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Municipal

Perspective published on January 11, 2023

2023 Municipal Market Outlook

Summary

  • The municipal market enters 2023 with strong, but ebbing, credit fundamentals and supportive technicals.
  • Most issuers begin the new year from a very high credit base, owing to unusually strong liquidity.
  • Seasoned credit judgment should increasingly help investors discern value between spreads for lower and higher quality names.

The municipal market enters 2023 with strong, but ebbing, credit fundamentals and with a supportive technical backdrop.

Most issuers begin the new year from a very high credit base, owing to unusually strong liquidity. Two years-worth of federal pandemic relief, limited new state-local hiring and debt issuance, and a temporary boost to tax collections stemming from goods and asset-price inflation have biased reserves and ratings upward and kept default rates low.

However, the strong fundamental backdrop is set to weaken. The fiscal support that has characterized the last two-plus years is poised to reverse, and loose monetary policy, which has supported asset prices for over a decade, is now biased toward tightening. Latent secular credit challenges are now poised to reemerge as material credit risks. These include deferred maintenance, climate change-related risks, ingrained remote work patterns, and struggles in the hospital and private higher education sectors, among others. We expect that investors will pay increasingly more attention to credit issues in 2023 and beyond.

On the technical front, demand is likely to outpace supply in 2023. Outflows from municipal bond mutual funds have already begun to abate as interest rates normalize and investors reallocate to bonds.

The strong – but weakening – credit environment suggests that disciplined credit picking is likely to become more important for high-grade separate account investors. This seems especially true given that interest rates have likely migrated to a higher range. Seasoned credit judgment should increasingly help investors discern value between spreads for lower and higher quality names.

Market strengths

Liquidity. By several measures, municipal liquidity is at multi-decade highs. Collectively, the state and local government sector recorded four consecutive quarters of surpluses between 2Q2021 and 1Q2022. That last occurred in 1977-78 (See Figure 1).1

The increase in liquidity is a credit feature that spans geographies and sectors. State reserve balances reached a record 12 percent of general fund revenue in fiscal year (FY) 2022.  At the local level, city, county, and school district balances are up by 25 percent, 36 percent, and 16 percent, respectively, from FY19.3

Revenue issuers also exhibit better liquidity. Airport, toll road, water-sewer, and retail electric issuers had noticeably more cash-on-hand in FY21 than before the pandemic (See Figure 2). With few exceptions, early data for FY22 suggest no material declines.4

Federal support. Federal aid has played an outsized role in supporting municipal liquidity. As we have previously noted, three COVID-era stimulus bills provided municipal issuers with the equivalent of 40 percent of annual state and local government tax revenue (See Still Work To Do for Many Municipal Issuers After Credit Positive American Rescue Plan).5 Most of this aid came through two payments under the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 (ARPA), the second of which was made in mid-2022.6

In the very near-term, federal support should remain strong relative to historical norms. Federal subsidies under the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) should begin to flow (See The Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill Is an Imperfect Credit-Positive for the Muni Market).7 The Inflation Reduction Act subsidizes public electric utilities and offers incentives for individuals to purchase expensive (and taxable) durable goods like electric vehicles, heat pumps, and insulation.8 Indirect federal support via industrial policy is also set to increase. The CHIPS (Creating Helpful Incentives to Produce Semiconductors) Act of 2022 allocates funding for strategically important employers in the semiconductor industry and includes funds to develop regional high-tech hubs.9 However, as we outline below, the federal policy posture is likely to become less friendly for municipals.

Conservative hiring and debt issuance practices. Improved liquidity is also the result of cautious spending and borrowing patterns. Municipal payrolls and debt declined in nearly every state since the pandemic began (See Figure 3). State and local employment is down 500,000 (2.7 percent) from its February 2020 level.10 Municipal debt dropped to 12 percent of U.S. gross domestic product (GDP) from 14 percent over the same period.11

Tax revenue trajectory. Key tax revenues also grew faster than expected over the past two years.12 Sales and income tax growth exceeded the pre-pandemic trend (See Figure 4). The uptick reflects higher prices for taxable goods and services as well as growth in employment and wages. Bonds backed by sales and income-tax revenue benefitted, alongside general fund health. 

Property tax growth is also up (4.5 percent year-over-year in Q3-22). The recent decline in home prices will slow the pace of growth, moving forward. But property taxes ordinarily lag home-price appreciation by 1 to 3 years.13

Low default rates. The market’s strong liquidity profile contributed to another year of low default rates. Through late November 2022, only 44 municipal bonds defaulted. Nursing home financings comprise over 50 percent of reported defaults, consistent with 2021. The default rate is likely to finish the year as the third lowest since 2010, trailing only 2017 and 2018 (See Figure 5). 

