by Gayl Mileszko
“Hope”, wrote the poet Emily Dickinson, “is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul and sings the tunes without the words.” Along with love and faith, hope has been one of the mainstays for millions upon millions of us throughout the 425 days and counting of this Pandemic, often resting in the form of doctors and nurses, paramedics, caretakers, scientists, manufacturers, deliverymen, employers or employees. Hope — with its superhuman strength — still prevails for most of us amid all the new questions surrounding the origin of the coronavirus, the effectiveness and durability of the vaccines and treatments, and the emergence of variants. Just this past week, new hopes have arrived to hover over deadly clashes in Jerusalem and Gaza, the DarkSide pipeline cyberattack, rising food and gas prices, shortages of staffing and supplies, those in search of affordable housing, honest work, and in-classroom learning. Today, this year, as always, there is no shortage of need for hope.
On Wall Street, the hope for more than 12 years has been that nothing changes, that the stock, bond, and commodity rallies go on ad infinitum. With their unprecedented interventions, the Federal Reserve and other central banks have eliminated most every semblance of a free market, virtually guaranteeing price appreciation, access to cash that is nearly free, and excessive risk-taking. In the U.S., the Fed has been buying more than $120 billion worth of bonds each month since last June and the assets on its balance sheet now exceed $7.8 trillion, a sum that represents over 34% of our gross domestic product. Included in the total is $2.18 trillion of mortgage-backed securities at a time when the housing market is setting new records for prices, competition and speed of sales. The substantial increase in housing and other prices we are experiencing is seen by many as a precursor to more widespread and escalating inflation, a plight that no poet extols.
Investors are typically spooked by the mere talk of inflation. Now, home buyers, gas pumpers, food shoppers, and car renters, among others, know that it is omnipresent, the question being how accurately it is being measured and whether its rise is transitory or non-transitory. At this writing, higher prices along with shortages in everything from microchips to rubber, chicken and diapers, lumber and gasoline have caused both stock and bond markets to sell off ahead of producer and consumer price index data releases on Wednesday. Short and intermediate U.S. Treasury yields are flat on the month at 0.15% for the 2-year and 1.60% for the 10-year. Long 30-year yields are 5 basis points higher at 2.32%, pressured somewhat by the unusually heavy auction schedule. Corporate bond yields, as measured by the 10-year Baa benchmark are up 5 basis points to 3.37%. Municipal bonds have generally strengthened so far in May with the 2-year AAA general obligation bond yield at 0.11%, the 10-year at 0.97% and the 30-year at 1.55%. On the equity side, the VIX Fear Index has risen 18% this month to 22.02 but the Dow is up 418 points to 34,293 and the S&P 500 has dipped 1% to 4,144. The Nasdaq is down 4% to 13,420. And the Russell 200 is down 2.6% to 2,206. Oil prices are up 2.6% this month to $65.21. As is typical when markets sense inflation, gold prices have risen by nearly 4% to $1,834 and silver prices are up 6% to $27.55. Bitcoin, which has again experienced sessions of extreme volatility in May, is basically flat on the month at $56,694.
In the municipal market, the widespread hope is for more tax-exempt supply. The volume coming in the primary market is light, as are dealer inventories. Buys significantly outnumber sells in the secondary market, and institutions dominate daily trading. Investors bracing for higher taxes have poured $43.1 billion into municipal bond mutual funds and exchange traded funds this year. On top of all this, a surge of bond redemptions begins in June and lasts all summer: principal from maturing and called bonds plus interest will amount to $158 billion, and issuance may not even cover half the amount required for reinvestment. Bond buyers, traders, bankers and advisers along with state and local officials, industry associations, and non-profit organizations have all come together in support of congressional action to restore the tax-exempt status of advance refundings as one solution.
