U.S. Banks Risk `Untold Problem' as Muni Debt Swells

Citigroup Inc., State Street Corp. and U.S. Bancorp are among U.S. banks whose municipal bond holdings have reached a 25-year high just as state budget deficits swell to $140 billion, the most since the start of the recession.

Commercial lenders added more than $84 billion to their holdings since 2003, according to the Federal Reserve, pushing total investments to $216.2 billion at the end of the first quarter. Bank regulators and ratings companies are ramping up scrutiny of banks most at risk of being forced to raise more capital should debt prices slide.

“There is a huge untold problem here,” said Walter J. Mix III, a former commissioner of the California Department of Financial Institutions who closed 30 banks during the last banking crisis in the 1990s. “The economics lead to the conclusion that there will be downward pressure on these bonds.”

At Cullen/Frost Bankers Inc., the biggest Texas lender, holdings of municipal debt exceeded Tier 1 capital, a key measure of a bank’s ability to absorb losses, by $491 million at the end of the first quarter, data compiled by Bloomberg show. For State Street, based in Boston, the holdings make up 50 percent of Tier 1 capital. U.S. Bancorp, the Minneapolis lender, has a ratio of 28 percent. It’s 11 percent at Citigroup, the data show.

Municipal Bond Yields

Default speculation and a move by investors to the safest securities drove municipal bond yields to a 13-month high relative to U.S. Treasuries in the first half of the year. Now, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. has asked analysts to look into the issue, according to spokeswoman Michele Heller.

The 9.5 percent U.S. unemployment rate and slump in property prices have slashed local governments’ ability to pay bills. Billionaire investor Warren Buffett, speaking at a June 2 hearing of the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission in New York, predicted a “terrible problem” for municipal bonds. Buffett has said a U.S. state facing default may need a federal rescue.

Analysts and investors remain divided about the level of risk. Lenders hold just 8 percent of the $2.8 trillion state and local government debt market, and municipal bonds are only about 2 percent of total bank assets, according to the Fed.

‘Train Wreck’

“The open issue is whether it’s a slowly emerging train wreck,” said Jeff Davis, an analyst at Guggenheim Securities LLC, a unit of Guggenheim Partners LLC, whose executive chairman is former Bear Stearns Cos. Chief Executive Officer Alan D. Schwartz. “It’s hard to paint all general obligation and all revenue bonds with the same brush. The portfolios won’t go to zero.”

Municipal defaults are a slender risk, according to Moody’s Investors Service, which said in a February report that the investment-grade rate during the past four decades was 0.03 percent, compared with 0.97 percent for similar corporate issues. Investors eventually recoup an average of 67 cents on the dollar for defaulted municipal bonds.

While the historical default-rate risk for municipal debt is below corporate obligations, sudden declines in prices have already created losses at some banks.

Citigroup had an unrealized loss of $1.8 billion in the third quarter of 2008, when the municipal market sank 3.8 percent, the biggest quarterly decline since 1994, company filings and Bank of America Merrill Indexes show. The loss was deducted from the firm’s equity.

Citigroup

“Citi’s exposure to the municipal market is of the highest quality,” Danielle Romero-Apsilos, a spokeswoman for the New York-based firm, said in a statement. “We conduct rigorous stress tests under a variety of scenarios and are comfortable with our position.”

Citigroup had the largest municipal holdings among the biggest banks as of March 31, with $13.4 billion of state and local government bonds, according to FDIC call reports. That’s down from $13.8 billion at the end of last year. Bank of America Corp. held $8.5 billion, Wells Fargo & Co. owned $7.6 billion and JPMorgan Chase & Co. held $4.5 billion. Each accounted for less than 8 percent of Tier 1 capital, according to the FDIC.

Bank of America, based in Charlotte, North Carolina, has made “significant progress” boosting capital and reducing risk-weighted assets, spokesman Jerry Dubrowski said. The lender trimmed its municipal investments by more than $800 million in the first quarter. JPMorgan spokeswoman Jennifer Zuccarelli didn’t return a call for comment.

Wells Fargo

Wells Fargo, based in San Francisco, boosted its municipal holdings by more than $2 billion in the first quarter, data compiled by Bloomberg show. The investments are in municipalities “we know very well,” Chief Financial Officer Howard Atkins said on May 13.

State Street, the second-largest independent custody bank, owned $6.2 billion of state and local government debt at the end of March, the data show. State Street is “very comfortable” with its portfolio and has had no material credit issues, spokeswoman Carolyn Cichon said. At Minneapolis-based U.S. Bancorp, which owned $6.6 billion of municipal bonds, spokeswoman Jennifer Wendt also declined comment.

Cullen/Frost, which says it’s the only one of the 10 biggest Texas banks to survive the 1980s savings-and-loan crisis, is “extremely comfortable” with the municipal investments, CFO Phillip Green said in a July 1 interview.

$1 Billion in Bonds

The 142-year-old lender, based in San Antonio, bought $1 billion of municipal bonds in the 12 months through February, Green said that month. Most were issued by Texas school districts and insured by the state’s Permanent School Fund guarantee program, he said in last week’s interview.

Municipal debt gained 2 percent in the second quarter underperforming Treasuries by 2.7 percentage points, according to Bank of America Merrill indexes. In 2009, state and local government debt rose 14.5 percent.

U.S. states are likely to face $140 billion in cumulative budget gaps in the coming year, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Last year, 187 tax-exempt issuers defaulted on $6.4 billion of securities, the most since 1992, according to data from Distressed Debt Securities in Miami Lakes, Florida.

“It’s a market where it’s clear that the underlying fundamentals are lousy,” said Michael Aronstein, chief investment strategist at Oscar Gruss & Son Inc., a New York- based brokerage. “People can say fundamentals don’t matter but I’ve been doing this for 32 years. They do.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Dakin Campbell in San Francisco at dcampbell27@bloomberg.net

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