An Exclusive Investment Opportunity: Benedictine Health System

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**This financing has been successfully closed. Please contact you advisor for any potential secondary market opportunities.**

$79,065,000*
DULUTH ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT AUTHORITY
(St. Louis County, Minnesota)

Revenue Bonds
BENEDICTINE HEALTH SYSTEM
SERIES 2021A

HJ Sims is pleased to serve as sole underwriter for tax-exempt Series 2021A revenue bonds on behalf of Benedictine Health System, a Minnesota nonprofit corporation, a Catholic healthcare system that provides long-term care services, congregate housing, assisted living, rehabilitation services and other health-care and social services. Benedictine is the 10th largest not-for-profit senior living provider in the country. Benedictine Health System is the parent corporation of the Obligated Group, among other entities.

The Benedictine Obligated Group consists of 21 senior living communities in Minnesota and North Dakota that in aggregate comprise of 1,242 nursing beds, 811 assisted living units, and 153 independent living units.

The vision of Benedictine is to enhance its communities (Benedictine Living Communities) where health, wellness and choice come to life. The core values of Benedictine are hospitality, stewardship, respect, and justice.

About the Bonds

  • Series 2021A
    • $79,065,000*
    • Non-rated, tax-exempt
    • Bonds are exempt from Federal Income Tax and exempt from State of Minnesota Income Tax
    • Denominations of $5,000
    • Interest will be payable on January 1 and July 1 of each year, commencing January 1, 2022
    • First principal payment: July 1, 2022

Project

  • Fund $10,000,000 of capital improvements at select communities
  • Refund the outstanding tax-exempt bank debt on the Minnesota communities
  • Fund Debt Service Reserve Fund

Security

  • Secured by gross revenues and mortgage.
  • Debt Service Reserve Fund.

 Key Financial Covenants

  • 1.20x Debt Service Coverage Ratio; tested annually.
  • 60 Days Cash on Hand; tested semi-annually.

We are currently accepting indications of interest for these tax-exempt bonds with an expected pricing the week of June 28, 2021, and anticipated settlement during the week of July 12, 2021. For more information including risks, please read the Preliminary Official Statement in its entirety. If you have interest in purchasing these bonds, please contact your HJ Sims financial professional as soon as possible.

*Subject to change

No dealer, broker, salesperson, or other person has been authorized to give any information or to make any representation other than those contained in the Preliminary Official Statement and, if given or made, such other information or representation should not be relied upon as having been authorized by the Issuer, the Borrower, or the Underwriters. The information set forth herein has been obtained from the Issuer, Borrower, and other sources that are believed to be reliable, but is not guaranteed as to accuracy or completeness by, and is not construed as a representation of, the Underwriters. The information contained herein is subject to change without notice. Under no circumstances shall this constitute an offer to sell or solicitation of an offer to buy, nor shall there be any sale of these securities in any jurisdiction in which such offer, solicitation or sale would be unlawful prior to registration or qualification under the securities laws of any such jurisdiction. Any offering or solicitation will be made only to investors pursuant to the Preliminary Official Statement, which should be read in its entirety. Investments involve risk including the possible loss of principal. HJ Sims is a member of FINRA and SIPC, and is not affiliated with Benedictine Health System, Benedictine Obligated Group or any of its related entities or any other organization referred to herein.

Market Commentary: Fed Hushpuppies

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by Gayl Mileszko

Southern farmers sitting down to supper learned long ago to quiet their howling hound dogs by tossing them small snacks, many of which were made of deep-fried cornmeal and wheat flour mixed with buttermilk, eggs, and salt. The treats known as hushpuppies have since become a tasty side dish for two-legged gluttons as well. They are typically served with other fried or barbecued foods and have savory fillings that include corn, cheese green onions, jalapeno peppers, and garlic. But no holds are barred at the Southern Hushpuppy Championships held every September in Lufkin, Texas, where fryers have their best batterballs on display and compete for bragging rights in crowds of up to 30,000. 

Central banks have been serving up their own monetary versions of hushpuppies to billions around the world ever since September 2007 and they now have $29.3 trillion of fresh, fried, and refried items on their balance sheets. To limit the economic damage from the Great Recession and then the pandemic, they have employed the standard mix of rate cuts and forward guidance as well as nontraditional recipes including negative interest rates, credit easing, relaxing regulatory requirements, creating international swap lines, backstopping money market funds, expanding repurchase agreement operations, making large scale asset purchases, and lending to banks, securities firms, major corporate employers, small- and mid-sized businesses, nonprofits, and state and local governments. A few of these unprecedented gadgets have been put back in the kitchen drawer, but the White House, Congress, Wall Street and Main Street know they are there and can be utilized again to safeguard against future market collapses or Capitol Hill paralyses. In the meantime, most of the programs are still in use by our Federal Reserve, the system created by Congress in 1913 to help stabilize the economy through price stability and maximum employment. A third unspoken mission appears to be holding down the government’s interest costs. The Wall Street Journal on Tuesday suggested that risks to the Fed’s credibility and independence are growing.

There may be shortages of labor, semiconductor chips, ammunition, chlorine, rental cars and blood supplies, but there is no shortage of economic data. In general, indicators of economic activity and employment have strengthened and sectors hit hardest by the pandemic are improving, but there are enough numbers coming in below expectations to keep markets clinging to the skirts and shirttails of the Fed. At the last meeting of the Federal Open Market Committee in late April, officials noted that the ongoing public health crisis continues to weigh on the economy and risks to the economic outlook remain. The Fed insists that inflation has been running persistently below the two percent goal, using a definition from a recipe book clearly written in a language no one else on Earth speaks. They have been hushing big players and small fry with assurances that the elevated price increases we are seeing are transitory, almost a natural result of all our pent-up demand and the supply chain lags. Not everyone sees it the same way, so some have inflation hedges in play.  Gold and silver are typical “inflation trades” and we note that since March gold prices are up more than $175 an ounce and silver up 14% to $27. Bitcoin prices are up 38% since the start of the year, oil prices are up 51%, and copper has increased by 22%.

As usual, this week’s FOMC meeting has secondary stock and bond markets in simmer mode awaiting new commentary on just how long CPI and PPI increases are expected to traumatize us. Very few traders were expecting any rate or taper action; most just wanted to have more hushpuppies in the form of assurance that no policy changes are coming in the near future, that asset purchases and low rates continue, and that the crazy prices on so many consumer staples will soon pass. The growling is bound to begin when the Fed signals the tapering of mortgage-backed securities purchases – possibly in August or September – and the howling will start with an advance notice of Treasury tapering or any dots plotting higher rates in 2022 or early 2023. How much of a battering might we expect? Well, when Chair Bernanke surprised markets with his testimony in May of 2013 that the Fed may reduce its bond-buying program, the 10-year Treasury yield rose 54% or 106 basis points from 1.96% to 3.02% and the 10-year AAA muni benchmark yield increased 51% or 94 basis points from 1.83% to 2.77% by the end of the year. The lesson on forward guidance was learned the hard way, so no such surprise is expected this time unless it involves something like a stepped-up digital dollar program. But correctional selloffs in stocks and bonds should be expected in advance of or alongside any major steps toward normalization. After all, thousands of traders and millions of investors have never known anything but abnormal, Fed-protected conditions. After 14 years, it is hard to imagine anything remotely resembling a free market.

Aside from the Fed meeting, markets are following the presidential overseas travel involving  G-7, NATO, and Vladimir Putin meetings. The focus is away from Washington, D.C. where not much is happening anyway. Vote counts reveal the unlikelihood of consensus on infrastructure, domestic or global tax reform, or pretty much anything major at this point. This does not bode well for state and local governments and nonprofit borrowers who have been hoping for the restoration of tax-exempt advance refundings and federally subsidized Build America Bonds via an omnibus budget reconciliation measure.  But the municipal bond market is humming along quite nicely. So far this month, the 2-year AAA muni general obligation bond yield has fallen another 2 basis points to 0.08%, the 10-year is down 10 basis points to 0.89% and the 30-year has decreased by 12 basis points to 1.39%. This is right in line with Treasury yields: the 10-year and 30-year yields have fallen 10 basis points to 1.49% and 2.18%, respectively.

Secondary markets may be uncertain in these first few days of the trading week, but primary markets are still on fire. Last week, HJ Sims sold $10.6 million of nonrated taxable water system revenue bonds through the Louisiana Local Government Environmental Facilities and Community Development Authority for People’s of Bastrop, LLC; the sole 2051 maturity priced at 5.625% to yield 5.802%. Among other high yield transactions, the Kentucky Economic Development Authority sold $4.3 million of non-rated bonds for Christian Care Communities structured with 2055 term bonds that priced with 5.125% coupons to yield 5.50%, and the Build New York City Resource Corporation issued $52.1 million of nonrated bonds for New World Preparatory Charter school bonds that had a 2056 maturity priced at 4% to yield 3.30%.

Although the size of this week’s $13 billion municipal calendar is met with welcome relief, the supply of bonds still remains well below levels of demand. The negative net supply was estimated at $29 billion last Friday and it is expected to grow to $40 billion by the end of August. Coupon income, as well as called and maturing bond principal far outpaces the need for tax-exempt investment product from mutual funds and ETF’s taking in record levels of new money as well as from individuals looking to reinvest all their cash to produce income. High yield munis are in greatest demand and have generated 5.04% returns so far this year; taxable munis maturing in 15 or more years are up 1.75% this month alone.

The amount of high yield municipal bonds outstanding is estimated at 13% of total muni debt, a significant increase from February of 2020, when it was below 10%. This week, borrowers look to add even more to the total. The slate includes a $132 million non-rated Yamhill County Hospital Authority refunding for the Friendsview Retirement Community in Newberg, Oregon. American Samoa has a $41 million Ba3 issue. And there are 7 charter school deals in the market including the $118.7 million non-rated Wonderful Foundations deal issued through the Wisconsin Public Finance Authority (PFA) and issuers in California and Florida; a $21.7 million non-rated financing for Santa Clarita Valley International School,  an $8 mil BB+ rated financing for The Rocklin Academy in California, a $16.5 million nonrated PFA issue for Bonnie Cone Classical Academy in Huntersville, North Carolina, a $30 million Ba1 rated transaction for Galileo Schools for Gifted Learning in Sanford, Florida, and an $11 million nonrated deal for Imagine School at North Manatee in Palmetto, Florida.

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An Exclusive Investment Opportunity: Presbyterian Senior Living

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Presbyterian Senior Living Logo

**This financing has been successfully closed. Please contact you advisor for any potential secondary market opportunities.**

$60,370,000*
PENNSYLVANIA ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT FINANCING AUTHORITY

$60,370,000* Series 2021 Long-Term Fixed Rate Bonds
(Pennsylvania Economic Development Financing Authority Revenue Bonds / Presbyterian Senior Living Project)

HJ Sims is pleased to serve as sole underwriter for Presbyterian Homes Obligated Group (the “Obligated Group”) consisting of: Presbyterian Homes, Inc.; Cathedral Village; Presbyterian Homes in the Presbytery of Huntingdon; The Long Community, Inc.; Quincy Retirement Community; and PHI Investment Management Services, Inc. (collectively, the “Obligated Affiliates”). The Obligated Affiliates own, operate, and manage 12 continuing care retirement communities, three stand-alone independent living facilities, and two stand-alone personal care homes – all located throughout Pennsylvania, Ohio and Delaware. 

The Series 2021 bonds will (1) refund certain outstanding bank debt; (2) provide approximately $38MM in proceeds to fund certain capital improvements to the Communities; and (3) pay for costs of issuance.

The not-for-profit organizations that make up the obligated group are all Pennsylvania-based not-for-profit senior living communities, each of which are 501(c)(3) organizations. 

Virtual Site Visits/Tours

Learn more about each of the Presbyterian Senior Living communities and locations throughout Pennsylvania, Maryland, Ohio, and Delaware.

About the Bonds

  • Series 2021
    • $60,370,000*
    • Fitch Rated “BBB+” Stable Outlook, tax-exempt
    • Bonds are exempt from Federal Income Tax and exempt from Commonwealth of Pennsylvania Income Tax
    • Denominations of $5,000
    • Interest will be payable on January 1 and July 1 of each year, commencing January 1, 2022
    • First principal payment: July 1, 2022
    • Final maturity: July 1, 2046

Project Highlights:

  • The Obligated Affiliates are managed by PHI, a Pennsylvania non-profit organization, which is also the parent corporation of the Obligated Affiliates, among other entities. PHI is NOT a member of the Obligated Group
  • The communities included in the Obligated Group have a total of approximately 1,558 independent living units, 506 personal care or assisted living units and 1,031 skilled nursing units among them.
  • Secured by gross revenues and mortgage.

 Security

  • Revenue pledge
  • Real estate pledge

 Key Financial Covenants

  • Debt service coverage ratio of 1.25x (tested quarterly)
  • Reserve Ratio of 0.25 required (cash: debt), tested semi-annually.
  • Event of Default if below 1.0x for one fiscal year

We are currently accepting indications of interest for these tax-exempt bonds with an expected pricing the week of June 21, 2021, and anticipated settlement during the week of July 14, 2021. For more information including risks, please read the Preliminary Official Statement in its entirety. If you have interest in purchasing these bonds, please contact your HJ Sims financial professional as soon as possible.

*Subject to change

No dealer, broker, salesperson, or other person has been authorized to give any information or to make any representation other than those contained in the Preliminary Official Statement, and, if given or made, such other information or representation should not be relied upon as having been authorized by the Issuer, the Borrower, or the Underwriters. The information set forth herein has been obtained from the Issuer, Borrower, and other sources that are believed to be reliable, but is not guaranteed as to accuracy or completeness by, and is not construed as a representation of, the Underwriters. The information contained herein is subject to change without notice. Under no circumstances shall this constitute an offer to sell or solicitation of an offer to buy, nor shall there be any sale of these securities in any jurisdiction in which such offer, solicitation or sale would be unlawful prior to registration or qualification under the securities laws of any such jurisdiction. Investments involve risk, including the possible fluctuation of principal. Investments involve risk including the possible fluctuation of principal. Past performance is not indicative of future results. The purchase and sale of securities should be conducted on an individual basis considering the risk tolerance and investment objectives of each investor and with the advice of counsel of a professional advisor. HJ Sims is an independent financial services firm and is not affiliated with Presbyterian Senior Living, Presbyterian Homes Obligated Group or any of its related entities or any other organization referred to herein.

Middle Market Success Stories Webinar

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Middle Market Success Stories
Learn from the Leaders

Webinar Details

Session Date & Time: Tuesday, June 29, 2021 from 1:00pm-2:00pm ET

Thought Leadership and Webinar Description:

We took a critical look at the increasing pressure on senior living providers to meet the demands of the emerging middle market. Learn what the Baby Boomer generation and their families are looking for when exploring their options in the middle market housing and services. During this discussion, we reviewed the strategic significance of extending housing offerings to the middle market. While many providers are considering entering in the middle market arena, few have taken the leap due to their inability to find an operating and financial model that ‘works’ with the lower monthly rental rates. Featured speakers shared case studies of their own middle market senior housing models identifying key success factors for development, pricing and operating models.

Key Takeaways:

  1. Identify the viability of middle market products in your region.
  2. Embrace the different operating mentality needed to successfully launch and operate a moderate-priced housing product.
  3. Absorb tangible suggestions from operators who have experience profitably operating middle market products.

Additional Q&A from our Presenters

Featured Speakers

William Pettit

President, Merrill Gardens

William “Bill” Pettit is the president of the R. D. Merrill Company with responsibility for Merrill Gardens and sister company Pillar Properties. Merrill Gardens is one of the most respected assisted living operators in the country with 70 communities in 20 states. Pillar Properties is an award-winning owner and operator of multi-family housing with 1,700 units in operation and the developer for Merrill Gardens new communities.

Bill joined the R. D. Merrill Company in 1992 after 18 years in the banking industry. He was instrumental in the formation of the company, starting with one community in 1993. He directed the rapid growth and timely execution of acquisitions and developed the policies that speak to the Merrill Gardens and Pillar Properties commitment to quality.

