your young son, Frank Melton will give you a loooong hug. Trollfest will have a dunking booth where Muhammed the terrorist will curse you to Allah as you try to hit a target that will drop him into a vat of pig grease. However, in the true spirit of Separate But Equal, Don Imus and someone from NE Jackson will also sit in the dunking booth for an equal amount of time. Tom Head will give a reading for two hours on why he can't figure out who the hell he is. Cliff Cargill will give lessons with his .80 caliber desert eagle, using Frank Melton photos as targets. Tackleberry will be on hand for an autograph session. KIM Waaaaaade will be passing out free titles and deeds to crackhouses formerly owned by The Wood Street Players.

If you get tired come relax at the Fox News Tent. To gain admittance to the VIP section, bring either your Republican Party ID card or a Rebel Flag. Bringing both will entitle you to free drinks.Get your tickets now. Since this is an event for trolls, no ID is required, just bring the hate. Bring the family, Trollfest '07 is for EVERYONE!!!

This is definitely a Beaver production.

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