Upward ratings bias. Rating agency upgrades strongly exceeded downgrades in 2022, in parallel to the market’s low default rate (See Figure 6). Through the first three quarters of the year, upgrades exceeded downgrades by 4.0x at Moody’s and 2.7x at Standard & Poor’s. The upward bias in ratings spanned sectors and states, though it was a bit lower for the hospital and higher ed sectors.14

Market Risks

Fiscal policy bias. Federal policy is now likely to transition from supportive and stable to more austere and less certain.15

Federal mandatory spending is likely to crowd-out aid to municipal issuers over the next decade. Mandatory programs and net interest payments will increase to 100 percent of federal revenue by 2032, up from 86 percent today (See Figure 7).16 This estimate presumes relatively low long- and short-term interest rates that may prove unrealistic.17 We note that in the last decade, Congress has routinely financed the highway trust fund via general fund transfers, and in 2017, the Medicaid program was nearly converted into a less generous block grant program.18 Spending on these items accounts for 22 percent of all state and local government expenditures.19

Stabilizing the federal budget trajectory may prove more politically fraught than even in the early 2010s. Polling suggests that the electorate is broadly skeptical of additional federal spending and remains polarized (See Figure 8). “Anti-system” and “strong partisan” voters outnumber those in the middle.20 There is evidence that polarization has peaked, but it may take a few political cycles before this theme manifests itself in smoother policymaking.21 There is even a low risk of a federal government shutdown or federal debt limit hiccup in 2023. The new Congress’ inability to timely elect a Speaker of the House in January 2023 underscores these risks.22

Tighter monetary policy. The Federal Reserve (Fed) is likely to retain structurally higher interest rates for some time to ward off inflation and normalize monetary policy after a decade of extremely low nominal (and sometimes negative) real rates. Tighter monetary policy may have several negative credit implications.

First, a higher real interest rate environment is likely to depress asset prices and reduce capital gains tax receipts.23 We estimate that capital gains income will decline to 5 percent of adjusted gross income in 2023 based on the historic relationship between reported capital gains and the U.S. Net Worth/GDP ratio (See Figure 9). A weaker capital gains environment tends to complicate budget forecasting and diminish revenue in states that rely meaningfully on progressive income taxes (e.g., CA, NY, NJ, CT). 

Second, higher real rates are likely to dampen pension fund performance. Much of the 2021 run-up in asset prices was given back by pension funds in 2022. Slightly higher near-term pension contributions are now likely for many plans.24

Third, the Fed’s interest rate policy may induce a recession. Slower growth should increase the relevance of management as a driver of credit resilience, especially for state and local government issuers. Government issuers tend to spend down reserves during recessions to avoid making politically unpopular spending and taxing decisions. We note that some states and local governments have already funded tax cuts or permanent spending programs with one-time federal ARPA funds, laying the groundwork for structural deficits in the future.25 Rating agencies are likely to overlook this behavior for longer than typical in the current cycle.26 But eventually, deficit financing tends to erode credit fundamentals and pressure bond ratings lower.  

Management discipline will be even more important to credit fundamentals if inflation persists. Historically, high inflation dampens public support for raising taxes, cutting benefits, or reducing essential-service spending. A record number of state and local property tax caps were enacted in the 1970s.27 We note that lawmakers in some states already are discussing increasing pension cost of living adjustments (COLAs) for certain beneficiaries. Wage pressure is also persistent in some places.

As fiscal and monetary policy support abates, latent secular credit challenges are likely to reemerge. We have discussed these risks in past outlooks, but they are worth mentioning again.

  • Deferred maintenance. The multi-decade deferred maintenance gap that characterized the market pre-COVID remains well entrenched.28 Since the onset of the pandemic, inflation-adjusted capital spending has declined by over 20 percent (See Figure 10). The pandemic slowed state and local capital formation, first, by inducing a recession, and second, by contributing to inflated construction costs. Many issuers have taken to delaying capex projects. For example, in December, the State of Michigan announced the delay of a planned $1.9 billion motor fuels tax-backed issuance.29 Philadelphia’s water and sewer system has deferred hundreds of millions in projects on account of inflation, and the Airport Authority in Des Moines, Iowa has opted to segment a large 14-gate terminal project into smaller pieces, funded over a longer time horizon.30 The IIJA should help issuers finance some of their growing capital needs, but it is helpful only to a point.31 Eventually, deferred maintenance is likely to result in more borrowing and/or higher annual capital requirements for some issuers.
  • Climate change. Issuers remain under pressure to hasten climate-adaptation and mitigation efforts and to disclose climate-related risks to investors. Preparing for climate change is likely have credit implications across sectors and may prove costly for certain issuers. The term “climate change” appeared in at least 875 Moody’s Investors Service publications in 2022, most of which were rating opinions.32 In November, Moody’s proposed a framework for “Net Zero Assessments” for issuers including public sector and nonprofit entities “with business-like revenue-raising capacity.”33 Recent estimates of the cost to achieve “net zero” emissions by 2050 range from 0.6 percent to 0.9 percent of global GDP.34

