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Highway robbery

Thursday, Jun 27, 2013

* Have you ever offered something for sale and the buyer agreed to the price right away? It’s happened to me a few times and I’ve always felt stupid, believing - with justification - that I should’ve asked for more.

So, let’s go back to yesterday’s press release from Gov. Pat Quinn on the state’s bond sale

The state received more than $9 billion in bids Wednesday from 145 investors for $1.3 billion in General Obligation bonds. The average interest rate on the bonds was 5.042 percent.

That $9 billion in offers is seven times the amount of the bond issuance.

* The governor lamented the additional cost of the bonds to taxpayers in that release…

“When I took office, my top priority was to enact the first capital construction plan in 10 years,” Governor Quinn said. “Today’s bond sale ensures that the work continues on much-needed improvements to roads, bridges and other infrastructure projects across Illinois. But legislative inertia has a price, and today the price for taxpayers was an extra $130 million. As I’ve warned repeatedly, this is an emergency. That’s why the General Assembly needs to get the job done by July 9 so we can stop the bleeding, prevent future downgrades and jumpstart Illinois’ economy.”

Totally understandable concern.

* The New York Times adds a bit of context

States and cities across the nation are starting to learn what Wall Street already knows: the days of easy money are coming to an end.

Interest rates have been inching up everywhere, sending America’s vast market for municipal bonds, a crucial source of financing for roads, bridges, schools and more, into its steepest decline since the dark days of the financial crisis in 2008.

For one state, Illinois, the higher interest rates will add up to $130 million over the next 25 years — and that is for just one new borrowing. All told, the interest burden of states and localities is likely to grow by many billions, sapping tax dollars that otherwise might have been spent on public services. […]

The sell-off in the municipal bond market has followed the general rout in the overall bond market, which was set off when Ben S. Bernanke, the chairman of the Federal Reserve, indicated that the strength of the economic recovery might allow the central bank to pull back on its $85 billion-a-month bond-buying program earlier than anticipated.

The Fed was not buying municipal bonds, but the market reacted anyway. Investors expected interest rates to rise, and because prices move in the opposite direction, the values of the municipal bonds they already held dropped.

Investors apparently started selling, not wanting to be the last one out. That caused a flood of bond sales. For the week ended June 19, $3.368 billion flowed out of mutual funds that hold tax-exempt municipal bonds, according to the Investment Company Institute. The outflow for the previous week was $3.236 billion.

Such sell-offs tend to hit the municipal bond market hard because it has many individual investors who buy bonds to hold them, either directly or through mutual funds, rather than financial institutions that trade them quickly.

* So, it’s abundantly clear that Illinois’ bonds most certainly had to be priced yesterday to attract buyers in a crazy market where people were dumping bonds left and right. Totally understandable.

But seven times over-subscribed?

There’s no doubt Illinois would have to pay higher interest rates than other states, but seven times over-subscribed is just ridiculous. The Quinn administration has some real fault here.

* This all reminds me of an old Johnny Rotten quote

“Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?”

I did yesterday.

- Posted by Rich Miller        

  1. - Bill White - Thursday, Jun 27, 13 @ 10:58 am:

    Low interest rates helps debtors and hurts creditors. Of course the Wall Street Journal wants interest rates to rise.

    One angle to accomplish this is frighten the Illinois bond sellers with a barrage of media about the state’s “toxic” fiscal position seeking to price IL bonds above market rates, based on fear not data.

  2. - Chicago Cynic - Thursday, Jun 27, 13 @ 10:59 am:

    When I saw the story, I emailed my broker asking why we didn’t get in on the action, given their relatively high rate and tax exempt status. Hopefully Illinois will continue to be this stupid since I need some higher fixed returns.

  3. - Chicago Cynic - Thursday, Jun 27, 13 @ 11:00 am:

    I’m sorry Bill, but there is real data. To wit:

    1) Expiring income tax increase
    2) unpaid bills that still total more than $6 billion
    3) Failure to pass pension reform
    4) Failure to demonstrate governance competence
    5) Failure of political will.

    Sounds like a risk premium to me.

  4. - Formerly Known As... - Thursday, Jun 27, 13 @ 11:01 am:

    The nature of reaction also depends, in part, on how over-subscribed previous bond sales have been along with the supply/demand available via similar bond sales.

    Is this a consistent occurrence or a fluke?

    Has their been a lull in similar bond sales?

    Is there another outsidde factor contributing to a shift towards Illinois bonds?

    All additional factors worth exploring or considering in determing how harshly we should judge them.

    Though I am inclined to think we probably screwed up somewhere along the way - this is, after all, Illinois.

  5. - Bill White - Thursday, Jun 27, 13 @ 11:06 am:

    Chicago Cynic, seven times oversubscribed tells me the factors you list, while real, are being exaggerated.

