Furthermore, the correlation coefficient of the municipal to Treasury bond relationship has slipped from it’s long-time average around 50% to below 0% recently, indicating that municipal bonds are now more likely to move in the opposite direction of Treasury bonds, where before the two markets commonly moved in the same direction.
Overall, volatility is higher than we have seen in many years. What explains the transformation of this normally quiet market into a sea of volatility? Well, it’s a fairly long story, but I’ll try to condense it as best I can.
First, most of the bond insurers got themselves heavily involved in the business of insuring mortgage-backed securities and collateralized debt obligations (CDO’s) made up largely of mortgage-backed securities. They thought they understood the risks that they were taking, but apparently did not. They are now facing billions in claims that will be paid out over many years to come. No one knows the exact magnitude of the claims, but estimates range from about $10 billion to over $30 billion. For the most part, the insurers appear to have sufficient resources to continue supporting the bonds they insure, but it is possible that, in some cases, they do not. In any case, it seems that some, if not all, of them are not worthy of AAA ratings. Luckily, the municipal bond market can still function without the assistance of the troubled bond insurers.
According to recent reports by Moody’s and S&P, 10-year cumulative default rates on investment grade municipal bonds have averaged less than 0.1%. So, in the vast majority of cases, the bond insurance is not necessary.
However, tax-exempt money market funds have grown highly dependent on bond insurance. These funds are restricted by Rule 2(a)7 of the Investment Company Act of 1940 to buying only short-term securities rated AA- or higher. Many issuers of the floating rate municipal bonds favored by money market funds relied upon the bond insurers to secure the ratings they needed. With the bond insurers getting downgraded or being placed on review for downgrade, money market funds started putting their variable rate bonds back to the dealers that marketed the bonds. When the dealers’ balance sheets got too heavy with floating rate bonds, including auction rate bonds, they stopped supporting the market. This led to many auction failures and otherwise high interest rates on nearly all floating rate municipal bonds. When an auction fails, the interest rate on the bond reverts to a maximum rate defined in the bond documents. Since money market funds wouldn’t buy auction rate bonds, other buyers had to be found, but in the meantime, many high quality issuers got stuck paying interest rates as high as 12% or 15% on their auction rate debt. This market has started to calm down of late, but many auctions are still failing and many issuers are starting to refund their auction rate bonds with fixed rate debt, adding to the supply of long-term bonds.
The Tender Trap