Muni Bonds: Matt Taibbi’s Antidote to Meredith Whitney

By Feb 8, 2011, 1:26 PM Author's Blog  

The credit-worthiness of specific muni bonds, particularly non-general obligation project bonds, has become a hot topic since “AAA” bond insurers imploded, partly due to mispriced risk premiums on protection they wrote on value-destroying CDOs for Wall Street banks.

Meredith Whitney provided no research to back up her call on a recent 60 Minutes segment of coming defaults by large municipalities amounting to $50 – $100 billion. Bloomberg News revealed that her muni report was on the state level and didn’t cover large municipalities. That’s a problem, since muni credit issues are granular and the severity of the problem–or non-problem–depends on the specific situation. Her unsupported claim gives muni-problem-deniers ammunition to claim there is no substance to the argument that there are serious problems with certain muni bonds.

The Columbia Journalism Review made a valid point when it called out 60 Minutes for not making sure Whitney could back up her claims. Max Abelson and Michael McDonald of Bloomberg News debunked her “untarnished” track record and Spaceballs worthy jabberwocky:

Bloomberg News reported in October that about two-thirds of her stock picks since starting her company in 2009 had fared worse than market indexes. A 2008 Fortune cover story ranked Whitney 1,205th out of 1,919 equity analysts the previous year, based on stock picking.

“A lot of this is, you know it, but can you prove it? There are fifth-derivative dimensions that I don’t think I need to spell out to my clients,” [Whitney] said.

Whitney Municipal-Bond Apocalypse Short on Specifics,” Bloomberg News, Feb 1, 2011 (excerpted and condensed).

In contrast, Matt Taibbi’s Rolling Stone expose of Jefferson County, Alabama’s sewer project is a hair-raising account of financial corruption, bribes, cost padding, pay-to-go-away agreements between investment banks, and fee slamming that wildly inflated the cost of a sewer project from $250 million to $3 billion. It saddled Jefferson County’s taxpayers with a too-onerous debt burden and broke the financial back of the county. JP Morgan paid a $50 million fine to the SEC for its role in the devastation:

“The county, it turned out, was more than $5 billion in debt — meaning that courthouses, jails and sheriff’s precincts had to be closed so that Wall Street banks could be paid…Homes stood empty, businesses were boarded up, and parts of already-blighted Birmingham began to take on the feel of a ghost town.”

Looting Main Street,” by Matt Taibbi, Rolling Stone, March 21, 2010

Whitney might back up her claim by walking the media through at least one analysis–if she has one–of the specific problems of a large municipal bond issue, since it is beginning to look as if Whitney’s claims are a series of PR stunts.

Whitney’s claim-to-fame, a bearish bank call on Citi, was over-hyped. Her Citi call was late. Jim Rogers, a world famous investor with a provable track record, appeared with her in early 2007 on Cavuto on Business and explained why he was short (bearish on) Citi. Whitney refuted him and continued to rate Citi sector perform, yet Citi underperformed the sector during this time period. It wasn’t until October 31, 2007 that she took Rogers’ hint. Likewise her Bear Stearns call was late, and her Lehman call was tardy. I mentioned this in a commentary after either she or her PR people seemed to take credit for an apparently non-existent early call on AIG. (See: “Reporting v. PR: Meredith Whitney and AIG,” TSF, March 23, 2009 .)

Meredith Whitney’s PR has more issues than Rolling Stone, but Matt Taibbi provided evidence that he researched the substance of the problems behind a muni bond issue.

Janet Tavakoli is the president of Tavakoli Structured Finance, a Chicago-based firm that provides consulting to financial institutions and institutional investors. Ms. Tavakoli has more than 20 years of experience in senior investment banking positions, trading, structuring and marketing structured financial products. She is a former adjunct associate professor of derivatives at the University of Chicago’s Graduate School of Business. Author of: Credit Derivatives & Synthetic Structures (1998, 2001), Collateralized Debt Obligations & Structured Finance (2003), Structured Finance & Collateralized Debt Obligations (John Wiley & Sons, September 2008). Tavakoli’s book on the causes of the global financial meltdown and how to fix it is: Dear Mr. Buffett: What an Investor Learns 1,269 Miles from Wall Street (Wiley, 2009).
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