Thursday, January 14, 2010

California Debt Is Downgraded: Schwarzies Prepare For A Comeback!

TILB is so incredibly thankful that - as we informed our readers over and over again last spring and summer (click here for all TILB posts referencing Schwarzies) - California has not at all fixed its budget woes. It has another $20 billion deficit expected in the coming 18 months.

It seems as if California lawmakers think this problem might solve itself. That somehow, they are going to miraculously bring in another $14 billion in tax "revenue" - annually mind you - over any reasonably near term period.

Spoiler Alert: Ain't gonna happen. In fact, the more you raise taxes when you are already a high tax regime like California, in the long run, the less tax "revenue" the state can expect to receive. It will actually worsen its problem by driving out marginal growth and productive investment.

The obvious solution is not to try to raise another $14 billion per year - it's to cut $14 billion more in spending per year. Free that capital up so that your citizenry can productively deploy it rather than having a bunch of proven morons in Sacramento deploy it destructively.

As we promised back in July 2009, TILB stands ready to laugh in California's face as their legislature acts like a political set of keystone cops.

Below and linked here is a Reuters article discussing the S&P downgrade [emphasis added and comments in brackets are TILB's].

UPDATE 4-California debt rating cut as cash crunch looms
8:03pm EST* S&P sees budget solution possibly crimping economy

* $19 bln shortfall tougher to close than last year's-S&P [no shit - you can't cut the fat you already cut, so it's all new fat here]

* Cash crunches seen in March, July, but RANs to be paid (Recasts, adds debt insurance costs and comparison)

By Jim Christie and Peter Henderson

SAN FRANCISCO, Jan 13 (Reuters) - California's main debt rating was cut on Wednesday by Standard & Poor's, which said the government of the most populous U.S. state could nearly run out of cash in March -- and another rating cut might follow.

The state government's budget gap of nearly $20 billion over the next year and a half leaves it in a precarious situation, requiring tax increases or spending cuts, either of which may slow economic recovery, the agency said in a statement.

"If economic or revenue trends substantially falter, we could lower the state rating during the next six to 12 months," S&P said after cutting the rating on $63.9 billion of California's general obligation debt one notch to A- from A.

The new level is four notches above "junk" status, a level at which many investors refuse to buy debt.

"The big question is, is there any fear they will get downgraded out of investment grade (so) you may have to sell ... that's where I think it would get interesting or hairy," said Eaton Vance portfolio manager Evan Rourke.

Bond prices did not move much, though, since many expected the downgrade, he said.

S&P's downgrade was overdue because the state's revenues have been so weak, said Dick Larkin, director of credit analysis at Herbert J. Sims Co Inc in Iselin, New Jersey. "Frankly I can't understood why it took S&P so long," he said. "They could have made that decision back in September." [September? Try March.]


California already had the lowest debt rating of any U.S. state before the downgrade, and 39 state governments are struggling with shortfalls this fiscal year, according to the nonpartisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

Many are begging for more federal funds and caught between cutting social programs, raising taxes, or both.

The housing market implosion was felt especially strongly in California, a subprime mortgage lending center. Its double-digit unemployment rate, one of the highest in the United States, is expected to endure for a year or more.

California's government resorted to issuing IOUs last year for the second time since the Great Depression when it nearly ran out of cash. Officials are scrambling to raise $1 billion for March and the shortfall could be worse in July, S&P said. [sounds like Schwarzies are coming back; we're almost giddy with excitement!]

State Treasurer Bill Lockyer's spokesman Tom Dresslar said S&P's downgrade "highlights the critical need for the legislature and the governor to produce a swift budget resolution that is credible to the market."

"Standard & Poor's makes it clear the failure to act in a timely manner and with credibility threatens to further lower our GO rating," Dresslar said, adding that a further cut would hit taxpayers already paying higher interest rates than people in some emerging economies.

The cost to insure California's debt with credit default swaps is now higher than debt of developing countries, such as Kazakhstan, Lebanon and Uruguay. It costs $277,000 per year for five years to insure $10 million in California debt, compared with $172,000 for Kazakh debt. [phenomenal]

George Strickland, a municipal bond mutual fund manager at Thornburg Investment Management said S&P still has California GOs rated too high. Moody's Investors Service has a Baa1 rating on the debt and Fitch Ratings rates the bonds BBB.

"There's another notch to go before they hit bottom," Strickland said, adding that he expects another long and ugly battle to fill the state budget's shortfall.

Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger less than a week ago unveiled a plan to balance the state's books, largely with spending cuts that he described as draconian and which leaders of the Democrat-controlled legislature sharply criticized. [I can't wait to see the Donkey-proposed alternative - Lord willing it involves more unconstitutional minting of Schwarzies by Sacramento]

S&P said "timely progress" on a budget fix would be impeded by previous reliance on one-time measures, fewer choices for one-time cuts, extraordinary reliance on federal aid in Schwarzenegger's plan, and California's unusual requirement for a supermajority of lawmakers to pass a budget.

The Republican governor's budget plan also said that while the state government faces cash challenges in March, it will have sufficient cash to repay $8.8 billion in revenue anticipation debt in May and June as scheduled. [whether true or not, what else can they say? Any other statement would be a hand delivered invitation for the ratings agencies to slash the G.O. rating further]

State Finance Director Ana Matosantos along with Lockyer and State Controller John Chiang said on Monday they are working together so the state government honors its RAN debt.

Bond payments are by law a top state priority and state Finance Department spokesman H.D. Palmer said they will be honored: "Even though we've got to make some decisions in managing March we absolutely have ample cash on hand to make our RAN payments in May and June on time and in full."

Larkin said the three major rating agencies will hold off on more downgrades to California's credit rating to avoid roiling the municipal debt market, even in the event budget talks between Schwarzenegger and lawmakers drag on.

"They'll give the state an awful lot of rope," Larkin said. "For a state to go below investment grade would cast a pall on every state and local issuer out there." [at least market participants publicly acknowledge that the ratings agencies are pussies]
(Reporting by Jim Christie, Peter Henderson, Karen Brettell and Joan Gralla; Editing by Andrew Hay, Gary Hill)