    I guess I am merely more cynical than you about how bankers operate.

  6. - RonOglesby - Thursday, Jun 27, 13 @ 11:08 am:

    The real question is what is “normal” over subscription? Now we may have to look at some pretty wild places to find like to like comparison (cant compare us to say someone with AAA, but you understand).

    I mean if normal over subscription is 6X is 7x really that bad in an environment where you get about 0% on money saved in a bank? Not sure. We need to compare apples to apples… or at least to some other tree hanging fruit.

  7. - Old and In The Way - Thursday, Jun 27, 13 @ 11:08 am:

    I posted something on this early this morning on yesterday’s Catastrophe….Not So Much piece. At the risk of being redundant I am reposting my comments albeit modified somewhat.

    Governor Dufus is clearly incompetent when it comes to numbers and finances. In the world of big time finance he is truly a liability for Illnois. His lack of understanding coupled with his constant crisis mongering is in fact hurting the state. As for the muni market his statements yesterday regarding the added costs for the state on the bond sale are an example. We surely paid more than AAA rated bonds but he overstated the impact by about 40%! Mary Williams Walsh from the New York Times commented this morning…….

    Governor Quinn said that the state was paying an average interest rate on the bonds of 5.042 percent. He called on lawmakers to enact pension changes “by July 9, so we can stop the bleeding, prevent future downgrades and jump-start Illinois’s economy.”
    Daniel Berger, senior market strategist for Thomson Reuters Municipal Market Data, said the pension-related downgrades cited by the governor were important factors but not the only ones.
    He said that market conditions had driven the interest rate on a typical 10-year municipal bond up by more than one percentage point since the beginning of May. The rate for longer-maturity bonds were more than 1.25 percentage points higher.
    “He’s ignoring the adverse market conditions,” Mr. Berger said.

    PUBLISHED JUNE 26, 2013

    We are our own worst enemy when we perpetuate this pseudo crisis mentality and headlines! PQ continuously and reflexively overstates the situation and I can only assume its for political purposes and ignorance. Better to keep your silence and let others suspect your ignorance rather than open your mouth and remove all doubt!

  8. - Mouthy - Thursday, Jun 27, 13 @ 11:09 am:

    The timing couldn’t have been worse. The bond markets have been roiling over a month on words of the Fed Chair last month and this. It’s like they weren’t paying attention to what’s been going on.

  9. - Been There - Thursday, Jun 27, 13 @ 11:09 am:

    ===but seven times over-subscribed is just ridiculous===
    Whats normal? I have no idea but I think it would help frame the debate if we knew.

  10. - Robert the Bruce - Thursday, Jun 27, 13 @ 11:10 am:

    Love the Johnny Rotten reference. Someone with his personality might do a better job of negotiating bond prices than we’re doing.

    Seven times oversubscribed!! I wonder how much immediate profit-taking there was for those bond investors who got in on the sale…I bet most flipped the bonds for a higher price immediately and made off with a few million bucks.

  11. - Hickory - Thursday, Jun 27, 13 @ 11:14 am:

    Why did the State not have the investors bid the interest rate?

  12. - Bill White - Thursday, Jun 27, 13 @ 11:14 am:

    - Old and in the Way -

    The following are far more guilty of perpetuating a pseudo crisis mentality and headlines than Pat Quinn (although I agree he isn’t helping things):

    Chicago Tribune
    Illinois Policy Institute
    Illinois is Broke
    Reboot Illinois
    Many Republicans

    etc . . .

  13. - dupage dan - Thursday, Jun 27, 13 @ 11:17 am:

    Can’t wait until the next election when we will see most of the current crew re-elected. Lots of hand wringing and gnashing of teeth but the crew will mostly be returned to Springfield so they can keep up the good work. There certainly is an upside for them, no?

  14. - Anon. - Thursday, Jun 27, 13 @ 11:21 am:

    ==But seven times over-subscribed?==

    This doesn’t mean that people wanted to buy $9 billion worth of bonds at the 5% interest rate. These are bids that said something like “I’m offering to buy $1 million in face value of bonds for $980,000.” The lower the price, the higher the the effect interest rate. The state sells the bonds to the $1.7 billion in highest bids (and, if I recall correctly, sells them all at the lowest bid price accepted). For all we know from saying there were $9 billion in bids, trying to sell $2 billion vs. $1.7 billion could have cost the state 7% in effective interest, vs. the 5% we’re paying.

  15. - Robert the Bruce - Thursday, Jun 27, 13 @ 11:31 am:

    @Anon. 11:21 am - You may be right - but I thought the way it worked it that underwriters (in this case, Wells Fargo won the job) bid for the right to sell the bonds, quoting an interest rate that they think they’ll sell for, and then they sell to the bond buyers at a set interest rate. So it really was 7x over-subscribed.