  • Remote work. Mass transit issuers and urban business districts remain vulnerable to now ingrained remote work patterns. Mass transit systems face a slow ridership recovery and waning federal aid, among other challenges.35 Issuers with a high concentration of commercial property taxpayers are vulnerable to permanently weaker demand for office space. 

    Of note, commercial property values are only just beginning to reflect changed work-from-home norms (See Figure 11). We anticipate that cities with larger, more diversified tax bases will prove better credit risks in the new commercial real estate landscape. Demand for real estate in larger, more established metro areas remain strong, in general. Larger cities may be more successful in repurposing space for different uses (e.g., residential). Moreover, more diversified tax bases can more readily absorb the decline in commercial real estate prices by raising tax rates on other types of property.

Risks for hospitals and private higher education issuers. Hospital issuers continue to face worker shortages, wage pressures, and reduced volumes.36 The median hospital margin in October 2022 was -0.5% compared to 4% a year earlier, per Kaufman Hall’s monthly flash report, which surveys over 900 hospital systems.37 Moody’s and Standard & Poor’s have assigned a negative outlook to the sector for 2023.38

Private higher education issuers face sector-specific challenges, as well. There, enrollment declines and increased competition are driving mergers and dissolutions.39 Endowment gains buoyed the sector in 2021 but partially reversed in 2022, which is likely to pressure liquidity a bit more in 2023.40

Technicals

Demand and supply patterns are likely to be supportive of bond prices in 2023.

Demand. Demand in 2022 was lighter than in prior years, as interest rates rose rapidly, depressing bond prices and returns, and as investors took advantage of tax-loss harvesting strategies throughout the year.

This outflow pattern may now reverse. Interest rates now offer investors reasonable all-in yields (See Making the Case for Municipal Bonds in Today’s Market Environment). Since late September, modestly stronger demand from ETFs coupled with unusually weak new money supply has contributed to a decline in yields, but as Figure 12 illustrates, all points on the AAA municipal yield curve remain at least 150 basis points higher than they were at the beginning of the 2022. 

Supply. Published supply forecasts are unusually broad for 2023, ranging from $350 billion (Hilltop Securities) to $500 billion (Bank of America). The wide range in supply estimates reflects differing opinions on the path for interest rates, refunding volumes, and issuers’ desire to borrow for new projects.

Tepid new money supply seems possible, again, in 2023. Assuming the economy slows, issuers are likely to fund one-time capital needs from reserves more often and aggressively deploy funds available through the IIJA.

Refunding volume is also likely to remain subdued, in our view. Tax-exempt advance refundings have been prohibited since 2017’s Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. Taxable advance refunding opportunities seem scant given the current rate environment.

Valuations

Municipal credit spreads widened in 2022 in large part due to secondary market selling from mutual fund outflows and more attractive all-in yields from high-grade alternatives. The spread differential on low investment grade bonds increased relative to higher quality names (See Figure 13). Earlier this year, we noted that tighter monetary policy likely signaled the end of the “Great Compression” in spreads (see Tailwinds To Headwinds: Navigating a Shifting Landscape in Municipal Bonds).  

Given the new market backdrop, characterized by a higher range for interest rates and declining credit fundamentals, we expect that disciplined credit picking will become more important for high-grade separate account investors, moving forward. Breckinridge’s credit expertise and efficient trade execution should provide a value-add to clients, at points, during the year.

 

[1] The streak of surpluses would likely have extended into 2Q2022, but the Bureau of Economic Analysis recharacterized the second tranche of State and Local Fiscal Recovery Funds (SLFRF) under the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) as “capital transfers” instead of ordinary federal aid. The change reduced “current receipts” in 2Q2022, which resulted in the state-local sector reporting a small deficit.  

[2] For the first time, all 50 states reported holding at least some reserves, based on Breckinridge analysis of reserve fund data per the National Association of State Budget Officers (NASBO) Fiscal Survey of the States, June 2022.

[3] Breckinridge analysis of Merritt Research Services data, FY19 to FY21.