Bill was a 2018 Seattle Business Magazine Executive Excellence Award winner and under his leadership the R. D. Merrill Company was named the Family Business of the Year for its commitment to residents, team members and community service.

Bill received a bachelor’s degree from Princeton in 1971 and a MBA from the University of Oregon in 1973. He was the first senior living executive in residence for Washington State University. He serves on the Argentum Board of Directors and he is the past Chairman of the Executive Board of the American Seniors Housing Association (ASHA).

Matthew D. Rule, Esq.

Senior Vice President of Housing Development, National Church Residences Investment Corp.

Matt Rule is Senior Vice President of Housing Development at National Church Residences. Matt leads NCR’s acquisitions, development finance, originations, and construction teams. In the past five years his team closed over 30 LIHTC transactions, purchased over 3,000 affordable senior units and closed over $100,000,000 of new market rate senior housing production. In 2015, Affordable Housing Finance (AHF) named Matt as one of six Affordable Housing Young Leaders. Prior to joining NCR, Matt was a transactional attorney at Squire Sanders, LLP (currently known as Squire Patton Boggs) where he served as legal counsel for a variety of low income housing tax credit developers, syndicators, direct investors and lenders. Matt is a graduate from The Ohio State University Michael E Moritz College of Law where he graduated with distinction as Summa Cum Laude, Order of the Coif. Matt is active at Vineyard Church in Columbus, Ohio and currently serves as the Vice President of the Ohio Housing Council and as a Board Member of the Central Ohio chapter of the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. In the past he has served as a Board Member the National Affordable Housing Trust (2018-2020), a Board Member of the Upper Arlington Rotary Club (2018-2020), a member of the Upper Arlington Citizen Financial Review Task Force (2019) and as the Chair of the Finance Subcommittee of the Upper Arlington Community Center Feasibility Task Force (2020). Matt is married and has four very energetic children.

For more information or if you have any questions regarding the content of this webinar, please contact Lynn Daly at 312.505.5688 or [email protected], Curtis King at 512.519.5003 or [email protected] or any HJ Sims banker at 1-800-HJS-1935.

Market Commentary: Foo Fighters

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by Gayl Mileszko

Sunshine and good news abound. Summer-like conditions prevail in many parts of the country as school vacations begin. The FDA has approved a new experimental drug Aduhelm that may help many of the 6 million Americans suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. The FBI’s new crack cyber task force wizards managed to recover more than half of the $4.4 million that Colonial Pipeline paid in ransom to hackers last month. The number of job openings has set a record at 9.3 million as the labor market has started to boom again. Madison Garden is reopening for the first time in 15 months for a full-capacity concert with the Foo Fighters, and Central Park is promoting a mega concert with other big-name performers for late August. The Transportation Security Administration screened 1.98 million air traveling passengers on Sunday, a 15-month high. Weekly hotel occupancy at 61.8% is finally back to where it was in late February 2020. The CDC has just okayed the first two cruise ships to set sail from U.S. ports in late July. Jeff Bezos, his brother, and one lucky guest will board a capsule attached to the reusable rocket Blue Origin on its first 11-minute suborbital tourist flight high above our Earth in July.

We celebrate this new season and rosy outlook, knowing that our globe’s battle against COVID-19 is by no means over. On Sunday, there were 220,684 new cases and 5,230 deaths logged around the world. In the U.S., we had 13,276 new cases and we lost another 225 to this scourge, as the debate rages on as to whether it was man-made via research that was funded with our own tax dollars, or “natural”. Our labor market, in any event, is still 7.6 million below pre-pandemic levels and, on top of precious losses and dark lockdown memories, the impacts will last for years. Struggles in one given sector had ripple effects on many others. There were 544,463 Chapter 7, 11 and 13 bankruptcy cases filed in 2020 according to the American Bankruptcy Institute; through May of 2021, another 182,655 were filed. 

The extraordinary fiscal stimulus, resurgence in demand, and ongoing supply disruptions have produced a pickup in inflation (4.2% in April) and what Barron’s described as “The Shortage of Everything” in its May 28 cover story. Lumber prices have increased 340% in the past year, and Americans looking to buy homes should expect to pay over $35,000 more for a newly built house. Tax talk has taken on a new dimension with the G-7 finance ministers’ agreement on a 15% minimum global corporate tax, but – as with the Administration’s domestic proposals – this is by no means a sure thing given the diversity of interests involved. With respect to employment, women have been disproportionately affected by job loss, burnout, and loss of income as they became – and in many cases still remain — full time caretakers and home schoolers. On the health care front, those with conditions who postponed elective procedures and those who did not seek preventive care are slowly returning to the health care system but with more acute care needs. Some who need 24/7 care have yet to enter skilled nursing facilities; occupancy is 13.2 percentage points below the February 2020 level of 84.8%. Many seniors continue to rely on family and friends for assistance with care and medications; occupancy in assisted living communities fell to a record low of 75.5% in the first quarter of 2021. The National Investment Center for Seniors Housing & Care (NIC), however, reported a small uptick in April.

The National Opinion Research Center (NORC) at the University of Chicago last week published a report funded by NIC on COVID-19’s impact on seniors housing. Contrary to what media headlines would lead seniors and/or their adult children decisionmakers to believe about the safety of congregate facilities, they found that 51% of all properties reported no coronavirus related deaths at all: 67% of independent living communities, 64% of assisted living properties, 61% of memory care communities, and 39% of skilled nursing facilities. In independent living settings, resident deaths were statistically comparable to the rates of death for older adults living in non-congregate settings in the same geographic area.

So far this year, there have been approximately 27 senior living bond issues in the municipal bond primary market for a total combined par value of $1.34 billion. These sales have been for start-ups, expansions and refinancings in California, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Maryland, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, South Dakota, Wisconsin, and Washington. As one of the nation’s oldest underwriters of tax-exempt senior living bonds, we are upbeat on the future of this sector and look forward to sharing our unique structuring ideas with new and valued banking clients. For our investing clients, we feature an impressive forward calendar of new money and refunding bond deals to discuss with your HJ Sims financial professional.

Since the beginning of March 2020, financial market volatility as measured by the VIX has fallen by 59%. As of this writing, the Dow is up 9,221 points or 36%, the S&P 500 is up 1,272 points or 43%, the Nasdaq has gained 5,314 points or 62% and the Russell 200 has risen by 843 points or 57%. Oil prices are up more than $24 a barrel, or 55%, to $69.23. Gold prices have gained $309 an ounce, or 19%, to $1,895. Silver prices are up 67% or $11 an ounce to $27.90. Bitcoin has skyrocketed by 318% to 35,804. In the bond market, the 2-year Treasury yield has fallen from 0.91% to 0.15%. The 10-year benchmark has, however, risen 42 basis points to 1.56%, and the 30-year long bond is up 57 basis points to 2.24%. The 10-year Baa corporate bond yield is down 6 basis points since the pandemic began.

Municipals remain in somewhat of a world of their own among bonds, performing well above their taxable counterparts given the supply/demand imbalance involving tax-exempt instruments. At this writing, Treasury bonds as measured by the BoAML indices, have a negative YTD return of 3.32%. High grade corporate bonds are down 2.41%, but preferreds are up 1.09%, high yield corporate bonds are up 2.62%, corporate convertible bonds are up 3.09%, and leveraged loans are up 3.10%. Investment grade municipal bonds are up 1.20%, while high yield municipal bonds are returning 4.48%. At the time of publication, the 2-year general obligation bond yield has dropped 64 basis points since the start of the pandemic to 0.09%, the 10- year is up 7 basis points to 0.94% and the 30-year has dropped 8 basis points to 1.44%.

Last week was shortened by the Memorial Day holiday and this week began with a commemoration of the 77th anniversary of D-Day and the Battle of Normandy when “Foo Fighter” was a term used by Allied pilots to describe mysterious UFOs seen in the skies over the European theater. The corporate bond calendar totaled $27 billion, with $21 billion coming as investment grade, 70% with maturities of seven years or less. High yield new issues came with B2 rated deals in the 5.375% range and CCCs around 7.125%. High yield corporate bonds saw outflows of $385 million while high yield muni funds took in $372 million

This week’s municipal bond calendar will also feature fast moving items that quickly vanish. It will exceed $10 billion and is dominated by $2.65 billion of Kaiser healthcare bonds that may come with taxable, corporate CUSIP and/or municipal series. Among the high yield non-rated deals this week: a $263 million taxable Maryland deal for SSA Baltimore, a $58 million green bond deal for last Stop Recycling in South Carolina, a $51 million issue for New World Prep Charter School in New York, and an $8 million sale for Maranatha Christian Academy in Kansas.

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Market Commentary: School Daze

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by Gayl Mileszko

Colby College in Waterville, Maine celebrated its 200th commencement on May 23, an event now indelible in the memories of all 513 graduates and the Colby “Mule” families who gathered in person on the Mayflower Hill campus. This past weekend, hundreds of other ceremonies were held on campuses including the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis and other venues across the country for scholars receiving doctoral, master’s, bachelor’s, associate and high school diplomas. Sadly, at the University of Minnesota and Southern New Hampshire University, it was the second year in a row where the celebrations were virtual due to the pandemic. But festivities went hybrid at Arizona State University, where they hosted in-person outdoor events as well as remote ceremonies in which the commencement speaker appeared as a hologram, graduates participated in the form of robot avatars, and the dean officiated from within a digital rendering of the new headquarters for Thunderbird School of Global Management, still under construction. The Academy of Seminole in Oklahoma graduated its inaugural class of charter school seniors, and Kihei Charter School in Hawaii had one student in its 20th graduating class who simultaneously received her high school diploma and an associate’s degree in electronics and computer engineering technology from the University of Hawaii Maui College. At Arkansas Virtual Academy, an on-line charter school serving K-12 students across the state, both virtual as well as in-person graduations were held in Little Rock for its 300 seniors during National Charter School Week.

Charter schools have been celebrated all year long in the municipal bond market, where $1.28 billion of bonds have been sold since January, 56% more than were issued last year by the end of May. Charter schools looking to borrow in the tax-exempt markets to acquire, expand or refinance facilities generally go through state conduits or local authorities, but in Michigan charter schools may issue debt directly. In Texas, Colorado and Utah, charter school financings are often supported with direct or moral obligation pledges. This week, Life School of Dallas is planning a $94.1 million variable rate refunding rated AAA due to the guarantee from the Texas Permanent School Fund. The Denver School of Science and Technology is also in the market with a $17.7 million Aa3 rated new money issue supported by the state’s Debt Service Reserve Fund Program and the Colorado Charter School Moral Obligation pledge. Federal stimulus has bolstered state school funding levels, keeping the vast majority of public schools on stable financial footing for the time being. And, as we know, borrowing rates are at extreme lows, making property purchases, expansions and refundings most attractive for non-profits and for-profits with big plans for start-ups and growth.

Looking back, the first charter school opened in St. Paul in 1992 with 35 students and, two years later, Congress authorized a federal charter school program. The first charter school bond issue came in 1998 for Concord Academy in Petoskey, Michigan, a $1.3 million financing with a final maturity in 2018 priced at par to yield 7.00%. Since then, issuance has increased almost every year according to Bloomberg, in part reflecting the expanding presence of these schools in the educational system. Today, 44 states have a total of 3.3 million students enrolled. As institutions, the nation’s 7,533 charter schools currently outnumber both our country’s hospitals and our colleges. In New Orleans, 98% of students attend charter schools while in other places like Massachusetts and New York expansion is prohibited by law as caps are imposed on the number of charters allowed. Maine has a statewide cap of 10 but in Iowa, the Governor just signed into law a bill expanding the ability to form more. In Florida, the legislature recently passed a law allowing colleges and universities to issue charters. New Hampshire is utilizing new federal grants to assist in creating charters to assist at-risk students. And in West Virginia, issues surrounding the first charter school application are before the state supreme court.

Since March of 2020, it has been a time of learning loss and disengagement for students from kindergarten to graduate school age. The New York Times described it as “the most disrupted American school year since World War II.” But many charter schools have benefitted from new attention and increased support during the pandemic. Seventy eight percent of North Carolina’s 200 charter schools have reported waitlists. For those charters specializing in on-line or cyber learning, students experienced many fewer issues with instruction and equipment. K12, the largest operator of virtual schools, reportedly saw enrollment grow by nearly 50,000 students. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, charter schools have more freedom over their budgets, staffing, curricula and other operations. It appears that they were able to pivot faster than many other public schools, for example supplying students phones equipped with Wi-Fi or directing funds to parents to pay for mobile hotspots or phones. Other charters provided community-based Wi-Fi access and kept parents and students engaged with academic and personal “wellness checks”.

The terms in many charter contracts with state, university or district authorizers have allowed for night classes, longer classroom hours and longer school years; this flexibility proved critical to many parents looking for better educational options during lockdowns or family relocations. Since a good percentage of charter schools are smaller in size than traditional public schools, they have often proven more nimble in adapting to changing federal and state guidelines and directives. Charter schools were also most notably among the first to re-open to in-classroom learning and this allowed many parents to return to work. For those parents in New York and New Jersey who prefer homeschooling and virtual learning environments, charter schools and private schools may be the only alternatives available to them this coming Fall. For those parents enrolled in one of the 209 Catholic schools that have closed over the past year, charter schools may look very attractive. For ESL and special education students, the student/teacher ratios at charter schools tend to be lower, designed to provide for more personalized attention, the kind that many parents have found invaluable over the past 15 months. Parents have also been keenly attuned to labor issues in discussions over the timing of returns to in-classroom learning. Only a small percentage of charter school teachers are unionized, so strikes such as the one currently threatened at three Urban Prep charter schools in the Chicago area are rare. Charter schools boasting 100% teacher retention this past year deserve every kudo. Nationwide, charter school teachers number 220,000 and student enrollment has doubled since 2011 according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. Most schools are self-managed, but some have nonprofit charter management organizations like KIPP, Uplift and IDEA, and others use for-profit educational management organizations like K12Inc, Imagine, and Charter Schools USA.

There are seventeen public elementary and secondary school financings on this week’s $4.6 billion municipal calendar and four with combined par value of $156.9 million are for charter schools. In addition to the Denver and Dallas deals, the Global Outreach Charter Academy in Jacksonville, Florida plans a $24 million non-rated refunding and the Academic Leadership Charter School in the Bronx has an $18.5 million BBB- rated financing. Last week saw $47.8 million of bond issues for BB rated Seven Generations Charter School in Emmaus, Pennsylvania, and non-rated sales for High Desert Montessori Charter School in Reno, Nevada, Twin Lakes STEM Academy in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, and Seven Oaks Classical School in Ellettsville, Indiana. These financings illustrate some of the geographic, credit and programmatic diversity available to investors in charter schools. Global Outreach offers foreign language programs beginning in kindergarten. Academic Leadership offers small group instruction and four periods of daily literacy. Life School students wear uniforms. Seven Generations focuses on sustainable living and environmental stewardship. High Desert, which opened in 2002, offers parents before and after school care for students up to 8th grade for a monthly fee. Twin Lakes is a K-6 charter expanding to 7th and 8th grade in the Fall of 2022. Seven Oaks teaches Latin and, like quite a few charters, does not provide transportation or offer a pre-school program.

Charter schools may serve a specific student population, including those who need to work during the day, those who are homeless, those who seek language immersion, those who are deaf. For investors, recent charter school bond deals have come with maturities in ten to forty years, coupons of 4.00% to 5.25% and yields ranging from 2.65% to 5.25%. But prospective buyers need to do their due diligence on area demographics and local politics, governance, security features, enrollment, retention, fundraising, report cards, wait lists and extracurriculars. The largest charter school network in Texas, IDEA Public Schools, recently fired the CEO and COO in the wake of allegations of widespread fraud for personal enrichment. New Hampshire’s only school district-supported public charter school, PACE Career Academy, is closing on June 7 after 10 years due to shortfalls in funding, fundraising, and staffing; it was founded as an alternative high school for struggling students and last had only 62 enrolled. Data show that those with weak governance, small and declining enrollment, and poor academic performance are more likely to fail. In the last academic year for which statistics are available (2017-2018), a total of 231 charter schools closed while 373 opened. For perspective, we note that charter schools currently account for only 1.2% of the distressed and defaulted municipal bonds reported by Bloomberg Intelligence.