    I’m not certain how the underwriters get away with winning the job with an interest rate that in the end is shown to be too high based on the 7x over-subscription.

  16. - ChrisB - Thursday, Jun 27, 13 @ 11:42 am:

    @Bill White

    Whip out your Occam’s Razor, bro. Do you really believe this is a result of a massive Wall Street conspiracy, or rather just general incompetence from the Gov’s office?

    My vote is with the latter. Especially since the former group is so disorganized that they couldn’t even beat the latter last election cycle.

  17. - Old and In The Way - Thursday, Jun 27, 13 @ 11:47 am:

    Bill- I agree with you. Lets call him a witless accomplice vs an unwitting accomplice. I just wanted to point out his ineptness with finances and numbers (remember his examples of teacher pensions) as well as his complicity in keeping the “crisis” in the headlines.

    At the end of the day I suspect the GA will pass something. In view of that, two questions; What will they do when the “reforms” are declared unconstitutional. What will be the next crisis that needs PQ’s inept leadership.

  18. - wordslinger - Thursday, Jun 27, 13 @ 12:07 pm:

    The rule of thumb I’ve heard is that if an issue is oversubscribed by 50% that indicates strong demand at a reasonable price. Anything more, and your paying too much juice.

    Yesterday’s issue was oversubscribed by nearly 700%. Other issues in recent years have been oversubscribed by 300% to 400%.

    It seems that there is a political fear of setting a price that will not sell out immediately and garner bad headlines.

    That’s a shame. Any seller should be willing to pull bonds off the market if the price isn’t right. That’s just good business.

    And yes, it doesn’t help the market when the governor is running around saying the sky is falling about pensions. Let the Tribbies do that. The governor’s job is to be a voice of reason and SELL the bonds, not undermine them.

  19. - Pelon - Thursday, Jun 27, 13 @ 1:02 pm:

    I haven’t looked at the terms of the offering, but bonds are usually offered differently than stock IPOs. Stock IPOs are usually set at a fixed price. Everyone who gets in on the initial order pays the same price. When a stock offering is substantially oversubscribed, it is an indication that the price was set too low. In contrast, bonds are usually offered through a bid process where the issuer accepts the lowest rate offers until they meet the funding need.

    A large oversubscription doesn’t tell you much about whether the state paid more than they should have since the final average rate is set by the bidders, not the state. With Illinois’ unstable credit rating, it isn’t surprising that the offering was substantially oversubscribed. I expect a significant portion of the bids were on the high end by traders hoping to get a good deal due to the uncertainty.

    To see whether the state is paying too much, you have to compare the final average rate with recent similar offerings from states without financial problems.

  20. - Bill White - Thursday, Jun 27, 13 @ 1:11 pm:

    ChrisB - When presented with either / or questions:

    === Do you really believe this is a result of a massive Wall Street conspiracy, or rather just general incompetence from the Gov’s office? ===

    I usually advise taking a look at “Both!” before choosing.

    Yes, PQ is a doofus but the banksters also are financial predators (Google LIBOR rigging).

  21. - wordslinger - Thursday, Jun 27, 13 @ 1:41 pm:

    Pelon, the problem is the state went to market at a price that was oversubscribed by 700%. In other words, the initial asking price was too sweet and profoundly misjudged the market.

    When you’re that wrong with your initial price, you’re not going to get a good deal at the end of the day.

  22. - Old and In The Way - Thursday, Jun 27, 13 @ 1:57 pm:

    Wordslinger-you got it right. To add to the complexity is the recent(last two weeks) run on the bond market precipitated by Bernanke’s comments at the Fed. Remember bonds are in effect looking at future interest rates as well. Why settle for 3.75 today when six weeks from now I can get 5.0. Now consider these are long term bonds and you can see the effect of the Fed announcement that interest rates will rise. In fact the Illinois issue was high only in part because of the pension “crisis” . Great article in the New York Times this morning.

  23. - Plutocrat03 - Thursday, Jun 27, 13 @ 1:58 pm:

    I assume it is an art in a volatile bond market to set a price, but there seems something fishy when the set price is oversubscribed by 700%

    I seem to recall going out for GO bonds we would get a report on whether the interest rate was better or worse than projected.

    I would bet that if the bonds were offered a 4%, they would still have been oversubscribed. Someone needs to do a review and see if this is a sweetheart deal, incompetence or anything else.

  24. - Old and In The Way - Thursday, Jun 27, 13 @ 2:02 pm:

    BTW I have litigated several suits where the issuer of the bonds felt that the broker had in effect rigged the price. It happens more than you think and the bond rating houses are in on the scam. Perhaps we need to look into how Illinois is marketing or selling these bonds. Perhaps the AG needs to get off her pedestal and look into this and the rating houses!

