Thursday, February 18, 2010

Muni Threat: Cities Weigh Chapter 9

From the

Just days after becoming Controller of financially strapped Harrisburg, Pa., in January, Daniel Miller began uttering an obscure term that baffled most people who had never heard it and chilled those who had: Chapter 9.

The seldom-used part of U.S. bankruptcy law gives municipalities protection from creditors while developing a plan to pay off debts. Created in the wake of the Great Depression, Chapter 9 is widely considered a last resort and filings under it are more taboo than other parts of bankruptcy code because of the resulting uncertainty for everyone from municipal employees to bondholders.

The economic slump, however, is forcing debt-laden cities, towns and smaller taxing districts throughout the U.S. to consider using Chapter 9. As their revenue declines faster than expenses, some public entities are scrambling to keep making payments on municipal bonds. And that is causing experts to worry about the safety of securities that are traditionally considered low risk.

"People believe that municipal debt is safe based on assumptions that are no longer true," says Kenneth Buckfire, managing director and chief executive of Miller Buckfire & Co., an investment bank that has worked with corporations on restructurings and now is advising municipalities. For example, it isn't safe to assume that governments can raise taxes to cover shortfalls, he says.

Even threatening bankruptcy signals that municipalities are willing to compromise the security of bondholders, says Richard Raphael, an analyst at Fitch Ratings. That makes it harder for cities and towns to raise money from investors and will slow the U.S. economic recovery.

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