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Stimulus Bond Program Has Unforeseen Costs

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They are supposed to help states and cities that are short of cash build roads, schools and bridges.

But Build America Bonds, part of President Obama’s economic stimulus plan, are also building something else: controversy.

States and cities have embraced these taxable bonds to borrow money at what they assume are favorable interest rates. The federal government pays 35 percent of the interest costs on the bonds, a huge potential saving.

But questions about this multibillion-dollar program are piling up.

For one, Wall Street banks are charging larger commissions for selling Build America Bonds than they do for normal municipal bonds, increasing the costs to the states and cities. For another, the new bonds may be priced too cheaply, enabling quick-footed investors to turn a fast profit as the prices climb, but raising interest costs for taxpayers.

Those imbalances have caught the eye of the Internal Revenue Service, which is asking municipalities whether the bonds are being priced and sold correctly. Alarmed by the uncertainty, Florida, which has sold more than $1.6 billion of Build America Bonds, has retreated from the market.

As if all this were not enough, Wall Street banks — which have pocketed hundreds of millions of dollars in fees from the program — are now releasing research reports warning that states’ financial woes may make the bonds less attractive. Some banks are even telling investors how to bet against Build America Bonds.

While most states have embraced the program, two, California and New York, account for a third of the money raised through it, said Senator Charles E. Grassley, a Republican from Iowa and a critic of Build America Bonds. “The program might be better named the Build California and New York Bonds Program,” Mr. Grassley said.

The Obama administration wants to make the program permanent, but Senate Republicans last week introduced a bill that would let it expire as scheduled at the end of this year.

The program was created in the wake of the financial crisis to expand the traditional tax-exempt municipal bond market and attract a broader audience of investors. The market has exploded in size: More than $109 billion in Build America Bonds has been sold, according from Thomson Reuters, a news and financial data company.

“We’re quite thrilled with the program,” said James L. McIntire, the treasurer of Washington State, which sold $1.1 billion of the bonds a few weeks ago. He estimated that the bonds would save the state $155 million in interest payments.

Another clear winner has been Wall Street. Banks have collected nearly $700 million in fees for helping to issue the bonds. (That number is low because fees are not reported in a third of the transactions.)

For banks, Build America Bonds are more lucrative than traditional municipal bonds. Weighted by size, municipal issuers paid $6.55 per $1,000 of Build America Bond sold in June, compared with $6.08 for traditional municipal bonds.

Bankers argue that the fees are fair because Build America Bonds are new. Over time, they say, the fees have fallen.

Even as it sells the bonds, however, Wall Street is thinking about how to play both sides of the new market. In an April 29 report to clients, a Citigroup analyst wrote that investors who are tuned in to the “widely known municipal budget struggle” can now use derivatives and other financial mechanisms to sell short Build America Bonds.

The I.R.S., which is involved with disbursing the federal subsidies under the program, is taking a closer look at Build America Bonds, too. It is asking states for information on how the bonds were priced after some traded at significantly higher levels shortly after being issued. That could cause municipalities to pay higher yields than necessary.

When you see bonds sold almost immediately at a different price, that raises a question. It may be fine, or it may not be fine,” said Steven Miller, deputy commissioner of the I.R.S.

Excellent another bubble about to burst?

Got to love the comment from Steven Miller pure genius.

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  • 395 Brexit, House prices and Summer 2020

    1. 1. Including the effects Brexit, where do you think average UK house prices will be relative to now in June 2020?

      • down 5% +
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