New Jersey taxpayers are being saddled with a bill of about $657,000 a month from Bank of Montreal for an interest-rate swap approved by state officials and linked to bonds that were never sold.
The 11th-largest U.S. state by population, which is cutting expenses to close a $1 billion budget deficit, will pay Canada’s oldest lender $23.5 million. The sum, about the same as the salaries for 113 teachers over three years, will allow it to avoid a $50 million penalty for canceling the contract, which was tied to planned sales of school-construction bonds.
The interest rate swap, an agreement between borrowers to exchange fixed and variable-rate payments on a set amount of debt, was arranged in 2004 to protect taxpayers against rising borrowing costs. The strategy backfired after officials decided against issuing the securities.
“This is a classic case of a strategic error,” said Robert Brooks, a finance professor at the University of Alabama- Tuscaloosa and author of a book on derivatives. “It’s arrogant to believe that you have such a command of the future that you know with certainty what is going to happen.”
The payments, which work out to $21,892 a day for three years, show how elected and appointed officials failed taxpayers by agreeing to financial strategies they didn’t fully understand. New Jersey spent $21.3 million in 2008 to exit three contracts signed when James Florio and James McGreevey were governors. The state’s transportation trust fund is giving almost $1 million a month to a Goldman Sachs Group Inc. partnership in an agreement linked to bonds that were redeemed.
Penalties and Losses
New Jersey isn’t alone. Borrowers from Massachusetts to California are struggling with billions of dollars in swap penalties and losses at the same time that budget deficits expand to an estimated $350 billion in 2010 and 2011, according to the Washington, D.C.-based Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
The derivatives, mostly interest-rate swaps used to exchange fixed payments for variable rates, have grown to as much as $300 billion annually, the Alexandria, Virginia-based Municipal Securities Rulemaking Board said in an April report, citing information from market participants.
Derivatives have created “unprecedented financial stress” for some of the 500 municipal issuers that sold variable-rate debt and purchased swaps from banks to lock in borrowing costs, according to an October report by Moody’s Investors Service. The biggest users of the arrangements are Pennsylvania, California, Texas and Tennessee.
The U.S. Justice Department and Securities and Exchange Commission are investigating whether Wall Street banks conspired with brokers to rig bids on the contracts.
Jefferson County, Alabama, is on the edge of bankruptcy mostly because of a $3 billion sewer project in which fixed-rate bonds were refinanced into floating-rate securities hedged with interest-rate swaps. Larry Langford, the former Democratic mayor of Birmingham, was convicted of federal corruption charges Oct. 29 for accepting bribes in exchange for giving underwriting contracts to a banker friend while he was county commission president.
New Jersey’s 2004 school-bond swap with Bank of Montreal was linked to a $250 million bond originally scheduled to be sold in 2007. The so-called forward-starting agreement was one of 15 such contracts the state set up to help finance construction.
The issue was deferred to 2009 because the school program wasn’t borrowing fast enough to use swaps coming due in 2007, according to treasury spokesman Tom Bell.
Under its contract, New Jersey agreed to pay the bank a fixed rate of about 4.6 percent, or $967,000 a month, on the $250 million principal. In return, it would receive unspecified variable-rate payments based on a percentage of the one-month London interbank offered rate, according to Treasury Department spokesman Tom Vincz.
The one-month rate was 0.23 percent on Dec. 3, down from 1.9 percent when the Bank of Montreal swap was set up, according to the British Bankers Association One-Month Libor U.S. Dollar Index. Libor is a benchmark for the cost of loans between banks.
In pushing the swap off to 2009, New Jersey agreed to a 9 basis-point reduction in its fixed interest rate and the bank changed the floating-rate formula to a lower percentage of Libor. A basis point is 0.01 percentage point.
When the revamped agreement took effect on Nov. 1, the state faced payments of $833,000 a month, Vincz said in an e- mail. Treasury officials allowed the bank to suspend floating- rate payments while lowering New Jersey’s fixed-rate cost to 3.1 percent, or $656,770 monthly, through November 2012.
The cost would cover the $23.6 million price of a typical elementary school, according to New Jersey Schools Development Authority reports. It would also pay 113 teachers’ salaries for three years, based on data reported by the state Teachers Pension and Annuity Fund.
