Navajos Rated Above California Plan First Bonds: Muni Credit

The Navajo Nation in Window Rock, Arizona
Houses stand on the Navajo Nation in Window Rock, Arizona. Photographer: Laura Segall/Bloomberg

The Navajo Nation, the largest American Indian tribe by members and reservation size, plans to issue its first bonds in a $120 million offering that would be the biggest sale of nongaming tribal debt in at least a decade.

With more than $1 billion in reserves, the nation gets almost one-third of its revenue from oil, gas and coal royalties. It plans to use the proceeds to finance about 50 projects, including a tourist center, on its 27,000-square-mile reservation in Arizona, New Mexico and Utah, according to the Navajo Division of Economic Development.

The nation carries an A rating from Standard & Poor’s, one level above California’s. The sale is intended to create thousands of jobs and stimulate the economy on a reservation where, even with energy revenue, more than 37 percent of the 170,000 residents lived below the federal poverty level in 2009.

“It will be a great demonstration of Indian Country as a domestic emerging market,” said Gavin Clarkson, an associate professor at the University of Houston Law Center who studies tribal finance.

The private placement may be held as soon as year-end and will likely include both taxable and tax-exempt debt, said Doug Goe, vice chair of finance for Orrick Herrington & Sutcliffe LLP, the tribe’s bond counsel in Portland, Oregon.

The issue may be “a start for tribal governments to enter the public-finance markets routinely,” said Mike Lettig, executive vice president for Native American financial services and agriculture for Cleveland-based KeyBank, a unit of KeyCorp, Ohio’s second-biggest lender. Its KeyBanc Capital Markets unit will handle the placement.

New Tool

“It is a way-overdue tool for the Native American community,” said Lettig, a Navajo descendant who isn’t an official member of the tribe.

The Navajos will offer 20-year maturities, said Raymond Nopah, chief financial officer of the tribe’s economic-development division in St. Michaels, Arizona. A 20-year tax-exempt general-obligation bond rated A- yields about 4.76 percent, compared with 3.94 percent for a AAA rated bond, according to a Bloomberg Fair Valuation index. The spread touched 80 basis points last month, the narrowest since January 2010, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. A basis point is 0.01 percentage point.

A tentative project list reviewed by Bloomberg News on the reservation in St. Michaels in September included a dozen convenience stores, several fast food restaurants, two shopping centers, office and industrial complexes, a radio station, a $14 million tourist center and $23 million for seven existing hotels. The projects would generate $3.2 million annually in rental income and taxes and would directly or indirectly create more than 6,000 jobs, according to tribal estimates.

Tribal Courts

The Navajos intend to seek out investors willing to settle disputes in tribal courts, rather than through U.S. or state legal systems. Goe said he believed it’s the first time those terms have been included in a bond issue.

The requirement “would be a reaffirmation of the legitimacy of tribal courts -- this time from the financial market,” Clarkson said.

The tribal-court stipulation “is one more hurdle in terms of investing in a deal like this,” said Lyle Fitterer, managing director of Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin-based Wells Capital Management. Fitterer, who helps oversee $26 billion of municipal bonds, said the Navajos’ stand may push up yields.

Tax-Exempt Challenge

The bond sale would be the largest by a tribal government that isn’t related to casinos or backed by gaming revenue, according to data compiled by Bloomberg since the late 1990s.

Indians face special challenges to access the tax-exempt bond market, according to Clarkson. Unlike their state and local-government counterparts, tribes are generally barred from using tax-exempt bonds to finance non-essential projects such as convention centers and hotels.

The Navajo Nation had almost 274,000 members in 2005, the most recent year for which comparative numbers were available, said Nedra Darling, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Indian Affairs Office in Washington. The Cherokee Nation was second-largest with about 258,000 members. The reservation stretches from the Grand Canyon into New Mexico and includes some of the most remote desert areas of the American Southwest.

In May, S&P issued its A rating with a stable outlook, citing revenue from natural resources and the permanent fund balance of more than $1 billion. The fund was established in 1985 after the tribe won a court case over taxes from energy companies doing business on Navajo lands. The fund, which was built by deposits of 12 percent of tribal revenue annually, hasn’t been tapped since it was established. To spend the principal requires a two-thirds vote of the tribal council followed by two-thirds approval by members in a referendum.

