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.