[4] Breckinridge analysis of Merritt Research Services data for the sectors listed in Figure 2. The “early indications” are based on an analysis of over 100 hospital systems, 18 airports, and 43 water-sewer systems, among others. By contrast, the data in Figure 2 are based on far more observations in each sector (500+ for hospitals, 142 airports, and 800+ water-sewer systems. Notably, airport and toll road liquidity should benefit from improving traffic volumes, which have returned to pre-pandemic levels in many places. (See: Transportation Security Administration (TSA) passenger throughput data shows that airline traffic is 95 percent of its pre-pandemic peak (Breckinridge analysis). Toll road traffic reached similar levels in 1Q22, per Fitch Ratings. The rating agency expected higher traffic volumes as the year progressed. See: https://www.fitchratings.com/research/infrastructure-project-finance/fitch-ratings-updates-us-airport-toll-road-traffic-monitor-16-08-2022.)

[5] https://www.breckinridge.com/insights/details/still-work-to-do-for-many-municipal-issuers-after-credit-positive-american-rescue-plan/

[6] https://home.treasury.gov/policy-issues/coronavirus/assistance-for-state-local-and-tribal-governments/state-and-local-fiscal-recovery-funds

[7] https://www.breckinridge.com/insights/details/the-bipartisan-infrastructure-bill-is-an-imperfect-credit-positive-for-the-muni-market/

[8] https://www.bondbuyer.com/news/inflation-reduction-act-may-spark-more-municipally-owned-clean-energy

[9] https://www.mckinsey.com/industries/public-and-social-sector/our-insights/the-chips-and-science-act-heres-whats-in-it

[10] Breckinridge analysis of Bureau of Labor Statistics data, Feb. 2020 to October 2022. Note that hiring is a reasonable proxy for overall spending patterns. Per the U.S. Census of State and Local Governments (2020), salaries and wages comprise 51 percent of current operations costs, excluding capital outlays, interest on debt, and insurance benefits and repayments (e.g., unemployment compensation trust fund payments).

[11] Breckinridge analysis of Federal Reserve Flow of Funds data. Figures exclude state and local government securities (SLGS).

[12] Sales, income, and property taxes anchor the non-federal portion of state and local government revenue. Together, these revenues comprise 61 percent of non-federal revenue, each year, per a Breckinridge analysis of U.S. Census of Governments data.

[13] See Breckinridge’s 2022 outlook.

[14] For example, Moody’s Investors Service has upgraded 18 hospitals and downgraded 16 in 2022. Standard & Poor’s has upgraded 19 and downgraded 24.

[15] Note that the federal policymaking environment also creates risks for the tax-exemption. This is not a credit concern, per se. But it is worth investors’ attention, nonetheless. No change to the exemption should be expected in the very near-term, but conversations about muni-related tax provisions could begin sooner than appreciated. Key provisions of the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) expire in January 2026.

[16] Congressional Budget Office (CBO), 10-year Budget Projections, May 2022. Note that these projections assume interest rates lower than those currently available in the market. In a recent letter to policymakers, CBO estimates that the FY23 budget deficit would have been 20 to 30 percent larger had projections employed a 10-year Treasury rate of 4 percent. See letter to Hon. Steve Daines, November 30, 2022. Available at: https://www.cbo.gov/publication/58763.

[17] The Congressional Budget Office’s estimates assume a 2 to 2.6 percent three-month T-bill rate through 2026 and a 10-year note rate of no higher than 3.5 percent. See 10-year economic projections from May 2022.

[18] Robert Pear and Thomas Kaplan, “Senate Rejects Slimmed-Down Obamacare Repeal as McCain Votes No,” New York Times, July 27, 2017.

[19] Breckinridge analysis of Bureau of Economic Analysis data, National Income and Product Accounts, 3Q2022 figures.

[20] Pew Research Center, April-May 2022, p. 46, “Americans’ Views of Government: Decades of Distrust, Enduring Support for its Role”

[21] For example, the 2022 midterm elections have been widely interpreted as a rejection of “extreme” candidates. See also: Bank Credit Analyst, “US: peak Polarization,” April 17, 2020 and The Upswing, Robert Putnam and Shaylyn Romney Garret (2020).

[22] The risk that Congress alters the tax exemption for municipal interest is also rising. The Republican Study Committee, an influential group of lawmakers in the incoming Congress, proposed a variety of reforms to the tax exemption in its June 2022 “Blueprint to Save America” (see footnote 89 on page 25 of that document). No change to the exemption is likely in the current Congress given divided partisan control of the House, Senate, and Presidency. But the proposals in the Study Committee’s “Blueprint” nonetheless suggest tax risk remains a material issue over the medium- and long-term.