Including charter school financings, muni issuance was $34.2 billion in May bringing year-to-date volume to $169.4 billion, up 7 percent over last year. Taxable issuance accounted for $7 billion of the total. To take advantage of market conditions but adhere to current refunding limitations, approximately 4% of 2021 bonds have been issued with forward settlement dates. The Bloomberg Barclays Municipal Index finished the month 0.30% higher, bringing its year-to-date returns to 0.78%, while the S&P Municipal Bond Index was up 0.40% in May and 0.95% since January. For high yield munis, the Bloomberg Barclays Index is up 4.80% this year after gaining 1.15% in May; the S&P Municipal Bond High Yield Index gained 1.17% last month, raising 2021 return totals to 4.27%. High yield munis have outperformed all other muni sectors and even the red-hot corporate high yield sector at 2.25%, however tax-exempts across the board are increasingly pricier than their taxable counterparts. The yield penalty for individual investors buying an A rated municipal bond versus an A rated corporate bond is 22 basis points as last calculated by CreditSights.

Contributing to muni price inflation is the surge of cash being returned to investors from maturing and called bonds as well as coupon income. There were insufficient opportunities to re-invest the $26 billion of redemptions we saw last month. New issuance failed to keep up with demand and secondary market offerings were mostly limited to low coupon bonds with microscopic yields retreating into negative territory with each new inflation report. This month, $59.7 billion of principal and interest will be available for reinvestment by muni bondholders while the new supply is only expected to total $9 billion. This summer all told, issuers will pay out more than $165 billion, including $124 billion of proceeds from maturing and called bonds and $42 billion in interest. Blackrock sees this tidal wave as producing the largest net negative issuance period in history at negative $54 billion. We note that investors frustrated by the lack of supply of individual bonds have turned to municipal bond mutual funds and ETFs. These funds are, in turn, are pushing prices for the limited supply of mostly rock-bottom yielding bonds available in the primary and secondary even higher. Funds have seen $43 billion of inflows so far this year, the strongest demand through May on records maintained by Lipper since 1992.

Central bank policies have the world suspended in a low rate and negative rate environment for several years now. At present, however, there are no 30-year sovereign yields below zero; only Germany, Switzerland and the Netherlands still have 10-year sovereign bonds with negative yields. U.S. Treasury yields have moved within a 20 basis point range these past two months. The 10-year has averaged 1.61% and that is where it stands at this writing, down 13 basis points since the end of March. The 30-year yield has averaged 2.30% and that is just above where it currently stands, down 13 basis points from the close on March 31. The ICE BoAML Treasury Index gained 0.30% in May but year-to-date returns remain negative at -3.52%. The 10-year Baa corporate yield has been moving in a 14 basis point range in either direction and now stands at 3.20%. Investment grade corporate bond indices returned 0.70% last month, but are also negative at -2.68% since January. The 2-year AAA municipal general obligation bond yield at 0.10% has moved within an 8 basis point range, the 10-year yield at 0.90% has dropped 22 basis points and the 30-year at 1.51% has fallen 24 basis points since March 31. During this timeframe, the S&P 500 has gained nearly 6% to close May at 4,204 and the Nasdaq has risen almost 4% to 13,748. Oil prices have closed 7% higher to $66.32, gold is up 11% to $1,906, and silver prices at $28.04 have gained 15%. In overpriced and low yielding markets, we know that speculative activity has been overwhelming investing activity – and in no case has the speculation and volatility been more evident than with cryptocurency. Bitcoin prices at 37,144 have fallen 37% in the last two months but nevertheless remain 30% higher on the year.

Refinitiv Lipper reported $1.46 billion of inflows into municipal bond mutual funds last week; high yield funds took in $813.8 million of that net total. Investment grade corporate bond funds had $911 million of net investment and U.S Treasury bond funds added $980 million while domestic equity funds saw $1.74 billion of outflows and high yield corporate funds had $1.36 billion of net withdrawals. June marks the halfway point in the year, so this is the perfect time to contact your HJ Sims representative to review alternatives to fund investments and discuss any new investment needs, interests and concerns. In particular, we extend congratulations to all recent graduates and invite them to start working with us on a plan for a successful financial future.

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Market Commentary: Pleasant Paths

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by Gayl Mileszko

Twenty four centuries after the Athenian statesman leader Pericles gave his famous oration honoring the many warriors who were killed in battle after the first year of the Peloponnesian War, Commander in Chief John A. (“Black Jack”) Logan of the Grand Army of the Republic, a veterans group comprised of former Union Army soldiers, issued General Order Number 11 designating May 30 as a day to commemorate comrades who died in defense of their country in the Civil War by decorating graves “with the choicest flowers of springtime.” He urged that “We should guard their graves with sacred vigilance. … Let pleasant paths invite the coming and going of reverent visitors and fond mourners. Let no neglect, no ravages of time, testify to the present or to the coming generations that we have forgotten as a people the cost of a free and undivided republic.”

Originally called Decoration Day, the first national Memorial Day celebration took place on May 30 of 1868 at Arlington National Cemetery, where both Confederate and Union soldiers were buried. Local tributes to the fallen had been taking place for several years. Waterloo, New York, and Boalsburg, Pennsylvania, Macon, Georgia, and Richmond, Virginia are among the towns and cities that lay claim to being the first to hold an observance. At the turn of the 20th century, May 30 was re-designated as Memorial Day. After World War I, the day was expanded to honor those who have died in all American wars, and the tradition of adorning one’s clothing with a single red poppy in remembrance was born. In 2000, Congress passed “The National Moment of Remembrance Act,” calling on the people of the United States in a symbolic act of unity to pause wherever they are at 3 p.m. local time on Memorial Day for a minute of silence to remember and honor those who have died in service to the nation in the pursuit of freedom and peace.

Bond markets close early on Friday ahead of this Memorial Day, largely in acknowledgement that traders and investors will be among the 37 million Americans expected to hit the road to join family and friends to celebrate high school and college graduations and the unofficial start of summer. Red, white and blue décor will prevail at parades, speeches, barbecues, and picnics. Millions will place flags on gravesites, millions will watch the wreath-laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery, and millions more will be checking prices at nearby gas stations to see how much this first vacation of the season will cost them. Inflation anxieties prevail, and with good reason. Every penny increase in gasoline takes $1 billion out of the pockets of American consumers. The national average price of gasoline has fallen 1.9 cents per gallon in the past week, averaging $3.02 Monday — but they are up 14 cents from one month ago and $1.07 higher than one year ago. These increased fuel costs, along with disruptions in the reliability of transportation and labor, a general trend toward inflation, and a head-snapping surge in demand have also been factors in the recent major increase in the prices of supplies of supplies such as plywood, steel, and copper as well as foodstuffs including beef, poultry, fish, and dairy.

In addition to the rising cost of dinner itself, travel is the topic of many family dinnertime conversations. Las Vegas has always been a favorite destination and it happens to be the site of the first large, in-person trade show scheduled in the United States since the pandemic began. Conventions have historically generated about $11 billion in annual revenue for the Las Vegas area and employed tens of thousands of workers, but the pandemic has shut all this activity down for 14 months.  Without blackjack, tourists and trade shows, the Las Vegas area posted an unemployment rate of 33.5% in April 2020, and half of the 60,000 members of the Culinary Workers Local 226 still remain out of work. But state and local officials are seeing green shoots. Gambling revenue in the state totaled a whopping $1 billion in March, the highest monthly total in over eight years. Convention bookings are increasing for later this year and next year, but how quickly they resume may hinge on the success of the three-day World of Concrete convention which begins June 8 at the new $989 million addition to the Las Vegas Convention Center and its outdoor parking lot. The gathering will operate under previously approved limits of 80 percent capacity, social distancing of three feet, temperature screenings, and hand-sanitizing stations. Hundreds of major trade groups will be watching closely to see if this first convention goes off without major issues and literally paves the way for the return of business and tourism in popular convention cities like Chicago, Los Angeles and Miami.

The pandemic is not over, but during this phase life is clearly becoming more pleasant for many. New COVID-19 cases dropped to 53 on Monday and there is good news about school re-openings in the fall. There are few mandates but the return to campus, to work, to entertainment venues will place heavy reliance on the “honor system.” Honor is a watchword of the National Guard, the military reserve force dating back to 1636 which is under the dual control of state and federal governments. There were 26,000 members of the Army and Air National Guards called to the U.S. Capitol in January; two thousand troops remain but they are slated to head home this week as Members of Congress return to their own home districts. The calendar shows that only about 31 voting sessions remain until the end of the fiscal year on September 30, so that does not leave a lot of room for legislative action on spending bills, infrastructure, or many other policy priorities. The municipal bond industry is closely watching to see the contents of the Green Book on Friday; this publication will include revenue estimates and detail the Administration’s tax proposals and those in public finance hope that there will be a provision restoring advance refundings on a tax-exempt basis. There also appears to be growing bipartisan support for a new incarnation of Build America Bonds to aid in rebuilding critical infrastructure. Treasury officials may address these plans in its tax report, expected to be released during a busy week that includes three auctions involving $180 billion of bond sales.

U.S. Treasuries, municipal, and corporate bonds as well as stocks and gold have all strengthened in the past week at this writing. Bitcoin trading took a volatile path with the market value plunging about $1 trillion from a peak of $2.6 trillion earlier this month and the wild price swings gave stocks some pause. The Dow at 34,393 is up 1.5% in May and 12.4% in 2021. The S&P 500 at 4,197 is up slightly this month and 11.7% year-to-date. The Nasdaq at 13,661 is off by 2% since the start of the month but up 6% this year. The Russell 2000 at 2,227 is down 1.7% in May but up nearly 13% since the start of the year. Oil prices at $66.05 per barrel are up 4% on the month and 36% this year. Gold at $1,883 an ounce has gained more than 6% in May but nearly flat on the year.  Silver at $27.75 an ounce has risen 7% this month and 5% since January. Bitcoin at 37,403 has plunged 34% this month but is up 30% in 2021. On the bond side, Treasuries are nearly flat on the month at this point. But the 2-year Treasury at 0.14% is 2 basis points higher on the year, the 10-year at 1.60% has risen 69 basis points, and the 30-year at 2.29% is 65 basis points higher.  The 10-year Baa corporate bond yield at 3.23% has fallen 4 basis points this month, but is 58 basis points higher in 2021. For a variety of technical reasons, municipals have been less impacted by Treasury moves, inflation talk, Fed speculation, and chaotic crypto. Expectations for higher taxes, light volume, increased supply of taxable munis and nonprofit corporate CUSIP issuance, record levels of inflows into muni bond funds and ETFs for 11 straight weeks, heavy cash generated from coupon income, calls and maturities with no options for reinvestment at the same yields have all kept munis strong and fairly rangebound this year. The 2-year AAA general obligation bond yield at 0.14% is up 4 basis points this month but flat on the year. The 10-year yield at 1.01% is up 2 basis points in May and 30 basis points in 2021. And the 30-year benchmark yield at 1.57% is 2 basis points lower on the month but up 18 basis points since January. High yield municipal bond indices reflect returns of 3.90% so far this year, while leveraged loans are up 2.82%, high yield corporate bonds are up 1.93%, convertibles are up 0.93%, investment grade munis are up 0.78% and preferreds are up 0.24%. On the other hand, Treasuries are down 3.84% year-to-date, investment grade corporate bonds are down 3.17%, taxable municipal bonds are down 2.39% and mortgages are down 0.86%.

This week’s muni slate includes more high yield offerings than we have seen all year. It includes a $308 million non-rated start-up green bond financing for Enso Village in Healdsburg, California, a $150 million non-rated deal for Lutheran Services for the Aging in Salisbury, North Carolina, a $100 million non-rated Waste Pro USA solid waste disposal issue in Florida, a $70 million non-rated taxable deal for Santa Cruz Valley Regional Hospital in Arizona, a $58 million refunding for BB+ rated Lasell University in Newton, Massachusetts, a $16 million BB rated issue for Seven Generations Charter School in Emmaus, Pennsylvania, a $12 million non-rated Wisconsin Public Finance Authority deal for High Desert Montessori Charter School, and a $10 million non-rated financing for Seven Oaks Classical School in Ellettsville, Indiana. Last week, the Government of Guam sold $278 million of Ba1 rated business privilege tax refunding bonds; bonds were structured for forward settlement in October and had a 2042 maturity priced with a 4% coupon to yield 2.54%.  Grand Forks County, North Dakota brought a $120 million non-rated green financing subject to the alternative minimum tax for Red River Biorefinery; the 2043 term bonds were priced at par to yield 7.00%. The Public Finance Authority issued $67 million of BB+ rated refunding bonds for Rider University in New Jersey with a single term bond in 2048 priced at par to yield 4.50%, and a $6.4 million charter school financing for Lead Academy with a 2056 maturity priced at 5.00% to yield 4.50%. The North Carolina Medical Care Commission came to market with a $44.4 million BBB rated deal for The Forest at Duke that had a 30-year final maturity priced at 4.00% to yield 2.38%. Tipton Academy in Michigan had a $6.4 million BB rated financing priced at par to yield 4.00% in 30 years.

For current offerings, portfolio reviews, and financing options, we invite you to reach out to your HJ Sims representative this week. For the holiday weekend ahead, we wish you and your family safe journeys and pleasant paths.

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Market Commentary: Bells and Whistles for the City That Never Sleeps

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by Gayl Mileszko

The New York Stock Exchange has invited occasional guests to ring the ceremonial opening bell since 1956. The current practice is to have them stand on the marble balcony weekdays at 9:30 a.m. to mark the start of the day’s trading. At 4 p.m., they bang a gavel after the closing bell, which is sometimes met with cheers at the end of a long, hard day of loss, or boos when no one wants the day’s rally to end or if the guests inadvertently cut short the precise 15 second ritual. The 18-inch bell, specially manufactured by the G.S. Edwards Company of Norwalk, Connecticut in the late 1980s, is said to have the sound of a brass bell tuned to the pitch D with an overtone of D-sharp. It replaced several other bells and, going back to the 1870s, a Chinese gong. Since 1995, company executives with NYSE stocks or exchange-traded funds have been permitted to ring the bill, often on the day their company goes public or releases a new product. Celebrities, dignitaries, charities and other groups are also often invited or may apply for the honor. The selection process is a bit mysterious, but the lucky ones are invited to sign the wall and become a permanent part of exchange history.

On Monday, May 17, the NYSE welcomed the Madison Square Garden Sports Company and JP Morgan Chase as they virtually rang the closing bell to celebrate the New York Knicks making the playoffs. That morning, the Chairman of New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority had the honors of pressing the green button, activating the big silver bell and prompting cheers from the assembled floor brokers and media representatives. The bell resounded across the floor for ten seconds to mark the return of 24/7 subway service in New York City earlier that morning. The Chairman was accompanied by representatives of the authority’s front-line workers who later noted that ridership had achieved pandemic records on May 14 with 2,265,489 subway trips, 104,885 on the Long Island Rail Road, 85,684 on the Metro North Railroad, and 1,188,284 bus rides.

Prior to the pandemic, average MTA weekday ridership totals routinely exceeded 5.5 million in the subway system alone. That number fell to a low of 300,000 in April of 2020, primarily heroic healthcare workers and public safety officials. On Monday, full overnight subway service resumed for the first time since May 6, 2020 when the subway system was closed for an unprecedented cleaning regimen involving 500 stations. The return of round-the-clock service paves the way for the end of the city’s outdoor midnight curfew and lifting of limitations on restaurant capacity, but brings with it new concerns about safety on the part of riders. Violent crime and harassment remain significant fears for many, while others worry about the possibility of a new coronavirus wave as a result of travel in trains and buses often equated to sardine cans.

