Senior SEC Employee Warns of Potential Municipal Bond Market Collapse
by Robert Wenzel
who is a Senior Policy Advisor to the Director of the SEC, Mary
Schapiro, continues to maintain his own private non-SEC affiliated
Prior to joinning
the SEC, Bookstaber served as the managing director in charge of
firm-wide risk management at Salomon Brothers, director of risk
management at Moore Capital Management, and Morgan Stanley's first
market risk manager. He is the author of three books and a number
of articles on finance topics ranging from option theory to risk
management, and has received various awards for his research. He
holds a Ph.D. in Economics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
On his blog
writes that he doesn't think:
see a big crisis emerging for some time in banks, hedge funds
or derivatives, mostly because, like with a knockout punch, the
risks that matter dont come from where you are looking...
He is not so
sanguine about the municipal bond market:
to look next. To see other potential sources of crisis, lets
first recount the lessons learned from this crisis:
occur when things get leveraged and complex (and thus opaque).
- If the
problems occur in a very big market, especially in a very big
market like housing that is tied to the credit markets, things
can go systemic.
- The notion
that you can diversify by holding a geographically broad-based
portfolio, (there has never been a nation-wide housing
recession), works fine until it doesnt.
- A portfolio
that is apparently hedged can blow apart. So we have to look
at the gross value of positions, even if they are thought to
bet on ratings, because rating agencies are conflicted and might
not be all too dependable at their job.
are never easy to manage, but it gets worse when there are a
lot of them happening at the same time. It is harder to manage
the mess, and there is less of a stigma in defaulting. And it
is all the worse when, as is the case in the housing markets,
those defaulting are not businessmen. As an added complication,
with housing the revenue that we thought was there really wasnt.
Income that was supposed to be there to finance the mortgages
even when that income was fairly stated became
committed to other areas (like second mortgages).
where we have a market that is (1) leveraged and opaque, that
is (2) very big and tied to the credit markets; and is (3) viewed
by investors as being diversifiable by holding a geographically
broad-based portfolio; with (4) huge portfolios where assets and
liabilities are apparently matched; and with (5) questionable
analysis by rating agencies; and where (6) there are many entities,
entities that may not approach default with business-like dispatch,
and that have already mortgaged sources of revenue that are thought
to support their liabilities?
The municipal market.
and Opacity. Leverage in the municipal market comes from making
future obligations to employees in order to pay them less now.
This is borrowing in the form of high pension benefits and post-retirement
health care, but borrowing nonetheless. Put another way, in taking
lower pay today, the employees have lent money to the municipality,
with that money to be repaid via their retirement benefits. The
opaqueness comes from the methods of reporting. For example, municipalities
are not held to the same standards as corporations in their disclosure.
potential systemic effects. That this is a big market in the credit
space goes without saying.
the rest of the article
© 2010 Economic Policy