Notes and Analysis from the 2016 Mass. Investor Conference – Part 1

The Conference was held on December 7, 2016.

Update on the Massachusetts Economy – Michael D. Goodman, PhD. Professor of Public Policy, UMass-Dartmouth. The Massachusetts Economy fared better than most states during the financial crisis. Its dip in economic activity was not as great as others. Since the recovery began, job creation has been impressive. The pace of economic growth in recent years has been stronger than the national average.

The Massachusetts economy is also not as exposed as other states are to the housing sector. The state did not overproduce during the boom years. House prices have now recovered beyond the 2007 pre-recession peak.

Greater Boston continues to be the growth engine of the Commonwealth. Outside of Boston, the pace of economic growth has been improving, but it is still lagging.

The Commonwealth’s headline unemployment rate of 3.3% is well below the national average of 4.6%. There are spot labor shortages in some sectors of the economy. The manufacturing and construction sectors have been hiring in recent years after a fairly long dry spell which caused laid-off workers to seek employment elsewhere. Total manufacturing employment is still below 2009 levels, but construction employment is up 40% from the October 2009 lows. Employment in other (mostly white collar) sectors – like professional & business services, education & health and leisure & hospitality – is up solidly since the recovery began. Growth in employment has been driven by innovation in technology, healthcare and pharmaceutical research.

Despite the progress made since the recovery began, employment conditions remain difficult for the young, poorly educated and long-term unemployed. The Commonwealth’s broadest indicator of unemployment, similar to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistic’s U-6 measure[1], is hovering around 9%, which only slightly below the national average of 9.3%. There is slack in the labor force, but many people without jobs require some form of training.

As in the rest of the nation, education levels correlate highly with employment. Most low income people in Massachusetts are working, but the gap between rich and poor is growing. Struggling low- and middle-class households are contributing to the financial challenges faced by many cities outside of greater Boston.

Weakness in exports, due mostly to the strength in the dollar, is dampening the outlook for economic growth in Massachusetts. Over the past two years, the Commonwealth’s total exports are up 3.5% but exports to some major trading partners, like China, Germany, Japan and South Korea are down 8%-12%.

Like the rest of the U.S., Massachusetts has significant infrastructure needs. The Commonwealth needs to step up its investment in water infrastructure, public transportation, roads, highways and bridges and housing. By MassDOT’s own estimates, annual spending on non-interstate roads and highways will have to rise more than four-fold, from $54 million to about $225 million, to avoid deterioration of the existing network. The Commonwealth also needs to produce more affordable housing in order to guarantee adequate availability especially to lower income households.

Beyond these mostly local issues, the looming threat of geopolitical conflict, global economic instability and climate change also represent formidable downside risks.

With its world class educational institutions and technology base, Massachusetts has demonstrated over time an ability to adapt to changing economic circumstances. However, it still faces difficult challenges in providing a decent standard of living for all of its residents, especially those outside the greater Boston area.

Recent Performance of the Municipal Bond Market. The municipal bond market had performed well in 2016 right up until the U.S. presidential election. Through Nov. 7, the S&P Municipal Bond Index (SPMBI), a broad measure of muni bond performance, had posted a total return of 3.54%, slightly better than the S&P U.S. Treasury Bond Index’s (SPUSTBI) 3.13% return.

With the sharp rise in bond yields after the election, municipal bonds gave back all of their gains and more. From Nov. 7 to the recent near-term bottom on Dec. 1, the SPMBI fell 4.04%, worse than the 2.64% decline in the SPUSTBI.


Since the beginning of December, the bond market has begun to settle down. The SPMBI has gained 2.23%, while the SPUSTBI is up 0.70%.

Municipal bonds have been especially hard hit because of certain aspects of President-elect Trump’s agenda. Besides expectations of rising rates as a result of improved economic growth, stepped up infrastructure spending could lead to a flood of new issuance in the muni-bond market. At the same time, tax reform could make the Federal interest deduction on municipal bonds less attractive to investors.

MassDOT Review – David Pottier, CFO, Michelle Ho, Deputy CFO, Scott Bosworth, Chief Strategy Officer.