Taxpayers and bondholders have additional questions and concerns. Even before the pandemic, rating agencies cited the MTA’s budget imbalances, missed capital commitment goals, capital funding risks and escalating debt. That debt has more than tripled in the last 20 years and now totals $49.4 billion. Some wonder if the Authority is whistling in the wind when it comes to projections about a return to pre- pandemic ridership levels given polls showing that the majority of city office workers do not plan to return to work five days a week under any transportation scenario. More than $14.5 billion of federal aid has plugged at least two years of budget gaps and reduced the immediate need for additional deficit borrowing but questions remain about the agency’s structural deficit, its plans for funding a five-year $51.5 billion capital program, its central business district tolling program, its labor issues, debt service, escalating retiree benefit costs, and doubtful ability to raise fares for the foreseeable future.

The U.S. bond market never officially closes so there are no bells to mark its sessions. There is round-the-clock trading in U.S. Treasuries and other bonds but the bulk of activity occurs between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. and there are plenty of whistles throughout the trading day to accompany tickets written at unusually high and low levels. The A3/BBB+/A- rated MTA is among the largest U.S. municipal bond issuers, and is very actively traded. It has been in the market seven times since the pandemic began and twice tapped the Federal Reserve’s Municipal Liquidity Facility last year. At the time of this writing, the 5% MTA Transportation Revenue Bonds due in 2042 are trading at $108.333. The 5% MTA Transportation Revenue Green Bonds due in 2044 are trading as high as $124.80. In the current market, with limited supply available to satisfy demand for tax-exemption in high-tax states like New York as well as for bonds of relatively high credit quality, these are by no means the highest prices we are seeing. Certain taxable State of California general obligation bonds are trading over $164, and taxable New Jersey Turnpike bonds over $158. Tax-exempt Massachusetts Water Resources Authority bonds are trading over $151 and Mayo Clinic bonds over $150. At the opposite end are odd lots of bonds that have defaulted. These include subordinate Puerto Rico Highway bonds trading below $14 and St. Paul Port Authority parking ramp bonds just over $25.

In the new issue municipal market last week, investors scooped up and paid up for bonds at points on the credit scale with very little compensation for the extra risk. School bells rang for the triple-A rated San Antonio Independent School District which had a $268.3 million low-cost financing structured with 2051 term bonds priced with a coupon of 2.375% to yield 2.29%. Twelve hundred miles away, the Florida Development Finance Corporation issued $89.2 million of non-rated bonds for The Glenridge on Palmer Ranch in Sarasota with a 30-year term bond that had a 5% coupon but priced to yield just 127 basis points more than San Antonio at 3.56%. The City of Forest Lake, Minnesota brought a $29 million non-rated charter school transaction for North Lakes Academy that had a 2056 maturity priced at 5.00% to yield 3.90% and the City of Woodbury, Minnesota issued $21.9 million of BB-minus rated bonds for Woodbury Leadership Academy that included a similar 35-year maturity priced at 4.00% to yield 3.15%. The Colorado Educational and Cultural Facilities Authority sold $25.1 million of Baa3 rated bonds for Aspen View Academy that had a 2061 final maturity priced with a coupon of 4.00% to yield 2.95%.

Inflation alarm bells tolled again last week after the consumer and producer price indices came in higher than estimated. All three major stock indices weakened as did Treasuries and municipals while oil, gold and silver prices climbed. Halfway through the month of May, the Dow is up over 1% to 34,327, the S&P 500 has slipped 17 points to 4,163, the Nasdaq is off by more than 4% at 13,379, and the Russell 2000 is off 39 points to 2,227. Oil prices are up 4% to $66.27, at $1,868 gold has gained more than 5% and silver is up nearly 9% to $28.19. Bitcoin prices have plummeted 25% to 42,562. The 2-year Treasury is flat at 0.15%, the 10-year yield is up 2 basis points to 1.64% and the 30-year yield is 7 basis points higher at 2.36%. The Baa corporate bond yield is flat at 3.27%. The 2-year muni yield climbed 4 basis points to 0.14% and the 10-year yield is 3 basis points higher at 1.02%. The 30-year AAA municipal general obligation bond benchmark is flat at 1.59% but valuations hit a record low against Treasuries last week. The long muni yield slipped to 68.4% of its Treasury counterpart after having averaged about 103% between 2001 and 2020. We invite you to ring your HJ Sims representative to discuss any of these developments between your own day’s opening and closing bells.

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Market Commentary: Feathers Flying

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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.

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How to Do It… Borrow in a Pandemic

Owner-operators will soon be confronting thorny financial questions as they emerge from the fog of the pandemic. How should skilled facilities prioritize spending? As one banker observed, the capital markets for skilled nursing may not have returned to where they were before COVID-19, but both debt and equity are available for operators who can prove their clinical expertise.

Read more in this McKnight’s article featuring insight from HJ Sims’ Curtis King.

Market Commentary: Pay It Forward

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by Gayl Mileszko

In Raleigh, North Carolina, there is a special place on Hargett Street that opened six years ago in a building that once housed a bank and a funeral home. Building renovations took several years and, during this time, the insightful James Beard Award-winning chef/owner had plenty of time to consider what she would name the new restaurant that would occupy the space. It was, of course, inspired by Benjamin Franklin and called it Death & Taxes. But after several acclaimed seasons, this small business along with almost every restaurant in the country was forced to close temporarily due to the pandemic. Hers managed to survive while dozens and dozens of others beloved by the Triangle community closed permanently. Death & Taxes re-opened for takeout in February and now has a dining room with reduced capacity that is open four nights a week. The menu still features the “Tax Free”, a fine rye whiskey cocktail with smoked cherries and bitters, and “The Catacomb”, an unusual mix of gin, vodka, red vermouth, and cappelletti pasta.

The famous quote “In this world, nothing is certain except death and taxes” was attributed to Franklin in 1789. Since the pandemic was declared, we in the U.S. have suffered 577,845 reported COVID-19 related deaths. The world has lost 3,217,512 of its citizens at the last count of the John Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center, which has been our first, most steady, and apolitical tracker. With respect to taxes, the latest tax filing deadline looms ten days from now. Higher brackets may be in store for next year under the Biden Administration’s proposals. We await specific details. But for now it appears that the new estate tax, a new higher capital gains rate, and the repeal of step-up in basis could bring total effective marginal rates to 61% for some, the highest level in nearly a century according to an analysis from the Tax Foundation.

On the federal level, it is unclear whether any or all of the White House proposals can pass Congress. We outlined some of the hurdles last week. But several states have already enacted hikes for the 2022 fiscal year. So accountants and financial planners are advising families to consider the impacts of various higher rates and the possible advantages of making gifts and realizing capital gains at this time. We encourage you to begin conversations with your HJ Sims financial professional. We are working hard to guide our clients through these uncertain times with a host of resources.

For most investors looking forward, there is no doom and gloom associated with stock, bond or commodity market outlooks. Equity market rallies have certainly been unprecedented since the September 2008 and March 2020 crises. The vast majority of analysts see them extending as long as the Fed continues its massive bond-buying and rate-compressing policies. But stock buyers cannot always rely upon dividends and appreciation to meet all of their investment and income needs. Bonds have represented a significant and critical percentage of family as well as institutional portfolios since at least the 17th century when England first issued debt to finance a war against France. Yes, yields have been on a long, continuous decline for more than 40 years since the 10-year Treasury peaked at 15.84% in September of 1981, forcing even many of the most conservative investors into far riskier assets while providing fantastically low rates for  non-profit and for-profit borrowers.

Since we are still at the very low end of historic yields, many–if not most–analysts see them continuing to rise alongside inflation throughout the near future. Several prominent market participants see bonds as a poor investment choice right now.  Berkshire Hathaway’s Warren Buffett recently said that fixed income investors face a bleak future. JP Morgan Chase’s Jamie Dimon recently quipped that he wouldn’t touch Treasuries with a 10-foot pole. Ray Dalio, founder of Bridgewater Associates, is quoted as saying that investing in bonds has “become stupid”. We disagree with these generalizations. We have bought, structured, and underwritten bonds throughout the course of our 86-year history and remain huge proponents of tax-exempt and taxable bonds as critical components of long-term investment portfolios. Our banking, trading, underwriting, analytic and sales teams specialize in products including Cinderella, capital appreciation, refunding, taxable, and corporate bonds. We are among the few broker dealers with expertise in non-rated and below investment grade securities, aiding many borrowers with smaller, start-up, and novel projects in securing financing and identifying suitable higher yielding opportunities for our investing clients. As you, our readers, think about your own holdings, your capital and income needs going forward, we again encourage you to contact your HJ Sims representative to discuss how bonds may work for you.

U.S. bonds should never be dismissed, particularly in a world replete with negative yielding sovereign debt. At this writing, the 5-year bonds of Japan yield negative 0.105%, Spain’s yield negative 0.245%, and those of France yield negative 0.54%. The 10-year bonds of Germany yield negative 0.24% and those of Switzerland yield negative 0.26%.  The U.S. Treasury 5-year currently yields 0.81%, the 10- year 1.58% and the 30-year 2.25%. Our 10-year A rated corporate bonds yield 2.74% and comparable 30-year bonds yield 3.51%.  Our 10-year AAA municipal general obligation bonds yield 0.99% and the 30-year yields 1.57%.  Last week, non-rated student housing bonds at Lynn University in Boca Raton were sold in the primary market with 5.00% coupons, priced at par. John Knox Village in Lee’s Summit, Missouri came to market with non-rated bonds due in 2056 priced with a coupon of 5.00% to yield 4.35%. Central Wyoming College offered non-rated bonds due in five years at 4.125%. In the secondary municipal market, Cherokee Charter Academy in Gaffney, South Carolina had bonds with a 7% coupon due in 2050 trade at $102 to yield 6.69%. Virgin Islands Water and Power Authority bonds with a 5% coupon due in 10 years traded at $90.50 to yield 6.228%.

So far this year, both individual and institutional investors have benefitted from an influx of cash via federal aid, bonds maturing, coupons and dividends paid, tenders and calls. Corporate bond buyers have had a field day with record amounts and wide arrays of investment grade and below investment grade rated issues. Municipal bond buyers have seen much less supply, as some borrowers have elected to postpone deals, refinance on a taxable basis, issue corporate bonds to take advantage of broader investor bases, or privately place debt with banks. We note a growing trend for forward delivery bonds, with sales taking place in favorable market conditions for settlement four, six, or even twelve months ahead when bonds are eligible for redemption. Current refundings on a tax-exempt basis are permitted within 90 days of the date of the refinancing. Buyers looking to lock in current rates or plan for reinvestments with cash expected from future redemptions or interest income are making commitments to buy these forwards. Borrowers are not having to pay up very much for this flexibility.

Last week, the BBB/BBB+ New Jersey Transportation Trust Fund Authority came to market with $1.58 billion of bonds in four parts. More than $893 million were for forward delivery on April 27, 2022. The 2036 maturity in the forward bonds priced with a coupon of 5.00% to yield 2.53% while the 2036 bonds settling this week yielded 2.00%. The state paid only 53 basis points more for the one year forward delivery piece, and it outperformed the market by Friday. Also last week, the city and county of San Francisco brought $178.1 million of general obligation refunding bonds in two parts; $86.9 million was issued for forward delivery in four months. The 2028 maturity in the forward deal priced with a 5.00% coupon to yield 0.80%, 19 basis points higher than the same bond maturity yielding 0.61% that settles on Friday.

Buyer willingness to wait up to a year for the delivery of their bonds is one of the many things that has changed in the past year. We are noting some positive trends in hotels, rental cars, domestic air travel, life plan communities and charter schools, all of which were hit hard last year. For investors worried about higher tax rates and looking to sell equities, you may find some good value as well as tax advantage in some of these tax-exempt sectors.

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Market Commentary: Are Tax Hikes Inevitable?

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by Gayl Mileszko

All the daily headlines lead us to believe that significant tax hikes are inevitable. There are innumerable fiscal challenges. We have spent $5.3 trillion so far in response to the pandemic-induced recession. There is serious talk of another multi-trillion infrastructure package. The balance sheet of the Federal Reserve has ballooned to $7.7 trillion. Our projected budget deficit — just halfway through the fiscal year — exceeds $1.7 trillion. The national debt now exceeds $28.2 trillion, a figure so large that it has lost meaning for most of us. The President who took office 100 days ago is seen by a good portion of the electorate as having a “mandate” to impose higher taxes on wealthy citizens and big business.

It is easy to understand why tax-exempt municipal bonds are now becoming scarcer and pricier amid all this tax hike chatter. The financial markets seem to sense a growing consensus for action based on media attention to various policymakers with platforms if not jurisdiction. Last year there was a “tax the rich” and “stick it to the corporations” campaign narrative that appeared to generate support for bogeys at around $400,000 in income, $1 million of gifts, and estates over $3.5 million. There are big bulls-eyes on companies seen as benefitting from the 2017 Trump tax cuts. Talk of retroactive applications makes the current grab for tax advantages all the more understandable.

Not a lot of opposition to the talk of tax increases has yet emerged. First of all, the specifics have not been presented, so special interest groups have nothing solid yet to analyze and object to. Some information was expected in the President’s address to the Joint Session of Congress on Wednesday, but the real details are being fleshed out and will take time. U.S. stocks nevertheless took a dive last Thursday on mere reports of plans to almost double the capital gains tax. The Dow dropped more than 320 points. The S&P 50, Nasdaq and Russell 2000 also fell, as did Treasury, corporate and muni yields.

In America, a tax rebellion is always right around the corner. And, given the changes in work and living arrangements brought about by the coronavirus, we are seeing how quickly our fellow citizens in states like New York and New Jersey now vote with their feet when informed that they must pay a higher so-called “fair share”. Companies with operations in multiple nations do not hesitate to move their headquarters, jobs, ingenious products and tax revenue to more friendly host nations. Any efforts to standardize tax laws among 195 different sovereign nations have about a zero chance of success.

We know of no legal prohibition against tax measures that apply retroactively. However, for a variety of reasons, retroactive tax provisions are not common or practical. In Washington, there are strong accounting, financial planning and litigation lobbies. There is also the simple matter of IRS logistics: printing the new forms and instructions affecting virtually every taxpayer and business, publishing the necessary regulations and guidance, educating customer service representatives and enforcement staff, and so on. If you examine past tax legislation, you will note that some provisions have different forward effective dates. Others may be temporary, with sunset dates in order to conform with the requirements of the enabling legislation. There are quite a few provisions in the 2017 Tax Reform bill that expire in 2025 without further action.

As many presidents have learned, tax reform bills are not so easy to get through Congress. They are nearly impossible if rolled out in pieces or phases. There have been at least 21 bills that increased federal tax revenues over at least one fiscal year since 1940 but the only recent major overhauls took place in 1986 and 2017. In order to succeed with cuts — never mind hikes — an administration has to draft very detailed proposals, preferably supplying specific statutory and explanatory language in its annual budget. Given the number of departments, agencies and offices involved, internal consensus is not easily obtained. The Tax Code is so unwieldy there are really no single source experts. In 2020, there were nearly 10 thousand sections. On the legislative side, numerous congressional committees and subcommittees are involved, with testimony, drafting and re-drafting, mark-ups, votes, speeches, and dialogue with constituents. As we saw in 2017, there are leaks, deep intra-party divisions, odd rules and unusual motivations. It is just plain impossible to “fast-track” anything without very heavy and sustained leadership pressure. In the process, hundreds of errors are made and so many unintended effects are revealed that there is typically at least one “technical corrections” bill required within a year or so of passage. That in and of itself can be a magnet for many unrelated and controversial provisions, and difficult to pass.

In the end, so much horse trading for votes is involved that passage of a 500+ page tax bill with an explanatory report of similar size would likely come at the price of all other major administration priorities. This time, it could possibly come at the expense of health care reform, civil rights, climate change, immigration, and infrastructure initiatives. The infrastructure details mean a lot to those of us in the municipal bond markets, most notably tax provisions involving advance refundings. But bear in mind that there are more than 12,000 active, registered lobbyists in DC and almost all of them have at least one special tax provision that they may want included or excluded. The budget committees, Congressional Budget Office, Office of Management and Budget, the Treasury, and the Joint Committee on Taxation are all involved in “scoring” the revenue impact of legislative proposals. These are not simple exercises and they are highly political. If reform is not achieved early in the honeymoon period, sophisticated vote counters and insider knowledge can lead to early pivots by certain classes of taxpayers and international/supranational corporations, significantly altering the projected revenue impacts before debate on the reforms is even over. The 1981 Reagan cuts and 1993 Clinton hikes were enacted by August of the first year in office; the 2001 Bush cuts were agreed to by May.

