Wisconsin sold $154.6 million of general obligation bonds last month at interest rates usually available only to borrowers with the highest credit ratings. Wall Street firms didn't require the state to insure the bonds, even though Wisconsin is graded four levels below AAA, amid signs that bond guarantors may lose their own top rankings.
``Either the Street or investors didn't see the underlying value of the insurance,'' Frank Hoadley, Wisconsin's director of capital finance, said in an interview.
Wisconsin, California, New York City and about 300 other municipal issuers sold bonds without buying insurance in recent weeks, avoiding premiums that are as high as half a percentage point of the bond issue, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. The amount of insured bonds sold fell about 15 percent in November from a year earlier, according to Thomson Financial figures cited in the Bond Buyer, an industry trade publication.
Municipal issuers paid an annual average of $1.99 billion in premiums over the past five years to gain the AAA ratings granted by insurers on $1.86 trillion of interest and principal payments, Standard & Poor's says.
States and local governments with investment-grade ratings default on less than 1 percent of their debt because they can raise taxes and fees, according to a March report by Moody's Investors Service. They may be better credit risks than their ratings indicate.
Dual Rating Scale
``Taxpayers give insurers $2 billion a year because of a dual-rating scale,'' said Matt Fabian, senior analyst and managing director of Municipal Market Advisors, an independent municipal bond research firm in Concord, Massachusetts. ``You could easily save taxpayers that $2 billion by rating them on the same scale as corporate bonds.''
States and cities will reduce the amount of debt they insure to as little as 35 percent of total borrowings in the first half of 2008, according to a Dec. 13 report by New York- based Bear Stearns Cos. That's down from more than 50 percent over the past five years, based on Thomson data.
``Most people are looking at the underlying ratings,'' Steven Shachat, who invests $1.2 billion for Alpine Woods Capital Investors in Purchase, New York. Issuers ``are absolutely re-evaluating the importance of insurance,'' he said.
The cost of protecting debt issued by bond insurers MBIA, FGIC Corp. and XL Capital Assurance Inc. against nonpayment using credit-default swaps rose more than fourfold over the past four months because of their guarantees of debt tied to subprime mortgages, according to CMA Datavision in London.
Moody's lowered MBIA's outlook to negative Dec. 15 and said it may cut ratings on the other two. S&P followed by cutting the outlook for MBIA and Ambac to negative on Dec. 19. Fitch Ratings yesterday put MBIA under review for a possible downgrade.
Credit-default swaps, contracts conceived to protect bondholders against default, pay the buyer face value in exchange for the underlying securities or the cash equivalent should a company fail to adhere to its debt agreements. An increase indicates a decline in the perception of credit quality.
S&P's actions were ``prompted by worsening expectations'' for insured nonprime residential mortgage bonds and collateralized debt obligations of asset-backed securities, the New York-based firm said in a statement.
MBIA and Ambac accounted for 43 percent of the insurance premiums collected in the municipal bond market in 2006, data compiled by Bloomberg show. MBIA gets about 33 percent of its insurance premiums from the securities and Ambac gets 50 percent.
None of the insurers responded to requests for comments.
Many investment-grade munis would have AAA ratings without insurance if they were ranked the same way as corporate debt. Every state except Louisiana would be Aaa, based on the scale for companies, which ranks borrowers on the probability of default, according to the report by Moody's.
Municipal issuers are ranked on their fiscal health relative to other municipalities. Investors' increased willingness to buy state and local government debt without guarantees suggests that borrowers may not require the backing of insurance companies.
``We have already begun to notice investors getting more comfortable with the primary payer and a willingness to forgo insurance for AA tax-backed credits,'' Bear Stearns said in its Dec. 13 report.
Munis returned 3.26 percent this year, compared with 4.48 percent for corporate securities and 8.98 percent for government debt, Merrill Lynch & Co. index data show. That's the worst performance for tax-exempt debt since 1999, when state and local government debt lost 6.34 percent.
Concern about the insurers eliminated the pricing advantages that brought issuers lower borrowing costs for guaranteed munis.
When Wisconsin sold $154.6 million of bonds for highways, public buildings and water improvements on Nov. 15, it paid a yield of 3.87 percent for debt due in 2016. The same day, insured Wisconsin bonds sold in October with a similar maturity yielded 4 percent in the secondary market where existing issues trade.
Municipal bond insurance is different from other guaranty businesses because while property-and-casualty insurers know they will suffer losses on some of their policies, bond insurers try to write policies they can be confident won't result in any losses.
``The bond insurers are only insuring bonds they consider to be AAA,'' according to a Nov. 9 report by New York-based Merrill.
California decided against insuring $1 billion of borrowings last month because of doubts about whether bond insurance provides any value, said Tom Dresslar, spokesman for California State Treasurer Bill Lockyer.
``It didn't make sense,'' said Dressler. California, the largest borrower in the municipal market, insured 23 percent of the $12.1 billion of general obligation bonds it sold this year, including the November offering.
New York City, the largest borrower among U.S. cities, decided in November to sell $100 million of uninsured variable- rate demand obligations instead of auction-rate securities, which are usually insured. The city sold the bonds Dec. 4.
Central Puget Sound Regional Transit Authority, located in Seattle, sold half of a $450 million bond offering in November without backing from a financial guarantor. Some investors said they didn't want the insurance because of doubts raised about the insurers' ability to pay and maintain ratings, said Tracy Butler, treasurer of the transit system.
Didn't Want Them
The AA rated agency, also known as Sound Transit, insured only those maturities where the guarantee cut its borrowing costs. Sound Transit paid about 4 basis points, or 0.04 percentage point, more in interest over the life of the debt in the maturities it sold without guarantees, said Butler. After deducting the premium, its total cost was no more than it would have been with insurance, Butler said.
``Cost was one factor,'' Butler said. ``This is a market we have never seen before and there were some investors who just did not want insurance bonds.''