[23] We note that the S&P 500 declined by roughly 19 percent in 2022 and home prices are now down 3 percent from their post-pandemic peak. (Case-Shiller Home Price Index, September 2022.)

[24] “Inflation-led pension COLAs will partially offset liability reduction from higher interest rates,” Moody’s Investors Service, December 7, 2022.

[25] The 6th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a lower court ruling in November 2022 that prevents the Secretary of the Treasury from enforcing a provision in the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) which prohibits using ARPA funds to finance tax cuts (Commonwealth of Kentucky and State of Tennessee v. Janet Yellen, et al.). For an early example of impending deficits: California had forecasted “nearly” structural balance through FY26 based on its May 2022 revenue forecast, but figures have weakened substantially since then. Likewise, most of the 46 states with legislative sessions in 2022 enacted some form of income, corporate, sales, or gas tax relief. It is not yet clear what proportion of these tax cuts will prove permanent versus temporary. See Standard & Poor’s October 2022 opinion on the State of California. See also, a Tax Foundation analysis of state tax relief measure in 2022, available at: https://taxfoundation.org/state-tax-reform-relief-enacted-2022/#:~:text=Enactment%20of%20HB%201342%20as,at%20the%20beginning%20of%202031.

[26] Reserve balances are atypically strong, and since the GFC, agencies have tweaked their methodologies to account for the natural ebb and flow of the economic cycle. For example, Fitch Ratings approach to state and local government debt ratings is to accommodate “variations in revenue performance” that are “due to normal cyclical variations”. See Fitch’s U.S. Public Finance Tax-Supported Rating Criteria, December 2022.

[27] Bethany Paquin, “Chronicle of the 161-year History of State-imposed Property Tax Limitations,” Lincoln Land Institute, p. 4 (April 2015).

[28] For example, since 2019, state and local infrastructure assets have aged by 1.2 years, adding the equivalent of $360 billion to the national infrastructure backlog. Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) data from the Fixed Asset Accounts. Per the Bureau f Economic Analysis, the current-cost average age of state and local fixed assets has increased from 25.7 years to 26.9 years (Table. 7.7, 2019 to 2021). Consumption of fixed capital has increased by around $300 billion per year over the same time period (NIPA Table 3.3): $300 billion x 1.2 years is $360 billion.

[29] Michigan’s trunk line road bonds are backed by motor fuels taxes, motor vehicle taxes, and various transportation-related fees. “Yvette Shields, “Michigan pushes off $1.9 billion trunk line deal as it digests ‘cost changes’”, The Bond Buyer, December 22, 2022.

[30] “Inflation increases construction costs, threatens to delay or downsize infrastructure projects,” Moody’s Investors Service, August 17, 2022.

[31] https://www.breckinridge.com/insights/details/the-bipartisan-infrastructure-bill-is-an-imperfect-credit-positive-for-the-muni-market/

[32] Breckinridge analysis of Moody’s Public Finance publications, December 6, 2022.

[33] Moody’s Investors Service, “Proposed Framework for Net Zero Assessments,” November 7, 2022.

[34] The Economist, “The energy transition will be expensive (but not catastrophically so),” October 5th, 2022.

[35] “2023 Outlook – Negative with low ridership and looming federal aid cliff,” Moody’s Investors Service, Mass Transit Outlook, November 15, 2022.

[36] Most hospital systems have also spent through federal aid and repaid their COVID-related Medicare advances. Kaufman Hall, National Hospital Flash Report: October 2022. Available at: https://www.kaufmanhall.com/insights/research-report/national-hospital-flash-report-october-2022.

[37] Caroline Hudson, “Hospital operating margins to stay depressed in 2023,” Modern Healthcare, December 29, 2022.

[38] We expect that the highest-quality issuers are likely to remain sturdy credit risks for some time. AA-rated systems held an average of 326 days cash on hand in FY 21, and A-rated systems held 214 days cash, up 12 percent and 24 percent, respectively from FY19. However, low-investment grade issuers with weaker balance sheets seem particularly vulnerable to near-term ratings downgrades. Standard & Poor’s U.S Not-for-profit Health Care System Median Financial Ratios (2021), August 24, 2022.

[39] Fitch Ratings, “Weak Enrollment Pressures U.S. Higher Education,” September 19, 2022.

[40] In the private higher ed space, the median endowment market value was up at least 33 percent for A-rated-and-above names in FY 21. Standard & Poor’s U.S Not-for-profit Private College and University Fiscal 2021 Median Ratios, July 12, 2022.

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