AAA Tribe

Taxes and land and business-site leases, which the Navajos intend to expand with the proposed projects, are the other major sources of revenue, according to S&P.

Karl Jacob, senior director in state and local government for S&P in Boston, said his firm has only one other outstanding municipal-bond rating for a tribal government. The Colorado-based Southern Ute has a top AAA rating.

“I don’t know that many tribes over the years have had the resources to garner an investment-grade rating on their own,” Jacob said. Tribes have traditionally borrowed directly from banks or accessed the capital markets with gaming-backed revenue, he said.

The Navajo Nation’s rating is an assessment of the tribe’s overall credit, and any specific bond issue could be rated differently based on the details of the deal, Goe said.

Other Tribes

Fitch Ratings has issued non-gaming public ratings for four tribal governments, said Managing Director Jessalynn Moro in New York. The Southern Ute, which issued $109.5 million in casino-related revenue bonds last year, has a AAA general-obligation rating. The Reno-Sparks Indian Colony of Nevada received a BB rating with a stable outlook last year; the tribe issued $15.8 million of debt in 2006 with an AA- rating secured by a letter of credit from US Bancorp.

In March, Fitch affirmed a BBB- rating, its lowest investment grade, on the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma for $23.6 million in 2006 hospital bonds. And the Chickasaw Nation of Oklahoma received a BBB- rating in 2007 for $90 million in health-care bonds.

Cherokee Bonds

A Cherokee hospital-revenue bond issued to build two medical clinics in Oklahoma and maturing in 2016 yielded 4.30 percent when it was issued on Dec. 11, 2006, in line with a Bloomberg Fair Value index of BBB rated hospital bonds. In September, the Cherokee 2016 bond traded in a range of 3.35 percent to 3.50 percent, compared with a range of 3.42 percent to 3.61 percent for the index.

Katherine Benally, 55, of Dennehotso, Arizona, who heads the Navajo Council’s resources and development committee, said the bond issue is an important step for the tribe in securing its future.

“I am concerned with the time when we won’t have revenues from our natural resources,” she said while taking a break during a council budget session in Window Rock, Arizona, in September. “We need to be ready for that.”

Following are descriptions of coming sales of municipal bonds:

MINNESOTA plans to sell $788 million of tobacco settlement bonds as soon as the week of Nov. 14. This will be Minnesota’s first tobacco-bond deal. A portion of the proceeds will help balance the state’s two-year budget. The transaction includes $81 million of taxable debt maturing in 2014 and 2015. Another $706.5 million of tax-exempt bonds will mature annually from 2016 through 2026, with $285.2 million due in 2031. Fitch Ratings is expected to rate the sale BBB+, its third-lowest investment grade, according to the preliminary official statement. Standard & Poor’s is expected to rate bonds maturing in 2014 through 2022 A, its sixth-highest grade, and debt maturing 2023 and thereafter one level lower at A-. (Added Nov. 1)

PHILADELPHIA plans to offer $187 million of water- and wastewater-revenue bonds as soon as next week to fund capital improvements to a system that serves more than 2 million people, according to a preliminary official statement. Refunding will account for $52 million of the sale. Ramirez & Co. will lead the offering. Moody’s rates the bonds A1, its fifth-highest grade. (Added Nov. 1)

ALASKA HOUSING FINANCE CORP., which bought 1,133 home loans in fiscal 2010, plans to offer $229 million of mortgage-revenue bonds as soon as this week, according to a preliminary official statement. A $29 million portion of the sale is federally taxable. Morgan Keegan will lead the sale. Fitch gives the bonds its top AAA rating. (Added Nov. 1)

DELAWARE, the legal home of most U.S. corporations, will sell $275 million of general-obligation bonds as soon as this week, according to a preliminary official statement. Fitch rates the bonds AAA. Bank of America Merrill Lynch will lead the deal. (Added Oct. 31)

CHICAGO, which faces a $636 million deficit on a $3 billion budget, will sell $238 million of sales-tax revenue bonds as early as next week to refund prior debt, according to a preliminary official statement. A $19 million portion of the deal is taxable. Standard & Poor’s rates the bonds AAA, its highest grade, and Fitch rates them AA-, its fourth-highest. Loop Capital Markets will lead a syndicate of banks on the deal. (Added Oct. 31)

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