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California debt binge shakes up muni bond market

November 10, 2009 |  8:48 pm

The municipal bond market’s message to California: Enough with the borrowing already!

Over the last seven weeks the state has sold more than $21 billion of short- and long-term debt for budget-related reasons and to finance voter-approved infrastructure projects.

That flood -- in a period when muni bond yields nationwide already were rebounding after diving in summer -- has helped to boost yields more than they might otherwise have risen, some analysts assert.

"Yields are higher because California has so much paper in the market," said Matt Fabian, who tracks muni bond trends at Municipal Market Advisors in Westport, Conn.

Bearflag The state has been its own worst enemy: Its borrowing costs have risen with each bond deal, which means taxpayers will bear a bigger hit to service the debt over time.

Rising market yields also have the effect of devaluing older fixed-rate muni bonds. If you own a California muni-bond mutual fund, chances are its share price has been sliding since the end of September as the  market has suffered indigestion from the supply of new bonds.

In California’s latest offering -- a sale Tuesday of nearly $1.9 billion of bonds maturing in June 2013 -- the state had to pony up for a 4% annualized tax-free yield to lure investors to the deal.

Less than two weeks ago the state paid a yield of 2.48% on a bond with a similar maturity.

Investors’ ability to squeeze 4% out of the state in this week’s deal "is an expression of saturation of the market" by California, said George Strickland, a muni bond fund manager at Thornburg Investment Management in Santa Fe, N.M.

Demand for the bonds sold Tuesday also may have suffered because the deal stemmed from one of the gimmicks concocted by the Legislature and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in July to close the state’s huge budget deficit: The proceeds will repay local governments for the $2 billion in property tax revenue that the state is borrowing from them to plug the budget gap.

The bonds become part of the state’s overall debt burden, but they’re a step below so-called general obligation issues, which have an iron-clad repayment guarantee in the state Constitution.

Treasurer Bill Lockyer obviously knows that he has dumped a lot of debt on the market this autumn. He didn’t have much choice, given the budget fixes ordered by the Legislature, and given the backlog of infrastructure bonds California has to sell.

The state’s borrowing plans had been put on hold for much of this year because of the deepening budget crisis. "We had a lot of work to do to get our financing program back on track" this fall, said Tom Dresslar, Lockyer’s spokesman.

Of course, for investors with money to put to work, rising muni yields are welcome.

Ken Naehu, who manages bond investments at Bel Air Investment Advisors in L.A., believes the state’s budget woes are far from over, which Schwarzenegger acknowledged Tuesday. Still, a 4% tax-free yield on a bond maturing in less than four years was too good an opportunity to pass up, he said.

"We gave them a large order," Naehu said.

-- Tom Petruno

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