On June 1, first S&P the Moody’s almost concurrently downgraded Illinois to the lowest non-Junk rating, BB+/Baa3 respectively, with both rating agencies warning that the ongoing legislative gridlock and budget crisis need to be resolved, or else Illinois will be the first ever US state downgraded to junk status. S&P analyst Gabriel Petek explicitly stated that “the unrelenting political brinkmanship now poses a threat to the timely payment of the state’s core priority payments” and warned about Illinois’ inability to pass a budget for the past two years amid a clash between the Democrat-run legislature and Republican Governor Bruce Rauner. As we have documented previously, the ongoing confrontation has left the fifth most-populous US state with a record $14.5 billion of unpaid bills, ravaged entities like universities and social service providers that rely on state aid and undermined Illinois’s standing in the bond market, where investors have demanded higher premiums for the risk of owning its debt.
Bypassing its traditional 90-day review, a terse S&P also warned that Illinois will likely be downgraded around July 1, when the new fiscal year begins if leaders haven’t agreed on a budget that starts addressing the state’s chronic deficits.
Unfortunately for Illinois, and its bondholders, the downgrade – and the subsequent imminent “junking” – was just the tip of the iceberg.
As Bank of America wrote in its latest muni market report, among the $14.7bn backlog of bills (as of 5 June) to be paid by the state of Illinois due to the protracted budget impasse is some $2bn-plus in Medicaid-related payments owed to the private insurers the state contracted with to manage roughly two-thirds of its Medicaid recipients. Those payments amount to some $300mn per month. A number of private insurers have sued in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois to prioritize their payments over those due to other vendors.
Then last Wednesday, following the Illinois downgrades, the court ruled against the state. The judge ordered the parties to “continue to negotiate to achieve substantial compliance with the consent decrees in these cases. If they cannot reach a negotiated solution, either party may make an appropriate motion, to be noticed for presentment on June 20, 2017.”
The day before the court ruled, the state submitted a filing with the Court, arguing that should the court prioritize those payments – effectively making them on par with so-called “core payments” which include debt service – it could trigger another downgrade from the rating agencies. Indeed, included in Moody’s downgrade report under the headline “Factors that could lead to a downgrade,” Moody’s points to “[c]ourt rulings that increase the volume of payment obligations that are legally prioritized.”
The state asked the court in that filing that, if it were to rule against the state and prioritize those Medicaid payments, that it make its order effective 1 July, requesting so for two reasons:
- It “likely will avoid an immediate downgrade and also would send a message to the Illinois General Assembly and Governor that they have until June 30 to resolve the State’s budget impasse and avoid the consequences of the Court’s order. If the budget impasse is not resolved by July 1, that fact alone likely will lead to a rating downgrade, regardless of the effective date of the Court’s order.”
- It “will give Defendants some additional time to determine how to comply with the Court’s order.”
Additionally, the Illinois Comptroller warned against an adverse ruling, saying the state would “have to go to the courts and ask them: ‘OK, out of all of these court-mandated payments, which ones am I allowed to violate?'”
With all that, the court still ruled against the state saying that the Court said it believes the Comptroller “faces an unenviable situation,” though it finds “that minimally funding the obligations of the decrees while fully funding other obligations fails to comply not only with the consent decrees, but also with this court’s previous order.”
So for anyone confused, here is a summary of what happened: a judge ruled last Wednesday the state is violating consent decrees and previous orders, and instructed the state to achieve “substantial compliance with consent decrees in these case.” The order may prioritize those payments, elevating them to the level of “core payments,” such as for debt service. The state has warned that could trigger an immediate downgrade from Moody’s. The state asked the court that the order become effective on 1 July as it could pressure the state to end its protracted budget impasse.
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Separately, there was a glimmer of hope for the woefully underfunded state: according to the Illinois Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability’s (CGFA) May Monthly briefing, May net revenues of $2.19bn were up $144mn, or 7.0% compared to the same month a year ago. Personal income tax collections performed well during the month, bringing in $1.17bn, $179mn, or 18.1% more than in April 2016. Sales tax collections also performed well, outperforming April 2016’s collections by $36mn, or 5.5%. However, the state’s other significant revenue stream – the corporate income tax – underperformed, with collections of $81mn coming in $72mn, or 47.1% less than a year ago.
And while April marks the third consecutive month of Y/Y outperformance, a glimmer of sunshine in an otherwise dready Illinois monetary landscape, the recent burst in receipts is likely a fluke especially since fiscal year-to-date collections of $26.54bn are $955mn, or 4.3% behind last year. The culprit: local businesses, as corporate income tax collections have been the main cause under-performance, falling $909mn, or 41.3% on a year-over-year basis.
What happened next? As Bank of America writes, with bondholders still digesting the recent downgrades and the inevitable downgrade to junk, news of the adverse court ruling caused spreads on Illinois’ GOs to blow out. As of last Thursday, the month-to-date spreads on Illinois widened by 69bps, surging just shy of 250 bps as the market absorbed the headlines. Then according to Bloomberg, the OAS on Illinois 5% GO due Mah 2015, soared nearly 40 bps since last Thursday.
The chart below shows how the spreads have moved wider each day since the month began. On Thursday the spread widened out by 28bps, compared to average 8.2bps it moved the previous five days. Since then the move has accelerated.
Finally, Reuters today reported that Illinois appears to have essentially thrown in the towel on getting junked, and has negotiated lower credit rating termination triggers for its interest-rate swap deals with banks, “which stood to pocket fat fees if the state is downgraded to junk as soon as next month, a spokeswoman for the governor’s office said on Monday. “
Eleni Demertzis, the governor’s spokeswoman, said the rating levels that would trigger the termination of four swaps – two with Barclays Bank, and one each with Bank of America and JP Morgan – were dropped a notch to the second level of junk – BB with S&P or Ba2 with Moody’s.
Without this step, downgrades to the first level of junk by S&P or Moody’s Investors Service could have forced the cash-strapped state to pay the banks as much as $39 million in fees to end the swaps, according to the Illinois Comptroller’s office.
In short, while Illinois won’t be punished with higher swap termination costs when the downgrade to junk hits, all other negative side effects of being the first “fallen angel” state in history will remain, chief among them far higher borrowing costs.
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And while the recent blow out in spreads has been nothing short of stunning for the otherwise sleepy muni market, a far bigger problem awaits both Illinois, which faces substantially higher borrowing costs, and bondholders, whose principal losses are starting to hurt, if the state fails to pass a budget for the third consecutive year and is downgraded to junk. A default is also not out of the question.
Traditionally, sharp moves in the bond market – such as thise one – have been sufficient to prompt politicians to reach a compromise, although in a world in which central banks have always stepped in to make things better, we fail to see how or why the Illinois auto pilot, which is currently set on collision course with insolvency, will change direction any time soon.