The latest sign of trouble in America's stressed credit system can be found not in some arcane Wall Street hedge fund, but deep in Alabama. There the mundane civic chore of providing water and sewer service drove one county to the edge of bankruptcy and sent federal regulators into a tizzy.
On Tuesday, creditors, led by JP Morgan and urged on by the feds, hammered out an agreement with Jefferson County, Alabama officials to avoid default on some $3.2 billion in public sewer bond obligations. For now, the county has another 30 days to come up with a $53 million payment. As financial mishaps go, it's perhaps not the sexiest storyline. But that is precisely what should scare anyone who has followed the way local governments have thrown debt around this decade.
Much like home buyers seduced by the largest possible mortgage, local officials were wooed by bankers and bond underwriters to float the largest possible debt they could afford. Given historically low interest rates, on one level it was good advice. But it is also true that—exactly as in the mortgage making market—the bigger the debt, the bigger the commission for the banks and bond traders.
However, unlike a home purchase with a borrower and lender, the ratepayers and taxpayers who ultimately have to stand behind and payoff any deals gone bad are left out of the loop. The finances are often complex and local media outlets seldom have reason to delve into the specifics. And local officials are typically most concerned with how much they can build with the money and what constituents they can "service" with the new debt.
This is particularly true when water and sewer service, or an airport, or some other revenue-generating unit of government is set up as a separate enterprise fund. Too often this confuses lines of responsibility and obscures total public obligations to pay for things. Of course, bond sellers like the enterprise fund and dedicated revenue streams concept. They provide slightly lower interest rates in exchange for the perceived "sure thing" of dedicated revenue. And then localities often turn around and take the lower rate in order to increase the total amount they borrow. Just like house-hungry consumers who bit on low, low introductory rates.
However, this local aspect of chasing big money was glossed over in many accounts of the Jefferson County trouble, with focus instead on the change in the debt rating brought on by the failure of bond insurers. This had the effect of jumping the interest payment on the debt to $250 million a year, swamping the $138 million in revenue the system collects. But bad luck, bad timing, or even incompetence on interest rates swaps it not the only way local utilities can come up short.
A couple weeks ago my stomping ground of Charlotte, NC was confronted with a $30 million projected shortfall in water and sewer revenue. Debt payments would have to be restructured as a result—or more precisely, the local utility would be in violation of covenants made to bond holders. Such covenants or promises to maintain a certain capital position or cash flow are another way local governments have priced their debt loads for perfection in recent years.
In exchange for the promises, the utility or fund receives a lower interest rate. And what do they do with the lower interest rate? Borrow more. And who gets bigger commissions?
In Charlotte's case, the shortfall was resolved—one that was induced by mandatory water usage limits enforced by the city under threat of fine, a wonderfully top-down response to drought—by hiking water rates by 16 percent. Looking across the country, rates are also going up from Oregon to Vermont, often in response to a need to finance additional the construction of capacity.
The great unknown is the extent to which these new debt issues—together with recurring obligations—are not ready for a new credit marketplace in which risk is rapidly being reprised. The only sure thing is that those who sit at the table and make the deals will not be asked to make up any shortfall.
Jeff Taylor writes from North Carolina.