  25. - wordslinger - Thursday, Jun 27, 13 @ 2:09 pm:

    –“We’ll sell the bonds; the issue is simply going to be the price,” said John Sinsheimer, the state’s director of capital markets, who criss-crossed the country last week talking to bond buyers. “Indications from investors are that at the right price they are buyers of Illinois paper.”

    I think he was right, lol.

    Read more:

  26. - Pelon - Thursday, Jun 27, 13 @ 2:37 pm:

    Wordslinger - These bonds are sold through a bidding process similar to an auction. The state doesn’t set a price on the bonds when they offer them to the market. The final yield (price) is set by what the buyers are willing to accept, not what the state thinks they should pay. The state didn’t say ahead of time that they had $1.3 billion in bonds to sell at 5.042%. Instead, they said we need to raise $1.3 billion. Investors, how much are you willing to buy and at what rate? They took the lowest rate offer first, the next lowest, second, etc. until they funded the full $1.3 billion. The 5.042% is a weighted average of all those rates offered by the bond buyers.

  27. - Robert the Bruce - Thursday, Jun 27, 13 @ 3:05 pm:

    From what I can tell, the bonds issued yesterday are, one day later, trading at a 0.4% lower average interest rate (and they were 0.3% lower within a couple hours of the issue).

    Source: Municipal Securities Rulemaking Board Go to search, and in Issue Description, type in

  28. - Robert the Bruce - Thursday, Jun 27, 13 @ 3:10 pm:

    Pelon, makes it sound to me like there is a specific offering price, meaning it isn’t an auction available to bond buyers: “New Issue Transactions—In new issues, list offering prices typically are disclosed as the prices at which a substantial portion of the issue was offered to the public.”

  29. - reformer - Thursday, Jun 27, 13 @ 3:15 pm:

    The Trib and its fellow travelers refuse to recognize that the state’s credit rating will be adversely affected if the temporary income tax hike mostly expires after next year, unless there is some new revenue source to replace it. I guess some kinds of credit downgrades are kosher for our friends on the right.

  30. - wordslinger - Thursday, Jun 27, 13 @ 4:11 pm:

    Pelon, the underwriters hit the market with an offering price that generated the seven-times demand.

    As the sale progressed, the underwriters re-priced some of the out-years, knocking down 20 basis points, according to Reuters.

    The state sold $1.3 billion in debt in 11 New York minutes. So much for “toxicity.”

    The point is, the initial pricing misjudged the demand and could have been lower.

  31. - ejhickey - Thursday, Jun 27, 13 @ 5:39 pm:

    Robert the Bruce:

    tried your search: came up no records. i would not expect the bond dealers who bought the securities to sell them for the same price they paid.

  32. - Pelon - Thursday, Jun 27, 13 @ 6:00 pm:


    That is likely a reference to the issue by the underwriter, not the state. Bonds are usually sold through either a negotiated sale or competitive sale. With a negotiated sale the state negotiates a yield with an underwriter. With a competitive sale, the yield is set through the bidding process of underwriters and major bond traders. See for an explanation of the two types of offerings.

    Did the state get a good deal on this bond issue? I have no idea since I haven’t examined it in detail. What I do know is that the level of oversubscription isn’t a useful tool to find out. The fact that there are no stories from the bond industry press stating that Illinois got taken, though, leads me to believe that this was a fairly priced issue given the state’s finances.

  33. - Old and In The Way - Thursday, Jun 27, 13 @ 8:26 pm:

    “The fact that there are no stories from the bond industry press stating that Illinois got taken, though, leads me to believe that this was a fairly priced issue given the state’s finances.”

    Are you kidding me? The bond industry press? I don’t recall them blowing the whistle on anybody during the 07/08 bond collapse and there were literally billions lost and stolen! Check out who owns the bond industry press and it becomes clear why. Do you have any real experience in securities fraud? I’m not saying Illinois was the victim of fraud here but relying on the bond industry press for any useful insider information on a major sale is just naive. They are basically the pr mouth piece for the industry. The SEC would be a better resource sir.

  34. - Old and In The Way - Thursday, Jun 27, 13 @ 8:30 pm:

    By the way. This blog has detailed several articles detailing both Canadian provinces and municipalities with much poorer debt ratios with higher bond ratings. You might want to check them out or try the Tiabi/Rolling Stone article. Sheesh!

  35. - ejhickey - Friday, Jun 28, 13 @ 10:16 am:

    Old and In The Way:

    Didn’t the SEC charge Illinois with civil fraud in relation to disclosures to buyers of its muni bonds?

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