“It is obscene,” New Jersey Governor-elect Christopher Christie said at a Nov. 16 news conference in Trenton, referring to financial strategies such as swaps pursued largely during McGreevey’s term from 2001 to 2004. “It is extraordinary to me that someone could do that much damage in less than three years.”
McGreevey, who resigned in 2004 after saying he was gay, didn’t respond to phone messages left at his home and the office of his partner, Mark O’Donnell, at real-estate developer Kushner Cos. in New York City. The former governor also didn’t return a message left at the Episcopal All Saints Parish in Hoboken, New Jersey, where he serves as an assistant while seeking a Master of Divinity degree at Manhattan’s General Theological Seminary.
John McCormac, Christie’s transition team economic development and growth adviser who served as state treasurer when most of New Jersey’s swaps were arranged, hung up when asked about them on Nov. 11.
“OK, thanks for calling,” McCormac, mayor of Woodbridge Township, said before disconnecting.
New Jersey refinanced $3.4 billion of debt tied to derivatives last year, according to a report from the state Treasury Department’s Office of Public Finance.
The renegotiated swap lets New Jersey avoid a termination fee, estimated at $50 million in an Oct. 31 state report. It will allow the original swap to be reinstated if officials want to sell school-construction bonds in 2012, Vincz said in the Nov. 16 e-mail.
“We are working diligently to manage and reduce the cost of the swap portfolio this administration inherited,” he said. “This temporary solution limits swap costs for a three-year period, after which time the state will retain the option of applying the original terms with a future borrowing as a hedge against rising interest rates.”
“We are not in a position to comment, out of an obligation of confidentiality to the client,” Kim Hanson, a spokeswoman for Bank of Montreal, said in a phone interview.
Peter Nissen, a financial adviser in Marlboro, New Jersey, who worked on the swap while at Public Financial Management, the state’s Harrisburg, Pennsylvania-based adviser, declined to comment.
Marty Margolis, managing director at PFM, said in a phone interview that Nissen worked independently on the contract and hasn’t been associated with the company for more than two years.
“That swap was done by someone who hasn’t worked for the company for several years,” Margolis said. “I know nothing about it.”
Except for two deals to stem losses from existing derivative contracts, New Jersey has entered into no new swaps since Governor Jon Corzine, the former co-chairman of Goldman Sachs, took office in 2006, according to Vincz. Christie, a former U.S. prosecutor, defeated Corzine last month and is to be sworn in Jan. 19.
New Jersey paid $21.3 million last year to end three derivative contracts connected to bonds for business-incentive grants, the River Line Light Rail project from Trenton to Camden and the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority. On Nov. 18, the Delaware River Port Authority, a bistate agency that runs toll bridges and a rail line to Pennsylvania, agreed to give Zurich-based UBS AG $111 million if the authority can’t issue variable-rate debt to make use of an existing swap by February.
The state Transportation Trust Fund Authority is paying almost $1 million monthly to Goldman Sachs Mitsui Marine Derivative Products L.P., a partnership of the New York-based bank and Japan’s Mitsui Sumitomo Insurance Group Holdings Inc., under a swap agreement made during McGreevey’s administration in 2003. The derivatives were linked to $345 million in auction- rate bonds sold to finance road and rail projects.
While New Jersey replaced the debt with fixed-rate securities in 2008, the derivative payments aren’t scheduled to expire until 2019. The state plans to sell $150 million in variable-rate bonds on Dec. 7 to make use of part of the swap.
The state treasury “should continue to aggressively manage the termination, conversion and management of swaps that this administration inherited, while dealing with the realities of the most difficult credit conditions in history,” Corzine’s former spokesman, Steve Sigmund, said in an e-mail on Oct. 22.
New Jersey passed up borrowing costs of 4.6 percent to 4.9 percent when it opted to issue variable-rate bonds tied to swaps during McGreevey’s tenure, a 2008 state analysis shows. The net interest cost on the debt was about 4 percent while the original derivative agreements were in effect, according to the report.
The yield on 25-year fixed-rate revenue bonds is now 4.98 percent, up from a yearly low of 4.69 percent in early October, according to a Bond Buyer Index.
Derivatives can save taxpayers money over longer periods if they’re managed properly, said Peter Shapiro, managing director of Swap Financial Group LLC, in South Orange, New Jersey, an adviser to companies and governments.
“Will municipal officers ever take for granted that floating-rate bonds will be dull, boring and predictable means of finance?” he said in a phone interview. “No, and they probably never should have.”