We will hear more debate on tax policy in Washington in the coming months as plans unfold and we encourage our readers to become involved. There are thin Democrat margins in the House and Senate, and Senate passage would entail a vice presidential tiebreaker and complete loyalty from the caucus. In the current environment, there will have to be close coordination with the Federal Reserve and monetary policy, and with the budget, taxation, and appropriations committees. If reform is enacted this year, mid-term elections may not be seen as a referendum as the full impact will not be felt by all taxpayers until forms are filed in 2023. If a tax reform bill is not signed into law by December, the odds are that tax hikes are unlikely to happen in 2022, an election year. In the meantime, 26 states and the District of Columbia had notable tax changes take effect in January, and more are on tap for new state fiscal years; in New York, the FY22 increases began this month.

In the past week, municipal bonds in high tax states have traded at extraordinarily high prices. Stanford University bonds with a 5% coupon due in 2049 traded this week at $159.792. Hamilton College bonds issued through Oneida County’s Local Development Corporation with a 5% coupon due in 2051 priced at $158.567. New York City Municipal Water Finance Authority bonds and Port Authority of New York and New Jersey bonds with 5% coupons due in 2031 are trading in the $136-$137 range. Long Island Power Authority and Monmouth County Improvement Authority bonds with a 5% coupon due in 10 years offer yields of only between 0.975% and 1.077%. Many individual and institutional investors are holding on to the bonds with federal as well as state tax exemption while looking for more to buy directly or through mutual funds and exchange traded funds. However, new supply is lacking. This week’s calendar, for example, totals only about $5.5 billion, and more than 20% is being issued for refunding purposes in federally taxable structures, and more than 20% is offered with forward settlements. Last week, the most yield we found was in a $10.9 million BB+ rated Michigan Math and Science Academy bond deal that had 2051 term bonds priced with a 4.00% coupon to yield 3.03%

This week, the Federal Open Market Committee met on Tuesday and Wednesday and kept its ultra-loose policy and near zero rates in effect, as expected. Investors are obsessed with guessing how much more economic ground has to be gained before the Fed begins tapering its monthly Treasury and mortgage bond purchases of $120 billion, and official conversations about rate increases begin. To be clear, Fed futures traders expect no changes in rates this year.

Where do you invest? We encourage you to contact your HJ Sims representative. Our banking, trading and sales executives are active in the day-to-day markets. For investors, our credit-driven strategies are designed for the outcome of income.

Is this the right time to borrow? For senior living communities, we point out that we are seeing some of the strongest lending conditions in our 86-year history. Our aim as always is to Partner Right, Structure Right and Execute Right.

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Market Commentary: Blazing Straddles

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by Gayl Mileszko

We live in an era when past history is being denounced, flags and monuments buried, and classic old books and movies pulled from the shelves as perceived evidence of systemic racism. One fellow who paid a pretty sum to send his pre-teen daughter to a prominent prep school in New York felt that school leaders were going too far with sudden changes to the school’s curriculum and admissions requirements. He categorized the new policies as mob appeasement and sent a thought-provoking letter expressing his opinion on the woke wars and cancel culture to other parents at the school, entreating them to make their views known to the administration and board. His words soon went viral, stirring emotional responses and revealing how differently we view civic-mindedness.

The Pandemic has certainly magnified some big social, economic and political gulfs in our society that cannot be ignored. But as a republic, as a nation, we will always have certain continental divides. Every generation has stories about the societal changes and challenges we have encountered, fought, adapted to, and overcome. For those of us who grew up in the 1970’s, we had the crises of the Vietnam War, Watergate, double-digit inflation and energy shortages. But this was the decade in which we built the Sears Tower, invented floppy disks, digital wristwatches, portable cassettes, cell phones and voice mail, recorded great music, and passed a gender equality law. We took inspiration from the perfect wins by Mark Spitz, Nadia Comaneci, the Miami Dolphins, Billie Jean King, and Secretariat. We escaped by reading J.R.R. Tolkien fantasies and Agatha Christie mysteries, and by watching movies like the Godfather and Rocky. And we were able to laugh at ourselves and all the stereotypes portrayed in Blazing Saddles, the off-color comedy which has been deemed – at least for now – “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” by the Library of Congress and preserved in the National Film Registry.

It will be several decades before historians assess the moment in which we now live and document the social and political highlights and lowlights of this Pandemic era. In retrospect, economic conditions will be the focus for many. Reference will be made to the blazing hot financial markets that categorized the start of the decade, in spite of everything else, stoked by unprecedented central bank interventions and fiscal stimulus. In the depth of a worldwide recession, an endless series of records is being set. Given assurances of more bond-buying and rate controls for the next few years, there may be no stopping the rallies as the recovery takes hold. For new investors unaccustomed to volatility, the day-to-day performance are often jittery with dips and bumps driven by virus case reports, corporate earnings announcements, and weekly government data almost always released with a positive spin. There are also numerous technical factors, policy decisions involving negative interest rates by other central banks, and unexpected events like the situation with Ever Given, that massive container ship that clogged one of the world’s most vital waterways for six days and affected billions of maritime commerce.

Straddles, for those unfamiliar with the official definition, are typically strategies used by traders who anticipate a big move in the price of a stock but want to hedge their bets as to whether it will go up or down. So straddling is a neutral strategy involving the simultaneous buy of a put option and a call option on a stock with the same strike price and expiration date. The straddler profits whenever the stock rises or falls from the strike price by an amount that is more than the cost of the premium. In the current market, we are seeing a different type of straddler – the equity buyer that also likes higher yielding municipal bonds. This is typically a higher income individual residing in a high tax state who likes the dividends and returns of equities but seeks offsetting tax-exempt income and relative safety, mostly from essential public purpose bonds issued with both state and federal tax exemptions paying semi-annual interest and pledging the return of the original principal at maturity. He or she sees the muni market as solid, fairly liquid, and social good-promoting, one that has been rising with — although uncorrelated to — stocks. This investor might straddle other sectors and asset classes as well; CCC-rated corporate bonds, leveraged loans, bitcoin, and even non fungible tokens (NFT), units of data stored on blockchain that commodify and certify digital assets in art, music and sports, for example, as unique.

Municipal bonds have been in particularly great demand, and the clamor for tax-exempt coupons (if not yields) of 5% continues. High-yield municipal bond mutual funds just reported a record $1.28 billion of inflows, breaking a record set in January. In the week ended April 14, muni funds in total took in $2.255 billion. Exchange-traded muni funds reported inflows of $478 million, after having added $350 million in the previous week. Fund assets under management have surpassed $900 billion for the first time and inflows this year have already surpassed the 12-month total for 8 of the last 11 years. In this context, fund portfolio managers, like individual buyers, are understandably having a hard time sourcing product. The supply calendar continues has been light, typically running between $6 billion to $8 billion a week, much lower during holiday-shortened trading sessions. Prices continue to escalate in the primary and secondary markets. The one-year AAA muni yield is at an all-time low of 0.05%.

Some Members of Congress are straddling the fence, but there is non-stop tax talk coming out of Washington. It has many families searching for tax-advantaged investments. The last round of state and local stimulus has bolstered the finances of many frequent borrowers and investors heavy with cash see municipal credit outlooks as improved. Credit spreads continue to compress, so any coupon or call structure that offers additional yield is being bid up. Few muni investors are deterred by the recent gyrations in the Treasury market and auction results. At the close on Tuesday, the 10-year AAA muni general obligation bond yield stood at 0.93% or 60% of the comparable U.S. Treasury yield at 1.56%. The 30-year muni benchmark yield at 1.55% was 69% of the comparable Treasury at 2.25%.

Last week, Florida’s Capital Trust Agency sold $859.6 million of non-rated charter school bonds structured with a 2056 maturity that priced with a coupon of 5.00% to yield 4.00%. The Arizona Industrial Development Agency brought a $33.4 million charter school financing for BB rated Somerset Academy of Las Vegas featuring 2051 term bonds priced at 4.00% to yield 3.22%. The California School Finance Authority had an $11.8 million non-rated charter school social bond issue for iLead Lancaster with a 2061 maturity priced at 5.00% to yield 3.64%. And the Public Finance Authority brought a $9.8 million non-rated transaction for Davidson Charter Academy with a single maturity in 2056 priced with a rare 6.00% coupon and an even rarer discount o yield 6.432%. Among other high yield financings, the Cleveland Cuyahoga County Port Authority came to market with a $250.5 million taxable federal lease revenue bond issue for the Veterans Administration Health Care Center that priced at par to yield 4.425% in 2031. The California Community Housing Agency issued $174.1 million of non-rated essential housing bonds due in 2056 with a 4% coupon yielding 3.05%.

This week, we expect the biggest calendar of the year at $10 billion with a significant percent coming as taxable. So far this year, approximately $41.6 billion of municipal bonds have been issued as taxable or with corporate CUSIPs, up 16% over the amount in 2020. California is issuing general obligation bonds with a 5-month forward delivery date, the largest such forward settlement on record and the latest of $5 billion sold in 2021. The State of Connecticut is also coming with $145 million of special tax obligation transportation infrastructure refunding with a forward settlement in mid-October. Approximately eight financings designated as green, social and sustainable bonds are scheduled for sale. But higher yielding offerings are sparse. Three more charter schools plan sales. At this writing, the Dow is up 2.5% so far in April, the S&P 500 and Nasdaq are up more than 4%. The Russell 2000 has declined by 1.45% while oil is up 5.5%, gold is up 3.8%, and silver is up 6%. Bitcoin is down about 5% but Dogecoin, the meme cryptocurrency created as a joke, is blazing new trails with a market cap of $54 billion, one that exceeds that of Ford Motor and Kraft Heinz.

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Market Commentary: Mint Condition

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by Gayl Mileszko

The U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing has responsibility for producing all of our paper currency but the U.S. Mint is the sole manufacturer of legal tender coinage. Originally placed with the State Department in 1792 to produce the coins needed for the nation to conduct its trade and commerce, the Mint became an independent agency in 1799 and then a bureau of the U.S. Treasury in 1873. It is now the world’s largest producer of gold and silver bullion coins. In addition to bullion, pennies, nickels, dimes, and quarters, the Mint also produces coin-related products such as Congressional Gold Medals and commemoratives like the silver dollar, silver half-dollar and gold five-dollar coins just issued in January for the National Law Enforcement Memorial and Museum. More than 1,600 employees work at Mint facilities in Washington, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Denver, West Point and Fort Knox. Although its facilities are closed to the public during the pandemic, the Mint has long offered tours of the production sites in Pennsylvania and Colorado where visitors learn about the craftsmanship involved in the design, sculpture and striking processes for U.S coins, each a miniature work of art.

Last year, the U.S. experienced severe coin shortages as consumers moved to digital transactions and so few of us emptied out piggy banks or cleaned under couch cushions and car seats for loose change and cashed in our coins. The urgent needs of merchants and banks prompted the Mint to increase production to the highest levels since 2001 just as spot prices for nickel increased 5.6% over 2019, platinum cost 3.8% more, gold rose 25.8%, copper dropped 3.6%, and zinc fell 15.4%. The Mint shipped 15.5 billion circulating coins to the Federal Reserve Banks and, in response to the soaring demand for gold, more than 24.7 million ounces of bullion. It transferred the seigniorage, the difference between the face value and cost of production which amounted to $40 million, to the Treasury, chump change in the effort to reduce a federal deficit that has now grown to $1.7 trillion in the first six months of Fiscal Year 2021.

The dictionary definition of coin long read: “a small, flat, and usually round piece of metal issued by a government as money.” The key point was that the coins were issued by a government. This week, COIN is the new Nasdaq ticker symbol for Coinbase, the largest U.S. cryptocurrency exchange. The company has only been around since 2012 but Wednesday’s IPO-like entry has been one of the most anticipated market events of 2021 as it appears to reflect acceptance of crypto as a legitimate industry and points to the possibility of widespread adoption of digital currency. The Coinbase platform enables some 7,000 institutions and 56 million retail customers to buy, sell, and store cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin and Ethereum. The majority of its revenues come from transaction fees of about 0.5% and services such as storage and analytics, while about 10% of the company’s revenues come from sales of its own crypto assets to customers. It also makes money from things like margin fees and a rewards credit card program. In 2020, total revenue amounted to $1.28 billion, up from around $534 million in 2019 as the company’s monthly transacting user base rose from about 1 million to about 2.8 million. Net income was $322 million. In the first quarter of 2021, estimated revenues grew to $1.8 billion on trading volume of $335 billion as the price of Bitcoin almost doubled, causing the number of active monthly traders to more than double to 6.1 million.

COIN is using the less common practice of a direct listing on the Nasdaq. No new shares will be created in the process, and only some of the 130.7 million of Class A shares and 68.5 million of Class B shares outstanding are being sold to the public. No underwriters are involved, and there is said to be no share dilution or lockup period. Nasdaq and Goldman Sachs set a reference price of $250 per share, giving Coinbase a valuation of $66.5 Billion. Demand appears to be overwhelming and valuations extremely high. The overall value of more than 6,600 coins tracked by CoinGecko recently surpassed $2 trillion. Even Dogecoin, with a Shiba Inu dog as its logo and launched as a joke, now has a market cap of $17 billion. But the decentralized and largely unregulated finance business is unquestionably volatile and still highly mysterious and suspicious to many of us. There is a very complex process of mining with staggering energy requirements and environmental costs. There are caps on supply. Anybody with basic programming skills and an understanding of the technical infrastructure can create and market their own private digital currency. Crypto is understood or misunderstood to involve instruments of money laundering. Assets are kept on a shared ledger known as a blockchain, but if you forget your password you can lose access to your entire digital wallet. Some call it hackproof while others know of scams and see plenty of security risks in trading and network storage. Warren Buffett called Bitcoin a “mirage” but strategists at JPMorgan are suggesting cryptocurrency as a way to hedge against significant fluctuations in traditional asset classes and Bank of New York Mellon has announced plans to hold, transfer and issue digital currencies for its clients. Goldman set up a crypto trading desk and plans to begin offering investments in digital assets. A number of companies including Tesla, Burger King, Xbox, PayPal, and Starbucks now accept bitcoin, recognized as the original cryptocurrency founded in 2009, as a form of payment.

Cryptocurrencies are often confused with other digital currencies but both are now a major focus of central banks around the world. Privately issued digital currencies can certainly reduce the ability of the Federal Reserve to control exchange rates and money supply. But with respect to sovereign digital currencies, the Fed Chair said in February that they are looking “very carefully” at a digital dollar. The Treasury Secretary testified that a digital version of the dollar could help address hurdles to financial inclusion in the U.S. among low-income households. Many concerned with privacy, however, are alarmed as digital currencies are trackable, allowing for surveillance and — potentially — supervision over individual transactions as well as the size of accounts. They can also be programmed to have expiration dates. Sovereign digital currencies could be used to work around U.S. sanctions and potentially oust the dollar as the world’s dominant reserve currency. India is considering a new law that bans all tokenized representation of money unless it is electronic cash from its own central bank. The People’s Bank of China just became the first major central bank to launch a virtual currency, e-CNY. Officials there claim that the purpose is to replace banknotes and coins, to reduce the incentive to use cryptocurrencies and to “back up” privately run electronic payments systems. The trial issuance of digital yuan has begun after 7 years of research, and China plans a broader roll-out next February during the Winter Olympics in Beijing. Officials at the U.S. Treasury, State Department, Pentagon and National Security Council are taking a close look at the implications.

