How many local governments got sucker punched on fancy financial deals, and how much is it going to cost taxpayers to pay Wall Street? Nobody knows.
How much could complicated municipal bond side bets end up costing taxpayers? Nobody knows.
According to Pennsylvania Auditor General Jack Wagner, who said Thursday the deals “should be banned immediately,” it could be hundreds of millions of dollars in his state alone.
Securities and Exchange Commission Chairman Mary Schapiro also wants to know and last week ordered public hearings.
But Peter Shapiro, managing director of Swap Financial Group, said Thursday despite some examples of deals called interest rate swaps going bad, “for the vast majority of these cases, swaps have saved them (governments) a lot of money and worked well.”
Is this yet another national financial catastrophe taxpayers will have to bail out? Shapiro said no, “bottom line is: It’s over.”
But Wagner and Schapiro aren’t so sure the $2.8 trillion municipal debt outstanding, $4 trillion traded last year and billions more in derivatives based on them are Ok. Most importantly they claim lack of oversight puts taxpayers at risk.
In a speech prepared for delivery to the annual Investment Company Institute meeting, Schapiro called for SEC regulation of the municipal debt market.
She wrote, “we can see that there are disruptions in the markets for municipal auction rate securities and variable rate demand obligations, which, combined with the recession, have impacted both investors and issuers.” That means taxpayers.
For municipalities and school districts already forced to cut services and lay off workers to pay retirees and fund irresponsible commitments, scraping bone to pay off reckless financial bets adds injury to insult.
According to Wagner, “A special investigation last year found that 107 school districts and 86 local governments had $14.9 billion in public debt tied to swaps. …
Earlier he detailed bad deals that cost taxpayers more than $400 million.
Swap Financial’s Shapiro, whose firm advises governments on “the biggest market share” of these deals, agreed that “if you lay corruption over this, you can get some serious problems.”
But he said regulation in
He agreed “lack of aggregate data” is a big part of the problem. Municipal debt has “better disclosure than any other market, but it’s not centralized.”
That may not be too little, but it may be too late. Right now nobody knows whether the smart-money boys sucker punched the bumpkins again or how big the bill could be.
With states and municipalities already trillions of dollars in the hole for unfunded retirement promises, neglected infrastructure and other deferred expenses, settling public officials’ bad bets could be the straw that breaks taxpayers’ backs.
Wagner put it this way, “We continue to find examples of hard-earned taxpayer dollars going to Wall Street. Money that should be invested in students, classrooms, and fixing infrastructure in
Frank Keegan is national editor for the Franklin Center on Government and Public Integrity. firstname.lastname@example.org