The ability of state and local borrowers to refinance many bonds on a tax-exempt basis was eliminated with the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. The Joint Committee on Taxation estimated that this would save the federal government $16.8 billion over ten years. But it does not appear that legislators considered all of the ramifications of this major change affecting their state and local counterparts and joint constituents: the inability of cash-starved cities and nonprofits to achieve debt service savings or finance other critical public works projects in an historically low rate environment, the higher interest costs that would have to be paid by state and local taxpayers, the dramatic drop in tax-exempt supply available to meet investor demand, a demand that increased in response to Act’s state and local tax deduction limits. Advance refundings were said to represent 27% of the municipal market in 2016. In 2018, investment bankers had to respond to borrower refinancing needs with structures including shorter call features, corporate bonds, federally taxable municipal bonds and “Cinderella” bonds issued as taxable but transformed into tax-exempt securities at the redemption date. On last week’s primary calendar, 42% of the par amount was issued as refunding bonds.
There have been bipartisan efforts to restore tax-exempt advance refundings since 2018. Most recently, a provision was included in the infrastructure bill that passed the House on July 1, 2020. Several measures are pending now in the 117th Congress. These include H.R. 2288 and S. 479. Both require action by the House Ways and Means Committee, chaired by Richard Neal (D-MA) who supports the effort to restore tax-exempt advance refundings, and the Senate Finance Committee, chaired by Ron Wyden (D-OR), who has in the past advocated for tax credit bonds in lieu of tax-exempts. To guide the process, all await the Biden Administration’s full 2022 proposed budget with its Treasury Department Green Book detailing the tax proposals.
We at HJ Sims continue to encourage our clients and colleagues to contact their Members of Congress to urge support for this important effort. While it is unlikely that either of the pending bills will pass on a standalone basis, we see a good possibility that authorizing language could be included in an infrastructure bill, separate tax reform measure, debt limit extension, or omnibus spending bill, with or without a sunset provision. We are following developments closely and will keep readers informed.
While still too low to meet demand, so far this year, the municipal issuance level is perched 17% higher than 2020. In large part this is due to the significant drop in market entry during the turmoil ensuing after the pandemic declaration. Tax-exempt issuance in 2021 as of last Friday totals $108 billion vs $93 billion in 2020. Taxable issuance at $47 billion is nearly $6 billion or 13% higher. Among the smattering of high yield offerings last week, Lincoln County, South Dakota sold $82.4 million of BBB-minus rated revenue bonds for Augustana University in Sioux Falls structured with 40-year term bonds priced at 4.00% to yield 3.29%. The Arlington Higher Education Finance Corporation issued $28.2 million of BB rated bonds for Wayside Schools in Austin that featured 2046 term bonds priced with a 4% coupon to yield 3.31%. This week’s calendar will likely come in under $7 billion and includes an $89 million non-rated refunding for Glenridge on Palmer Ranch in Sarasota, and financings for two Minnesota charter schools: $30 million for non-rated North Lakes Academy in Forest Lake and a $22 million for BB-minus rated Woodbury Leadership Academy.
Feathers were flying in the wake of Friday’s surprisingly low jobs report. Only 266,000 jobs were added in April, well below the estimates for 1 million. Some view the numbers as an anomaly, perhaps to be revised upward in the next release. Otherwise the economic tune is an upbeat one. First quarter GDP increased at a 6.4% rate. Job openings have just risen to a record high 8.12 million, and the number of vacancies exceeds hires by more than 2 million, the largest gap on record, in part due to COVID-19 fears, child care responsibilities, and what some consider to be overly generous unemployment benefits that may continue through September.
There has never been times like these, but there are always investment needs and goals. HJ Sims representatives welcome your contact to discuss your borrowing and investing plans. We invite you to share your portfolios, strategies, fears, doubts and hopes. Right now, the major credit reporting agencies have upwardly revised their outlooks for most sectors. Business travel is picking up, new clothes are being fitted as major firms begin bringing employees back to work in corporate offices, airlines are all filling their middle seats. Conventions, expos and state fairs are finally all going live in the coming months, and live bands singing our favorite tunes are on tour. America is on the mend and hope abounds as feathers fly.