The future of our global financial system appears to be changing, perhaps our legal systems as well with the introduction of smart contracts run on cryptographic code. In a low rate environment with high leverage and sensations of inflation and bubbles, plus policies and conditions arising from the pandemic, capital may be re-deploying from stocks and bonds. But for now, the financial markets remain immersed in day-to-day economic news, which indicates modest inflation and record global growth, as well as developments on the Russia-Ukraine border, with China and Taiwan, Iran and Israel, Minneapolis and Portland, Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine, Washington infrastructure talk and first quarter earnings reports. With the Fed playing down inflation and repeating familiar dovish narratives over and over, the Dow and S&P flip to record highs. Some question the numbers, but Bank of America just reported that inflows into global stock funds in the past 5 months ($576 Billion) have exceeded inflows in the prior 12 years ($452 Billion). Since 2008, inflows to stock funds have totaled $1 trillion versus $2.4 trillion for bond funds.

This week, Treasury auctions are expected to total $271 billion and the first one on Monday met with strong demand. The municipal calendar could total $7 billion, dominated by taxable sales. Five green, social and sustainability bond deals are featured and there is a $252 million non-rated deal for Florida charter schools. Municipals, which saw another $1.77 billion of mutual fund inflows last week, and continue to outperform Treasuries. Tax filings have been delayed to May 15 and cash is abundant. New issue pricings continue to be well received with both price bumps and positive secondary follow-through. Last week’s $7.6 billion slate included a $332.5 million non-rated California CSCDA Community Improvement Authority social bond financing for Altana-Glendale that had a 2056 maturity priced at 4.00% to yield 3.58%. The same maturity and coupon in a California Community Housing Agency issue for Mira Vista Hills Apartments priced to yield 3.70%. Among other high yield deals, the New Jersey Educational Facilities Authority had a $5.6 million tax-exempt series with a $38.5 million taxable Baa3-rated transaction for New Jersey City University structured with 2051 term bonds priced at par to yield 4.431%.

Corporate syndicate desks expect $25 billion of investment grade deals this week and $31 billion of high yield sales including the $5.5 billion United Airlines refinancing and a $1.8 billion deal for the Kissner purchase of Morton Salt. At this writing, the 2-year Treasury yield stands at 0.16%, the 10-year at 1.62%, and the 30-year at 2.30%. The 2-year Baa rated corporate bond yield is 1.77%, the 10-year is at 3.31% and the 30-year stands at 4.17%. The 2-year AAA municipal general obligation bond yield is 0.10%, the 10-year is at 1.01% and the 30-year is at 1.62%. The Dow stands at 33,677, the S&P 500 at 4,141, the Nasdaq at 13,996, the Russell 2000 at 2,228. Oil prices have climbed in the past week to $61.22 a barrel. Gold is priced at $1,745 an ounce, silver at $25.40, and platinum at $1,179. Bitcoin is at $64,478 and Ethereum is nearing $2,383.

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Market Commentary: Home is Where the Heart and Wealth Are

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by Gayl Mileszko

Our homes have been our anchors, true ports in the storm of this past year, our refuge from all the uncertainty outside. They have evolved as we have, morphing into classrooms and workstations, gyms and bistros, chapels and clinics. It is said that there is no place like home, the place where our stories begin and unfold. Home is the starting place of love, hope and dreams, the place where we can go just as we are, feel safest and always belong. In these and other ways, our homes are priceless. The physical structures themselves, however, have values that can be pinpointed quite precisely and unemotionally. Let us take a look at some of the latest price tags and trends for housing because these structures, our primary residences, in most cases represent the largest percentage of all assets that we hold. 

Despite all that we have been through in this past year, it is astonishing that the U.S. housing market has remained sizzling hot with prices surging at the fastest pace in 15 years. Sales just recently cooled off as new home construction has lagged behind demand and many homeowners have elected to hold onto their houses longer. But buyers in search of better space in which to live, study and work during this pandemic have been in fierce competition for what has become a record-low supply of homes. The residential real estate market has never been tighter. Housing inventory remains at a record low of 1.03 million units, having dropped by 29.5% year-over-year. That amounts to a 1.9-month supply, well below the level said to be needed in a balanced market at six months. Properties are typically selling in 20 days, another record low.  As a result, existing home sales fell 6.6% in February and pending home sales also fell after eight consecutive months of year-over-year gains, according to the National Association of Realtors. Entry-level homes in particular remain in short supply. Median existing home prices, meanwhile, rose to $313,000, 15.8% above the comparable 2020 level, with all regions of America posting double-digit gains. First-time buyers have been responsible for about 31% of sales, and a new Zillow survey finds that these buyers are increasingly comfortable buying online. 

CoreLogic forecasts that home prices will increase by an average of 3.3% by January 2022, with only a few metro areas including Houston, Las Vegas and Miami seeing declines. The Case-Schiller 20-city index shows that Phoenix has had the fastest home-price growth in the country for the 20th straight month, at 15.8%, followed by Seattle at 14.3%. The average commitment rate for a 30-year conventional fixed rate mortgage is about 2.81%, still well below the 2020 average of 3.11%. Rates, which dropped below 3% in July for the first time ever, are expected to remain below 3.5% this year. As they rise along with prices, however, affordability becomes a key and continuing concern for many. As it is, about one in five renters is behind on rent payments and 2.8 million are in mortgage forbearance. But in the four weeks ended March 21, 39% of homes that went under contract sold for more than their list price, up from 23.9% a year earlier according to Redfin Corp. As a result, 76% of nonhomeowners in the U.S. say they have no plans to purchase a home in the next six months due not only to affordability constraints but fear that the market will turn and leave them owing more on their mortgage than their home will be worth. In the fourth quarter, some 410,000 U.S. residential properties with combined mortgage debt of $280.2 billion were underwater. Real estate data firm Black Knight reports that at least one of every 14 residential mortgages in Connecticut was delinquent or in foreclosure.

Homes with a mortgage account for about 62% of all U.S. properties and the home equity for these properties surged to more than $1.5 trillion last year, an increase of 16.2% from a year earlier. Homeowners aged 62 years and older saw their housing wealth grow by a net of 3%, or $234 billion, in the fourth quarter of 2020, according to new data from the National Reverse Mortgage Lenders Association. The increase brings senior housing wealth to a record $8.05 trillion. During the pandemic, some seniors have turned to reverse mortgages to assist with expenses, including in-home care, while others have refinanced their homes or taken out home equity lines of credit. Total cash-out refi’s surged 42% year over year in 2020 averaging $50,000 per borrower and adding up to $152.7 billion in total according to Freddie Mac. Home equity line of credit volume more than doubled to $74.9 billion in 2020 from a year earlier. Many seniors are looking in shock at area home sale prices and wondering if this is the ideal time to sell the family home and move to something smaller or perhaps better located. Prices could certainly rise further — but how much more? The market looks ripe for a correction. At some point, who will be able to pay these high prices for existing homes plus all the necessary repairs, remodeling, and refurnishing costs? The average American family in 2020 consisted of only 3.15 people. So how much interest will there be in a four-bedroom home? Maybe it is better to seize the moment and sell rather than wait until there may be no real choice. We are not getting any younger, after all. The 65-and-older population has grown by 34.2% or 13.7 million during the past decade. And more and more of us are living alone. That includes 27% of adults ages 60 and older. Do we want to be home alone for the next decade (or more) cooking and cleaning for ourselves and waiting for visitors and the occasional offer of help?

For some who have struggled in isolation during this pandemic, the thought of a safe, caring, well-managed senior living community has become very appealing. Thousands of folks in their 60’s, 70’s and 80’s are researching options on line and taking virtual tours of neighborhoods with similarly aged and active people, organized social activities, high quality dining, cleaning services, concierges, and higher levels of service when needed. Life plan communities present countless options and configurations for garden homes, cottages, and high-rise apartments, assisted living, memory care, rehabilitation and nursing facilities. At Bailey Station in Collierville, Tennessee they offer seniors a “Return on Life”. At Ingleside at Rock Creek in Washington, D.C, they attract residents with “Truly Engaged Living”.  At Broadview at Purchase College in New York, they promote “Think Wide Open Lifelong Learning”. At Sinai Residences in Boca Raton, they say “No One Does Livable Luxury Like This.”  At The Homestead at Anoka in Minnesota, they assure “It’s your life. We’re Here to Help You Live It.”

Throughout the COVID-19 crisis, life plan communities have evolved with new safety procedures, technology, and services. Many have continued with expansion and renovation plans, uninterrupted or only slightly delayed for labor or material-related reasons. Several have come to the bond markets for financing projects on a tax-exempt basis. In the past few weeks, this included Plymouth Place in La Grange Park, Illinois (“The Time and Place For You”) which sold $23.9 million of BB+ rated bonds structured with 5% coupons due in 2056 to yield 3.61%. In the secondary market, bonds issued for Ralston Creek at Arvada in Colorado traded at $89.95 to yield 6.552% (19648FCK8). Arizona’s Great Lakes Senior Living Communities’ 5.125% bonds traded at $85 to yield 6.20%. 04052TBV6 The Shelby County, Tennessee’s Farms at Bailey Station 5.75% bonds due in 2049 traded at $100.332 to yield 5.70%. 82170 KAE7 Roanoke County’s Richfield Living 5.375% bonds due in 2054 traded at par. 76982TAE8.

Unlike the corporate bond market which has seen record high yield issuance this past year, the municipal market has not seen much in the way of high yield financings and this is vexing many investment strategies. Demand for yield in this low rate environment has been insatiable.  Individuals, funds, insurers, banks, and foreign buyers cannot find enough to meet their investment needs. Prices remain extremely elevated. Among the few higher yielding deals of late, a Georgia issuer brought $439.5 million of BBB-minus rated hotel and convention center bonds to market with a final maturity in 2054 that priced with a 4% coupon to yield 2.95%. The Public Finance Authority sold $135.9 million of Ba2 rated taxable bonds for Noorda College of Osteopathic Medicine due in 2050 priced at 5.625% to yield 5.75%. The Latrobe Industrial Development Authority in Pennsylvania had a $42 million BBB-minus rated transaction featuring 2051 term bonds priced at 4.00% to yield 3.30%. The California CSCDA Community Improvement Authority brought a $112.9 million non-rated social bond issue for Moda at Monrovia Station due in 2046 that priced at par to yield 3.40%. The Pennsylvania Economic Development Authority brought a rare $75 million Caa1/CCC rated solid waste disposal financing for CONSOL Energy that was subject to the alternative minimum tax; it had a sole term bond in 2051 priced at par to yield 9.00%. The Capital Trust Agency in Florida issued $17.2 million of non-rated bonds for St. John’s Classical Academy structured with a 2056 maturity that came with a 4% coupon priced to yield 4.075%. The 2-year AAA rated general obligation bond benchmark yield currently stands at 0.15%, the 10-year is at 1.11%, and the 30-year is at 1.73%.

As we begin the second quarter of the year, technical factors continue to buoy the municipal market. Cash continues to flow into bond funds and ETFs, buying activity is at the highest levels since 2009, issuance is below average, bids in the secondary market for many bonds are strong as the gusher of federal funds is making many credits appear stronger and not much product is available. In addition, the tax chatter in Washington and several state capitals is getting louder, muni/Treasury ratios have dropped below historic averages. Economic data reports also appear to reflect a solidly recovering economy. New orders, employment, business activity, and prices all increased last month. High yield muni performance has been good: returns on the S&P High Yield Muni Index in the first quarter were +1.77%; the ICE BoAML High Yield Muni Index was up 2.1% . However, investment grade tax-exempts posted negative returns (-0.26% for S&P, -0.4% for ICE BoAML). The best performing sectors so far this year have been airport and transportation. Away from munis, markets have been volatile due to surging inflation expectations. U.S Treasuries lost 4.61% in the first quarter, and corporate bonds were down 4.49% while the Dow gained 8.2%, the S&P 500 6.1% and the Nasdaq 2.95%. Oil prices have dropped in recent days but are still up26% on the year. Gold and silver prices have fallen. Bitcoin is up more than 100%.

HJ Sims has an 86-year history of guiding our individual and institutional clients through changing markets. In addition, we have either financed, advised on, or followed the progress of continuing care communities in every major U.S. market area. So, whether you are seeking assistance with executing your investment plan, in need of a trained eye to review the credits in your bond portfolio, searching for higher yielding bonds to boost your income, looking for specific advice on how best to meet your community’s financial and capital needs, or researching suitable senior living or care communities for a friend or family member, we encourage you to contact your HJ Sims representative. We aim for amazing.

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HJ Sims Partners with Gurwin Healthcare System to Finance New Community with 55% Pre-sales

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

CONTACT: Tara Perkins, AVP | 203-418-9049 | [email protected]

HJ Sims Partners with Gurwin Healthcare System to Finance New Community with 55% Pre-sales

FAIRFIELD, CT– HJ Sims (Sims), a privately held investment bank and wealth management firm founded in 1935, is pleased to announce the successful closing in March 2021 of a $102.1 million financing for Fountaingate Gardens, an independent living community to be located in Commack, NY.

The Gurwin Healthcare System has been providing healthcare services to Long Island residents since 1988, through the Gurwin Jewish Nursing and Rehabilitation Center and the Fay J. Lindner Assisted Living Residences.  Gurwin Jewish Healthcare Foundation acquired land adjacent Fay J. Lindner Residences with the goal of completing the continuum of care through development of an independent living community to be known as Fountaingate Gardens. Working with Eventus Strategic Partners and Perkins Eastman, Fountaingate Gardens will initially add 129 independent living apartments and offer various services/amenities to its residents. Healthcare services will be provided at the Gurwin facilities contiguous to the community.

The Foundation donated $4 million to cover early expenses and loaned nearly $16 million for pre-development capital. It also donated the 10.5-acre site, appraised at $4.675 million. Total development costs, including the tax-exempt bonds, is approximately $113.8 million. The Foundation has committed $25.5 million to the project, providing confidence to investors and enabling the bonds to be issued with only 55% of the independent living units reserved with deposits from future residents.

The Foundation agreed to an Entrance Fee Guaranty Agreement, whereby it would advance up to $2.85 million, equal the entrance fees on six independent living units, in the event occupancy did not meet expectations upon opening. It also committed $10 million in the form of a Liquidity Support Agreement.

The $102,115,000 tax-exempt bond issue was divided into two short-term Entrance Fee Principal Redemption BondsTM series and a long-term bond series. The Series 2021C bonds ($31,000,000) will be repaid when occupancy reaches 48%. The Series 2021B bonds ($32,500,000) will be repaid when occupancy reaches 86%, expected to occur in 2023. The Series 2021A ($38,615,000) has a final maturity of 2056.

Sims closed on the Series 2021 Bonds with $10.5 million of the issue purchased by Sims’ Private Wealth Management clients and the remainder purchased by 28 institutional firms. The yield on the Series C bonds is 3.125%, the yield on the Series B bonds is 4.125% and the yield on the Series A bonds maturing in 2056 is 5.375%, demonstrating demand for the project and strength of the Gurwin name in the local market.

“With tremendous support from the Sims’ team, we successfully secured bond financing for Fountaingate, Gurwin Health’s new independent living community. Despite the challenges we faced the past year, with the impact of the pandemic, Sims found creative solutions, with a firm determination to bring this project to completion. Sims not only serves as a lender; they are a model for senior housing and development. They embrace the same goals that we have as a healthcare provider: caring, quality and excellence. Thank you, Sims for all you have done to help secure the future for our community,” said Stuart Almer, CEO, Gurwin Healthcare System.

Financed Right® Solutions—Andrew Nesi: 203.418.9057 |  [email protected]

 

ABOUT HJ SIMS: Founded in 1935, HJ Sims is a privately held investment bank and wealth management firm. Headquartered in Fairfield, CT, Sims has nationwide investment banking, private wealth management and trading locations. Member FINRA, SIPC. Testimonials may not be representative of another client’s experience. Past performance is no guarantee of future results.  Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter,  Instagram.

