Frederick Sheehan is the author of Panderer to Power: The Untold Story of How Alan Greenspan Enriched Wall Street and Left a Legacy of Recession (McGraw-Hill, 2009).
“Miami's tradition of unruly official behavior is finally bringing painful consequences. After years of reckless financial management and a bribery scandal that produced federal charges against three top city officials, South Florida's largest city stands on the edge of bankruptcy.”
-Time, December 16, 1996, “Gloom Over Miami”
The odor from low tides is often strongest near mud flats. Credit bubbles are similarly disposed. During the high tide of the telecom boom, Global Crossing and WorldCom borrowed with abandon. When revenues did not rise to cover borrowing costs, their lamentable accounting practices smelled like a clam digger’s paradise.
The municipal borrowing boom of the past decade is no different. States and municipalities borrowed $137 billion in 2003 and $215 billion in 2007. This scramble in itself was enough to cause concern. These were flush times. Tax receipts by states and local governments rose from $975 billion in 2003 to $1,304 trillion in 2007. (See The Coming Collapse of the Municipal Bond Market in the Articles section of the Aucontrarian.com website for details.) Municipalities were borrowing at record levels when taxes were producing a flood tide of revenues.
This indicates mismanagement on a broad scale. The municipal bond holder might look at the telecommunications boom for similarities. The great telecom scramble in the 1990s ended after the millennium in a bad stench of bankruptcy, fraud, prison terms and the demise of one accounting firm (Arthur Anderson) that abetted these scandals.
Gary Winnick founded Global Crossing in 1997. He had no technology background. Winnick watched a video to learn how to lay cable. He was a good enough salesman (having developed his techniques with Michael Milken at the latter’s famous x-shaped trading desk at Drexel, Burnham, Lambert) to raise billions of dollars. He intended to build 71,000 miles of undersea, high-speed, fiber-optic cable, linking 159 cities in 19 countries and able to reach 85% of the world’s telecom market. According to Forbes magazine, Winnick made a billion dollars – for himself – in 18 months. Global Crossing filed for bankruptcy in 2002.
Bernie Ebbers was chosen as WorldCom’s CEO in 1985. The company was called Long Distance Discount Services, Inc. (LDDS), with headquarters in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. Ebbers was not much of a technology whiz either. At his trial in 2005, Ebbers told the courtroom: "I don't know technology and engineering. I don't know accounting.”
Ebbers spent money faster than he could raise it (a trait of soon-to-be-busted municipalities). An abbreviated list of the WorldCom family is a short tour through the 1990s. It bought Advanced Communications Corp. (1992), Metromedia Communication Corporation (1993), IDB Communications Group, Inc (1994), Williams Technology Group, Inc. (1995), MFS Communications Company (1996), UUNet Technologies, Inc., (1996), CompuServe (1997), and then the largest combination in U.S. corporate history ($37 billion) when it merged with MCI in 1997. It became the United States’ second biggest long distance telephone company (after AT&T).
WorldCom filed for bankruptcy in 2002. It is probably of little solace to investors that Ebbers is serving a 25-year jail term. Arthur Anderson, its accounting firm, a pillar of American corporate respectability, dismissed its 28,000 employees in 2002 as revelations of accounting fraud at WorldCom, Global Crossing, and Enron ruined the century-old company’s credibility.
The high tide of municipal finance is retreating. Occasional whiffs of the mud flats are drifting ashore. The Securities and Exchange Corporation (SEC) is probing the City of Miami’s “major bond offerings between 2006 and 2009 and questionable financial transfers to balance the budget.”
Continuing with the Miami Herald’s summary, the hometown newspaper reminded readers of its own investigation in July 2009 that unearthed “the root causes of an emerging financial meltdown [that] focused on a series of questionable money transfers from capital-project accounts to the general fund.”
Many bond investors rely upon rating agency evaluations. Given the agencies’ recent follies, there is already a degree of risk linked to this approach. (Many fund managers who bought WorldCom stock relied on the rating agencies and on Wall Street “buy” recommendations.) The Miami Herald ratchets up the risk profile: “[T]he SEC is exploring whether the city misrepresented its true financial condition when [the agencies examined the city’s books before the city] went to market to float bonds for major projects.”
The regrettable behavior has its precedents. In 1996, Miami suffered a fiscal crisis when the city “tried to hide a $68 million shortfall by shifting money between hundreds of capital accounts.” In January 2010, “Miami leaders are already projecting a $45 million budget shortfall this year that could force the city to deplete its reserves and sell key assets to stay afloat.” (Miami Herald, January 31, 2010)
This shell game seems to be in the municipal handbook. In When America Aged, Roger Lowenstein described the City of San Diego’s accounting manipulations in the mid-1990s. They were orchestrated by city manager Jack McCrery: “He moved expenses around, shifted personnel, offset one account against another. A favorite McCrery tactic was to charge the water or sewer departments for laying pipes under city streets, which effectively transferred costs from the general fund to water and sewer (which had the power to assess fees). [City of San Diego] council members complained they didn’t understand his machinations, that he never explained the budget… but the truth was they were happier not knowing what McCrery was up to.”
This happy ignorance is by no means a preserve of municipal fiduciaries. The Ebbers’ defense (“I don't know accounting”) will be a common excuse when state and city finances unravel. Recently, the star-studded and highly compensated Citigroup board was not familiar with SIVs or CDOs when it mattered, and sat by as Citi’s stock fell over 95% between 2007 and 2009.
If all goes well, municipal bond holders receive 4% non-taxable interest payments. It might be worth foregoing this coupon income until the tide starts to rise again. Zero percent (in Bernanke-starved money market funds) is better than a 20% loss.