- The Washington Times - Friday, March 28, 2008

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — States, cities, hospitals and major public agencies battered by wild interest-rate swings in one sector of the municipal bond market are scrambling to refinance the debt as they add up the damages to their budgets and nurse some hard feelings.

The highest-profile fallout so far is the tightening of the student-loan market, including the suspension of new student loans by agencies in Pennsylvania, Iowa and Michigan.

Budget makers who had planned to pay about 4 percent on borrowed funds as recently as December now are searching for ways to accommodate rates of 5 percent to 10 percent in their budgets. So far, most affected institutions appear to be withstanding the tens of millions of dollars in additional costs without laying off workers or shutting down crucial services.

Still, it’s a lousy time to refinance, as many in the stampede away from the broken “auction-rate securities” bond market can attest.

A shrunken pool of banks willing to lend in the midst of the mortgage-related credit mess are being more selective about the bonds they choose to underwrite. There also are fewer bond insurers whose backing is worth the money, after most were downgraded because of growing losses in mortgage-backed securities.

As a result, refinancing is more expensive, complicated and time-consuming than in the past.

“A year ago, we could have issued debt without a problem in a number of different markets,” said Tim Guenther, the chief financial officer of Pennsylvania’s student-loan agency, the second-biggest issuer of auction-rate debt this decade. “But at this point, it seems to be almost impossible to issue debt anywhere.”

For more than 20 years, investment banks promised government and nonprofit agencies they could save money by selling auction-rate bonds. Those securities had terms of up to 30 years, but since the interest paid on them was reset at auctions every 7, 28 or 35 days, investors treated them like short-term debt and the rates paid by issuers were lower than if they sold plain-vanilla long-term bonds.

Buyers also benefited because their yields were slightly higher than money market funds, and they were lulled into the expectation they could easily cash out within days when the next auction was held.

All of that was based on the assumption there would always be eager buyers in what grew to be a $300 billion-plus market. But investors began fleeing late last year as write-downs of mortgage-backed securities grew and the backing of some bond insurers became worthless after their downgrades by credit-rating agencies.

As the crunch intensified, investment banks also started backing away from their promise to buy the bonds at auctions that no one else wanted. That caused many auctions to technically fail, triggering requirements that called for higher interest rates for a day or longer — the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency paid 25 percent at one point — and prompted a rush to refinance into fixed-rate bonds or bank-backed variable-rate bonds.

While officials from states, cities, public authorities and nonprofit hospitals say they intend to escape the auction-rate market, even if it takes all year, the demand for safer securities has left at least one analyst concerned that lenders are in too short supply.

“It’s really not a good situation and it’s getting worse,” said Matt Fabian, a managing director at the independent research firm Municipal Market Advisors in Westport, Conn.

To help, Mr. Fabian suggested that temporary credit relief be allowed from home-loan banks — a system of 12 quasi-public regional banks created during the Depression to ensure a stable source of funds for residential mortgages.

Legislation to that effect is being pressed in Congress by hospitals, cities and counties. It would change federal law to allow thousands of banks to guarantee tax-exempt municipal bonds. Supporters say that would free up financing for local projects such as roads and sewers that otherwise might be bogged down in tight lending markets.

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