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Market Commentary: Aiming for Amazing

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by Gayl Mileszko

1784 was another one of those years when nothing was normal. The Treaty of Paris with Great Britain was ratified, ending the American Revolutionary War.  New guidelines were being adopted for adding to the original 13 states. The New York Governor asked Congress for a declaration of war against Vermont. The first successful daily newspaper was published in Pennsylvania, and the bifocal spectacles needed by some to read it were invented by Benjamin Franklin. In Massachusetts, Governor John Hancock signed the charter for Leicester Academy, a private school initially funded by the town and its citizens, later supported for a time with state monies. Its purpose was to “promote true piety and virtue” along with the study of the English, Latin, Greek, and French languages, arithmetic and the art of speaking. Soon after its founding, the Academy broke some new ground by admitting young women. Among its earliest graduates was Eli Whitney and one of its most prominent buildings was a stop on the Underground Railroad.  Over the decades, the school moved, expanded and contracted several times, adapted to new laws making education compulsory and then prohibiting public funding of private schools, and trained cadets that served in the Union Army and World Wars I and II. The Academy eventually merged with Leicester Junior College in 1954 and with Becker Business College in 1977. Becker College, as it became known, features two campuses six miles apart in Leicester and Worcester, and offers 40 undergraduate degrees including veterinary science and e-sports management along with master’s degrees in nursing and mental health counseling. It has been the home of the state-designated Massachusetts Digital Games Institute and proudly features one of nation’s the top five video game design programs.

As with many small, private colleges, however, Becker has suffered from declining enrollment in recent years and in the 2020 Fall Semester the total fell to a low of 1,500 students. Several years of hundred thousand-dollar deficits were plugged with endowment funds that have rapidly declined to $5 million. College leadership tried mightily to bolster its finances by renegotiating contracts, selling assets, consolidating departments, cutting staff and salaries, and aggressively pursuing affiliations and mergers. But the Pandemic exacerbated the revenue loss and no alliances materialized. Despite $3.31 million from the Paycheck Protection Program, and $1.6 million of CARES Act funds, the state’s Department of Higher Education concluded in early March that the school’s financial situation was such that it was unlikely to make it through the next academic year. After a weekend of agonizing discussion, the school which has boasted its status as one of the 25 oldest academic institutions in the country, just announced on Monday that it would close in August and arrange for its students, all Becker “Hawks”, to transfer to one of 18 other local schools to complete their degrees.

The closings of longstanding schools and businesses — unimaginable just one year ago — continue to make headlines, although at a rate well below the terrifying forecasts of last Spring in large part due to the $5.2 trillion of federal stimulus that has propped up income for millions. The American “can-do” spirit is, however, never to be discounted. Despite many devastating losses, more than 4.4 million new businesses have been created in the past year according to the Census Bureau, a half million this past January alone. This is an extremely hopeful sign for those of us who still remain hesitant to take public transit, sit in a crowded stadium, attend a church service, wedding or college graduation, or open or expand a dream business whether it is a restaurant, barber shop, senior living facility, charter school, mask distributor, ionizer manufacturer, entertainment venue, residential and commercial building contractor, home care provider, or reliable news source.

We join the hundreds of millions thrilled with every new report of students returning to classrooms, workers returning to offices, drivers back on toll roads, fans back in arenas, shoppers returning to brick and mortar stores, travelers booking flights and hotel rooms, seniors and their families once again scouting best places for retirement and care. The first quarter of 2021 has come to an end and the country yearns for what some call a return to normal, with hopes fueled by the widespread COVID-19 vaccinations. But the Google searches for “normal” which spiked highest last April, ebbed then rose once more with the start of the new school year and again over Thanksgiving, have since fallen off.  With no disrespect to our veterans and the sacrifices that they and their families  have made in time of war, this Pandemic has cost our nation in dollar terms far more than World War II and it has a death toll now counting greater than that of WWII, Korea and Vietnam combined.  Our aspirations for having control over our lives once again have escalated but we are still unsure about how persistently vicious this coronavirus and its variants could be.  After 14 months of the unthinkable, we are adjusting to a new normal, perhaps and hopefully on its way to a becoming better one. As the poet Maya Angelou once so aptly put it, “If you are always trying to be normal, you will never know how amazing you can be.”

In Washington, where no day is ever normal, and the cherry blossoms have peaked early this year, intelligence agencies are scouring for details of the new 25-year, $400 billion China-Iran pact. Among other threats, our military is monitoring the three Russian nuclear submarines putting on a show in the Arctic. Immigration and border patrol agents are overwhelmed with the migrant surge on the Mexican border. Health officials are studying whether new vaccines or treatments will be needed to counteract new variants in countries with low vaccination rates, if booster shots will be required in four or six months, how much value to place in the recent World Health Organization study on the origins of Covid-19. Labor and Commerce officials are exploring the implications of various policies for mandating vaccinations for certain employees, for requiring proof of vaccinations for certain activities. Education officials are addressing the myriad of issues related to in-person versus virtual instruction. NASA is focused on the Mars rover searching for signs of past life and its potential for habitation.

On Wall Street, throughout this Pandemic and indeed for the past 13 years, most normal days have involved rallies for stock and bond investors. Many are being rattled by the prospect of inflation linked to federal stimulus that may exceed $8 trillion by the end of the year if another $3 trillion of major infrastructure proposals are adopted. In response, Treasury yields have risen alongside the belief that the Federal Reserve will step in to raise rates well in advance of the 2024 target reflected in its latest dot plots. As if we have not had enough of new entries in the U.S. record books, we have just seen one of the largest margin calls of all time. Archegos Capital Management is a family office that has been employing total return swaps to amass huge stakes in major companies without having to disclose them to regulators. Archegos (Greek for “one who leads the way”) has leveraged trading partnerships with major banks including Nomura Holdings Inc., Morgan Stanley, Deutsche Bank AG and Credit Suisse Group AG, all of whom have had to liquidate huge chunks of shares in block trades at many fire sale prices. The first quarter results of these banks are now being impacted to the tune of $5 to $10 billion.

In the wake of years-long risky high yield trading and huge IPO and SPAC investment by those in desperate search of positive real yield and returns, traditional risk management tools developed in Manhattan, London, Zurich and Tokyo appear no longer appear to prevail. With respect to risk to the global supply chain, last disrupted by the shutdowns in the airline industry, the world has truly been shaken by the sight of hundreds and hundreds of ships laden with cargo blocked from entry into the Suez Canal by just one beached container vessel, the Ever Given. In the context of data privacy, hackers have reduced and revealed the little that apparently remains.

At this writing, with two days to go until the close of the first quarter in the financial markets, stocks are up across board since the start of the year. The Dow is up over 8%, the S&P 500 more than 5%, the Nasdaq over 1% and the Russell 2000 well over 9%.  Oil prices at $61.56 have gained 27% while gold is down 9.6% to $1,713 per ounce and silver is down 6% to $24.75. Bitcoin has doubled in value to $57,610. In the bond markets, yields in short maturities have been stable: over the past three months, the 2-year Treasury has increased only 2 basis points to 0.14% while the tax-exempt AAA municipal general obligation bond yield has remained flat at 0.14%. The comparable Baa rated corporate bond yield has fallen 5 basis points to 1.73%. The 10-year and 30-year Treasury benchmark yields have, however, risen by more than 76 basis points to 1.70% and 2.40%, respectively. 10-year Baa corporate yields are up 61 basis points to 3.26%.  Municipals have outperformed their taxable counterparts by the most of any quarter since 2009, although intermediate and long-term yields have increased by more than 34 basis points since January: the 10-year AAA muni currently yields 1.10% and the 30-year yields 1.73%. Returns in the general municipal market are expected to be in the range of negative 0.3% for the quarter, while Treasuries will end the quarter down 4.2%. High yield municipal bond returns are among the fixed income leaders, with index returns in the range of 2.11% year-to-date.

Investor demand for tax-exempt securities has been magnified by tax chatter in Washington. The Biden Administration is proposing some of the largest tax increases since 1942 and this is enhancing the perceived value of munis, even at these still relatively low historic yields.  There are also several other favorable conditions prevailing for muni buyers. Investors have added $26.1 billion to muni bond funds and ETFs so far this year, reflecting retail demand for every available tax-advantaged dollar. History also shows that the muni market does well during the first 100 days of a Democratic president’s first 100 days in office. In addition, supply has been suppressed as state, local and nonprofit borrowers have awaited news of agreement on the extent of stimulus funds for more than six months. Now that federal funding has reduced the need for some deficit borrowing, volume could decline for several months to come.  On top of all this, the IRS has delayed the 2020 tax filing deadline to May, which forestalls the need for some of the usual seasonal sales for another month.

This is a week in which many around the world celebrate very precious holidays. We at HJ Sims wish you and your families happy and healthy celebrations. Your HJ Sims representatives look forward to sharing the best of these moments and, based upon your investment goals and sensible risk parameters, helping you to try and improve results you have come to see as normal in your portfolios. We appreciate all that you have endured and managed during this past year and stand alongside you as you look to move forward with your investment and borrowing plans.  We are dedicated to working for you and, as always, aim for amazing.

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Market Commentary: Galloping in on a White Horse

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by Gayl Mileszko

It is said that the difference between a good lawyer and a bad lawyer is that a bad lawyer can let a case drag out for several years while a good lawyer can make it last even longer. This is just one of the dozens of jokes we tell about attorneys. But it is no laughing matter when we have been hurt or wronged and need to hire the best legal mind to represent us. In the wake of the Pandemic, hundreds and hundreds of claims have been filed in state and federal courts against airlines, cruise lines, fitness chains, hospitals, colleges, insurers, and nursing homes, among others, challenging decisions made by companies, institutions and government officials during the crisis. These cases reflect much of the devastation, loss, and hardship suffered by individuals, families, employees, patients, residents, citizens, and consumers. They remind us of the steep economic toll that the coronavirus has taken, and that it is still rising.

Hunton Andrews Kurth is just one firm tracking cases and complaints related to the Pandemic. At last count, there were 9,521 in the U.S. Some ask for corrective actions, others seek monetary damages. There are family members who accuse senior care facility managers of failing to protect their residents and public health departments for failing to properly monitor the facilities they regulate. There are nurses suing the hospitals, cashiers suing grocers, ticket takers suing railways where they work for failing to provide proper protective equipment. Concert-goers and frequent flyers and cruisers are seeking cash refunds, students want tuition refunds, prisoners are seeking release, laid off workers are chasing unpaid wages, hospitals are suing patients for outstanding medical debt, restaurants are trying to have their business interruption insurance claims paid. Landlords, wedding reception venues and others are testing force majeure and other legal concepts alongside workplace class actions on compensation and discrimination. No doubt new standards if not precedents will be set in the months, perhaps years, to come.

To forestall waves of action, a number of states have imposed various immunity measures for certain health care providers. Discussion of liability shields or protections for businesses has been underway in Washington for the first time since Y2K. Financial markets have been provided with a form of loss prevention shield for more than a dozen years now. The Federal Reserve has stepped in to protect, if not sustain, and propel markets in every way imaginable with dozens of heretofore unheard-of programs. Starting with tools first brought out in 2008 and new ones devised within days of the 2020 Pandemic’s declaration, the Fed has shielded the so-called free market from itself and kept the global markets afloat as well. Since March of 2009, there has been intermittent volatility, sometimes very pronounced, but the Dow is up 330 percent, the S&P 500 is up 394 percent, the Russell 200 has gained 436 percent, and the Nasdaq has gained 436 percent. Gold prices are up 89% to $1,740, and silver prices have doubled to $25.73. The 2-year Treasury yield has fallen 82% to 0.14%. The 10-year is down 37% to 1.69% and the 30-year has fallen 32% to 2.39%. The 10-year Baa corporate bond yield has dropped 409 basis points to 3.25%. In the tax-exempt market. The 2-year AAA general obligation bond benchmark yield has fallen more than 80% to 0.19%. The 10- and 30-year yields are down 63% to 1.16% and 1.79%, respectively.

This week, the Fed chair and Secretary of the Treasury appear together before the House Financial Services Committee and Senate Banking Committee to discuss the government’s response to the Pandemic plus the fear du jour – inflation – and explain why the Treasury and central bank have to keep galloping in on a white horse to save markets that were meant to be driven by supply and demand, not controlled by central authorities. Our economy is widely expected to surge in the next few months as a result of the nation’s extraordinary vaccination campaign and the multi-trillions of federal stimulus funds. Inflation, as calculated by the PCE (personal consumption expenditures) index will be 2.4% at the end of 2021 according to the Fed’s median forecast. But the Administration is planning another package of relief that could add another $3 trillion to the deficit. There could be some offsetting tax hikes proposed simultaneously or separately. Markets have suddenly turned aflutter over the prospect of big jumps in consumer prices, China’s new posture, the Fed’s decision to end regulatory capital relief for banks, and the resiliency of a Treasury market which will see $183 billion of new sales this week alone.

Municipal bonds have reacted with somewhat of a yawn to most of the goings on in Treasuries and the stock market. The Fed’s plan to keep short term rates as low as possible until 2023 and continue buying $120 billion of corporate and mortgage-backed bonds every month came as no surprise to the tax-exempt market, which has been fueled by all the Democratic leadership talk of tax increases, continued inflows into bond funds and ETFs, and light supply. High yield issuance, the center of most demand, has been paltry. Last week, buyers scooped up $1.25 billion of State of Illinois general obligation bonds at the lowest end of the investment grade scale at Baa3/BBB-/BBB-. The huge demand for bonds from the Land of Lincoln elevated prices to the point that buyers could only register a 2.75% maximum yield which came on term maturities in 2046. Among other higher yielding new issues, the Government of Guam sold $58 million of Ba1 rated refunding bonds due in 2040 with a 2.66% yield. Brooks Academies of Texas borrowed $42.9 million through the Arlington Higher Education Finance Corporation, including non-rated 2051 term bonds priced with a 5% coupon to yield 4.20%; Royal School System came 3 days earlier with a $9.9 million deal due in 2051 with a 6% yield. Oak Creek Charter School of Bonita Springs in Florida sold $17.8 million of non-rated revenue bonds structured with a 2055 term maturity that priced at par to yield 5.125%. As always, we encourage you to contact your HJ Sims representative for our latest views on pricing and our secondary market offerings.

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Market Commentary: Go For It and Dream

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by Gayl Mileszko

Alena Wicker is one of several thousand applicants who just received the life-altering news of her acceptance to college. What makes her stand out is that she graduated from high school at the age of 12 and, for the past 8 years, has had the goal of becoming a NASA engineer. She is pursuing a double major in astronomical and planetary science and chemistry and, if all goes well, her dream will come true when she turns 16. Alena, who begins her studies this summer at Arizona State University. is not the youngest person ever to enroll in and graduate from college. That record is held by Michael Kearney, also homeschooled, who was accepted at the University of South Alabama at the age of eight, graduated in 1994 with a bachelor’s degree in Anthropology at the age of 10, and taught college courses while earning masters degrees in chemistry and computer science by the age of 18. But Alena says she is proof that the stars are the limit if you put your mind to it. In an inspiring message for a pandemic-weary world, she reminds us that: “It doesn’t matter what your age or what you’re planning to do. Go for it, dream, then accomplish it.”

Arizona State University is also the site of another dream come true during COVID-19. After more than five years of planning and 500 laborers on a site that broke ground in February 2018, a new $252 million non-profit intergenerational living and lifelong learning life plan community for older adults opened to its first residents on December 28 just before the start of the spring semester.  Mirabella at ASU was built by bonds on land in the heart of downtown Tempe owned by the university and features 246 independent living units, 52 health care units, an indoor pool, wellness center, physical therapy gym, theater, art museum, lecture hall, salon, spa, dog park, valet parking and four restaurants. It is 20 stories tall with environmentally friendly features and overlooks the Tempe Butte and South Mountain, providing new homes for those with an average age of 76 who are being challenged to become “master learners” by taking one of 117 classes and having full access to the university library, faculty seminars, sporting events, and all the amenities available on the nearby campus. So far fifteen percent of residents have signed on to become mentors for some of the 70,000 students on the largest of ASU’s five campuses. Although other retirement communities with ties to Oberlin College, Stanford University, Berry College, the University of Florida and the University of Michigan, or those planned by universities such as SUNY Purchase, may argue, ASU President Michael Crow dubbed Mirabella at ASU “the world’s coolest dorm.”

Big dreams and bright futures for college frosh, lifelong learning retirees, and millions of others have by no means been quashed by the COVID-19 pandemic. The CNN/Moody’s Analytics “Back-to-Normal” Index currently registers at 83% but hopes and expectations across the country are much higher as vaccinations now total 111 million and the $1.9 trillion stimulus was just signed into law by President Biden. The American Rescue Plan comes on the heels of the $900 billion December aid package and included $40 billion for public and private institutions of higher education, with at least half going toward emergency grants for students, $8.5 billion for rural hospitals, $8 billion for airports, $14 billion for airline payroll support, $30 billion to mass transit, $350 billion in state and local government aid, $1,400 per person stimulus checks for eligible individuals and families, $242 billion of supplemental unemployment insurance through September, and $5 billion for small business. As reflected by the party-line vote, many stimulus provisions were not without controversy. Democrats dubbed it the “largest anti-poverty measure in a generation” while Republicans called the bill a “blue state bailout” and “slush fund that has nothing to do with COVID”, estimating that only 7% of the funding in the bill was directed to fighting the coronavirus through public health spending, and arguing that the excessive spending puts the economy in serious danger of overheating. Moody’s estimates that the Plan could add up to 7 million jobs.

Financial markets have taken a sunnier view of the hundreds of billions that continue to rain down on America and, like much of the country, appear to be betting on a huge post-pandemic boom. The markets long ago assumed passage of another two trillion stimulus without much concern for the details as economic data continues to reflect a recovering economy with only slight inflation and a very upbeat consumer profile. The stock market was jittery again last week in response to a fourth week of rising Treasury yields but closed with the Dow at record highs. Volatility as measured by the CBOE VIX has fallen 28% this month to 20.03. U.S. Treasuries continued their selloff, and auctions for $120 billion of 3-, 10- and 30-year bonds met with some mixed investor demand. Midway through March, the 2-year Treasury yield at 0.15% is up 3 basis points, the 10-year yield at 1.60% is up 20 basis points, and the 30-year at 2.36% is up 21 basis points.

Amid astonishing levels of corporate bond issuance, demand has not tapered off. Last week alone saw $53.5 billion of investment grade corporate issuance and $15.6 billion of high yield corporate sales. Investors did pull $5.33 billion from high yield corporate funds last week but added $1.1 billion to municipal bond funds. There was a fairly heavy new issue muni calendar at $10 billion yet municipal bond prices ended higher as the massive stimulus was seen as supporting sectors across the board, reducing fears of deteriorating credits and the likelihood of increasing defaults. Talk in Washington of the Administration’s plans for tax and infrastructure measures also served to buoy the outlook for tax-exempts. So far this month, AAA general obligation muni benchmarks are down across the board: the 2-year at 0.09% is down 10 basis points, the 10-year at 1.02% is down 12 basis points, and the 30-year at 1.65% is down 15 basis points. This week’s calendar is expected to exceed $10 billion but, once again, with very little in the way of yield offered to income-seeking investors who are reliant on their financial advisors and brokers to patiently sift through secondary market offerings for gems.

The markets remain highly sensitive to Federal Reserve announcements, what is said and not said, and how the statements are phrased. The greatest fears are of rate hikes and inflation coming too soon and too fast. Some traders fear a drop in liquidity if the Fed starts to taper its $120 billion per month bond-buying program now that nine of the emergency lending programs have expired and three more will end on March 31. Without much else to focus on for now, investors clung onto every word, pause and tone in Wednesday’s press conference. Housing starts, building permits, new and existing home sales data, several fourth quarter earnings releases and IPO activity are also drivers for a week where some dream, others accomplish, and a few—as always at this time of year—caution “Beware the Ides of March”.

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Market Commentary: Miracle Vaccines Pave the Road to Recovery

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by Gayl Mileszko

Albert Martin Gitchell was a 28-year-old self-employed butcher living in Ree Heights, South Dakota who was drafted into the U.S. Army as a cook and stationed at Camp Funston, a military reservation of 54,000 troops in Fort Riley, Kansas during World War I. On March 11, 1918, he woke up complaining of a bad cold with a sore throat, headache and muscular pains. He was hospitalized with a 104 degree fever and became the first documented case of the Spanish Flu in the U.S. By noon that day, 107 of Private Gitchell’s fellow soldiers were also admitted for treatment. Within three weeks, more than 1,100 were sick enough to require hospitalization and thousands more were sick in barricades.

By April of 1920, more soldiers had died from the 1918 flu than were killed in battle during the war. Conditions including global troop movements, overcrowding, and poor hygiene helped to spread the flu in waves as it mutated. By the time the pandemic ended in 1921, there were 500 million cases and 50 million deaths worldwide with an extraordinarily high mortality in healthy people in the 20- to 40-year age group. The average life expectancy in America plummeted by a dozen years as there was no vaccine to protect against influenza infection and no antibiotics to treat secondary bacterial infections. Microscopes were unable to see something as incredibly small as a virus until the 1930s. The first licensed flu vaccine and mechanical ventilator did not appear in America until the 1940s. Over the course of the deadly 1918 pandemic, 675,000 Americans perished. The 1918 virus in fact remained the seasonal flu strain until 1958 and it was not until 90 years later, in 2008, that researchers announced what made it so deadly: a group of three genes enabled the virus to weaken a victim’s bronchial tubes and lungs and clear the way for bacterial pneumonia.

One Hundred Years Later, Another Deadly Pandemic

One hundred years after the Fort Riley admission, an unnamed 35-year old man entered an urgent care clinic in Snohomish County, Washington with a four-day history of cough and fever after his return from a family visit to Wuhan, China. He was the first confirmed U.S. case of the novel coronavirus. Hospitalized with viral pneumonia, he was placed in an isolation pod, treated with supplemental oxygen, and put on Remdesivir. Like Private Gitchell a century before, he was lucky and survived. Five days after the experimental treatment, he was discharged. But within two weeks, the first COVID fatality occurred in Santa Clara, California. Twelve months later, more than 28.8 million U.S. cases have been confirmed and more than 523,000 have died. Americans have lost one year of average life expectancy as a result of this virus that has reached around the globe faster than any pandemic in history. And despite all the advances in intensive care, antiviral drugs, and global surveillance over time, the most effective measures have remained the same as in 1918: social isolation, masks, sanitation, quarantines and good nursing care.

Unprecedented Speed of Vaccine Development

Vaccine development is a long, complex process that often takes ten to twelve years of public and private investment and is characterized by a failure rate as high as 93%. The mumps vaccine held the previous record at four short years. But, after 30 years and untold billions of spending, there is still not an AIDS vaccine effective enough to be licensed. So, the speed with which researchers and pharmaceutical companies have responded to the 2019 Pandemic is unprecedented and nothing short of miraculous. As of this writing, 92.1 million vaccines have already been administered. Daily hospitalizations have declined by 74% from the high on January 5. Daily deaths have declined 87% from the high on April 15 and 84% from the most recent peak on February 12.

Lifting Restrictions One Long Year Later

The Centers for Disease Control announced this week that people who were fully vaccinated two weeks ago can now meet safely indoors in small groups without masks. They can dine indoors, hug unvaccinated grandchildren and visit with others who have no pre-existing conditions. Officials still recommend against large events and travel. They still advise wearing masks and social distancing in public spaces, but some states such as Texas, Wyoming and Mississippi, and some companies like Albertsons’s have removed the mask mandate. The White House now says that all American adults will be able to get a vaccination by the end of May and 69% of the public intends to get a vaccine – or already has.

Long-Term Care Facilities

Most attention is, of course, still focused on COVID’s impact on long term care facilities. These include some 28,900 assisted living communities and 15,600 nursing homes with a combined 2.7 million licensed beds, 5 million residents and 1.5 million workers. The COVID Tracking Project reports 1.3 million cases and 174,474 deaths have been reported in 33,639 of these locations as of March 4, 2021. COVID has had an estimated $15 billion impact on senior living communities but this is a needs-based industry and the increasing needs of our aging population will continue to drive its recovery and growth. A recent survey of prospective residents and their adult children by ASHA found that the appeal of senior living communities has actually increased. Since vaccinations began in December, the great news is that there has been a 90% drop in COVID cases in these facilities from 30,000 per week to 3,000, according to the American Health Care Association (AHCA). 80% to 90% of long-term care residents have taken the vaccine in the past three months and many providers are now reporting zero cases. The concern is with staff acceptance, which is still averaging only about 40%. But AHCA and LeadingAge have set a target of June 30 for having 75% of care-providing staff vaccinated.

Vaccine Hesitancy

In 2019, the World Health Organization named vaccine hesitancy – a reluctance or refusal to vaccinate – as one of the ten biggest health threats facing the world. Although the vast majority of Americans (81% according to a recent Pew Research Survey) continue to view the coronavirus outbreak as a major threat to the economy, the Census Bureau reports that 23% will either probably or definitely not get vaccinated. Several of the factors involved include complacency, inconvenience, fear, and lack of confidence. Some believe that natural immunity is more effective than a vaccine, others are worried about safety given the limited amount of research conducted, particularly on pregnant women and women of childbearing years. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops questions one vaccine’s moral permissibility, saying it was developed, tested and produced using abortion-derived cell lines. Quite a few among those we know worry about side effects, tolerability, and long-term effects on immune systems. There are millions who do not get vaccines in general, do not think they need it, are afraid that personal information collected will be used for immigration-related purposes, or have been alarmed by past mistakes in the medical care system. Researchers point out that human evolution has hard-wired us for laziness, so some of us simply don’t want to look into the science, navigate confusing websites, or wait in line.

Issues with Vaccine Mandates

In order to provide safe conditions for customers, safe working environments, reduce illness and hospitalization-related workforce shortages, and return to normal operating practices, employers are reviewing rulings and guidance from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. While awaiting availability as well as more data from the FDA and CDC on the efficacy and duration of immunity for the three vaccines currently available, most companies are encouraging but not mandating vaccinations or proof of vaccination as a condition of employment. There is a legal question as to whether an employer can mandate a vaccination that only has the FDA’s emergency use authorization. But to incentivize individuals and groups to take the vaccine, some companies are requiring an educational session to inform decision-making, offering cash bonuses, holding raffles or giveaways. McDonald’s is providing four hours of paid time and Trader Joe’s is giving two hours’ worth of pay. Target offers $15 each way for staff who use Lyft to get to their appointments. Other employers are lessening PPE requirements or eliminating daily temperature checks for those receiving full doses. 

Some companies like Atria Senior Living decided to make vaccinations a mandatory condition of employment for its 11,000 workers. Quite a few other enterprises see a competitive advantage in being able to claim that all employees have been vaccinated and may try to adopt a compulsory inoculation requirement. But collective bargaining agreements may mean negotiations with unions are necessary. And under the Americans with Disabilities Act, workers who do not want to be vaccinated for medical reasons can request an exemption; employers would have to provide reasonable accommodation, such as allowing the employee to work remotely. In addition, if taking the vaccine is a violation of a “sincerely held” religious belief, these workers would also potentially be able to opt out Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. 

Liability

If an employer does choose to mandate the COVID vaccine, experts say that a company is not generally liable should an employee develop side effects from a vaccine; any claims would likely be routed through worker’s compensation programs and treated as an on-the-job injury. Immunity laws and orders offering certain protection from lawsuits arising from the pandemic vary widely by state. Provisions may apply to injuries, deaths, care decisions, and/or property damage, may apply only during the declared emergency, and generally make exceptions for gross negligence and willful misconduct.

Impact on the Municipal Bond Market

A recent study by the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Lois found that the COVID-19 pandemic has affected the U.S. municipal bond market on several different fronts. Demand for municipal bonds had been steady and strong for years as investors sought to meet safety, income and after-tax return goals but perceived risk spiked and a wave of selling began once the pandemic was declared. Bids were disconnected from the fundamental value of many bonds. Prices suffered their biggest weekly decline in 33 years. Yields increased sharply in March of 2020 until the Fed announced that it would accept bonds as collateral for certain loans and established a Municipal Liquidity Facility. Increased expenditures including unemployment aid and health services, along with a decrease in revenue associated with the extension of tax filing deadlines, had an immediate impact on states but most had built up large reserves as a result of ten years of economic growth.

After a period of considerable stress across all sectors in the primary and secondary markets, investors came to realize the essentiality of services such as water, power, and sewer, the value of stable revenue streams, and the difference between full faith and credit pledges versus unsecured corporate bond pledges as bankruptcies began to mount. But high-risk issuers including health care facilities, senior living facilities, sports and entertainment complexes, public transit, and college dormitories were hard hit as were communities reliant upon tourism. Federal relief packages and talk of more aid helped to buoy the market. Debt sales began increasing again in June 2020 as concerns over credit fundamentals eased and the liquidity crisis resulting from huge outflows from mutual and exchange-traded funds ended. Revenue disruptions persist in certain sectors including airports, toll roads and senior care facilities but these are expected to be temporary.

The Muni Market Today

Demand continues to outpace tax-exempt supply, fundamentals remain generally strong, and more federal stimulus is on the way to bolster state, city, airport, school, college and public transit finances. But the size of the latest proposed aid package, along with strong economic data, have raised concerns for inflation, which in turn has produced fresh volatility in stock and bond markets.  Many of the sectors experiencing the greatest stress one year ago, including life care and student housing, are still struggling. Bloomberg Intelligence reports that nine credits with par value of $595 million have become distressed so far this year versus four at this time last year with par value of $171 million. Twelve bonds with par value of $842 million have defaulted in 2021 while the first two months of 2020 saw only $73 million of defaults.  Nevertheless, the vast majority of bonds in the $3.9 trillion muni market are paying on time and in full. Rates are still near historic lows, so borrowers continue to enter the market with new money and refunding issues. Investors have added $24.1 billion to municipal bond mutual funds and ETFs bringing asset totals to $956 billion. The new Administration and Democratic House and Senate bring the potential for tax policy changes; the mere talk of hikes increases the value of tax-exempt securities.

The 2-year AAA municipal general obligation bond yield at 0.13% is 6 basis points lower than where it began the month of March, 1 basis point below where it started the year, and 50 basis points below where it stood one year ago.  The 10-year benchmark yield at 1.11% is 3 basis points lower in March, 30 basis points higher than where it stood at the new year, and 15 basis points above the yield on March 5, 2020. The 30-year yield at 1.76% has fallen 4 basis points this month but is 37 basis points higher on the year and 20 basis points higher than where it stood last year at this time. Municipals have outperformed Treasury counterparts so far in March, year-to-date and over the past year. High yield municipals are returning 1.69% so far this year, leading all fixed income performance with the exception of convertible bonds.

Last week, HJ Sims brought a $102.1 million non-rated deal for Fountaingate Gardens to construct 129 independent living entrance fee units adjacent to the campus of Gurwin Healthcare System on Long Island. Bonds were issued through the Town of Huntington Development Corporation in New York and structured with three term maturities with a maximum yield of 5.375% in 2056. We believe that this is only the second new senior living construction project to come to market since December of 2019 and the strong market reception reflected investor support for this essential service sector. Among other high yield transactions, the Indiana Finance Authority sold $88.8 million of Caa2/B- rated bonds due in 2026 for United States Steel priced at par to yield 4.125%. The South Carolina Jobs-Economic Development Authority issued $17.1 million of non-rated bonds for Horse Creek Academy in Aiken that featured 2055 term bonds priced at par to yield 5.00%. The Public Finance Authority sold $13.6 million of non-rated bonds due in 2051 for Discovery Charter School in Bahama, North Carolina that priced at par to yield 5.50%.

We at HJ Sims understand that this virus is going to be with us for a very long time, even after the pandemic phase passes, and that the life we knew in 2019 will not return in the same form. But today we are heartened by the pace of vaccinations, the dramatic drops in case counts, hospitalizations and deaths, the positive economic trends, the daily announcements of school, restaurant, life care community and stadium re-openings, the recognition of the need for critical infrastructure improvements, the introduction of fantastic new technologies to make our lives safer, the number of non-profits and for-profits reaching out for advice on refinancings for savings and new projects in line with long-term plans that address coming demographic changes. We encourage all readers to take the time to become better informed on the available vaccines and treatments, on how to help build a collective defense against the virus, and on how to encourage family, friends, colleagues and staff to do the same. We thank all the unsung heroes among our readership and, as always, invite information exchanges with our HJ Sims representatives.

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