1. Massachusetts Highway System (MHS) Toll Revenue Bonds. On the date of the conference, MassDOT had been planning to go to market with a $975 million offering to refund nearly half of its $1.9 billion of debt outstanding. However, average rates on municipal bonds, as shown above and in Mr. Pottier’s presentation, increased sharply from the presidential election.

The rise in rates eliminated virtually all of the potential savings that MHS hoped to achieve through the refinancing. Mr. Pottier noted that the average yield on a 30-year bond (as determined by Municipal Market Data, a service of Thompson/Reuters) increased 82 basis points to 3.35% from the date of the presidential election to Dec. 1. Each basis point increase reduces the potential savings of the refinancing by $542,000. As a result, MHS pulled the refinancing from the market. It is still looking to bring the offering to market on any appreciable pullback in interest rates.

The terms of MHS’s outstanding are rather unique. MHS has issued senior and subordinated bonds; but the subordinated bonds, which generally carry credit ratings of Aa2/AA+/AA+. Those ratings are higher than the A3/A+/A+ credit ratings on the senior bonds.

Unlike the senior bonds, the subordinated bonds are backed fully by contract assistance payments which are a general obligation of the Commonwealth. So the bonds carry the same credit rating as the Commonwealth.

The contract assistance payments are designed to provide 1.7 times coverage of the subordinated bonds’ debt service costs. Some of the subordinated bonds are also backed by a pledge of toll revenues.

Meanwhile, the senior MHS bonds are backed by the net revenues of MHS (i.e. toll collections minus operating costs) plus a lower level of contract assistance. Contract assistance payments cover 69% of debt service on the senior bonds. MHS net revenues are expected to increase sharply as a result of the implementation of all electronic tolling (AET). MHS estimates that net revenues’ coverage of debt service will increase to 2.9 times. That should bring total coverage of the senior MHS bonds to 3.6 times; but Mr. Pottier did not say what the pre-AET debt service coverage was.

Of the total MHS debt outstanding of $1.9 billion, $0.8 billion is variable rate. Since these variable-rate obligations have been converted into fixed-rate obligation through interest rate swaps, MHS does not plan to refinance any of the existing variable rate issues.

2. MassDOT Capital Investment Plan: FY 2017 to FY 2021. MassDOT plans to spend a total of nearly $15 billion over the next five years to maintain and upgrade its transportation assets. Under the plan, spending will increase $3.0 billion in 2017 to a peak of $3.4 billion in 2018 and then taper off. Sixty percent of the capital plan will be devoted to sustainability or keeping the transportation assets in a “state of good repair” (SGR).
The current Capital Plan represents a significant increase in spending over historical levels. Since 2010, MassDOT capital spending has averaged only about $1.7 billion annually. In fiscal 2016, the Department spent $2.2 billion on capital improvements.
A primary focus of the current plan is to ramp up spending to improve the reliability of operations at the MBTA. SGR spending by the MBTA averaged $402 million annually from fiscal 2009 to fiscal 2015; but it has risen steadily since fiscal 2012; but it dipped slight in 2016 to $497 million from $502 million in 2015. The MBTA’s goal is to ramp up SGR spending to $765 million by fiscal 2018 and hold it there until at least 2021.
Part of the MBTA’s capital spending has been devoted to an upgrading of its operations center in downtown Boston. With the upgrade, the MBTA will be able to monitor all subway and bus operations in real time and respond to any developments, such as delays or breakdowns as they occur.

Despite the increased spending plans, it is clear that MassDOT will not spend enough to maintain the reliability of the entire network of its transportation assets. As noted earlier, spending on non-interstate roads and highways would have to increase four-fold to $225 million to sustain current quality levels. While the Department is seeking to tap into a variety of funding sources – including Federal grants, state assistance, local budgets, bond issuance and its own operating budget – it does not anticipate raising enough funds to cover all possible SGR and planned service expansion projects. Spending will therefore be prioritized to address the most pressing needs and those projects that offer the greatest benefit for the anticipated cost.

3. Leveraging Value Capture and Public Private Partnerships (P3). One highly publicized item on the fiscal stimulus agenda of the incoming Trump administration is to tap private sources of funding for infrastructure improvements. Although the Federal government would offer tax incentives to encourage such funding, I previously was not able to see how those incentives would be sufficient to generate the targeted $1 trillion infrastructure improvements, like toll roads, that I thought would be entirely privately-owned.
However, it is now clear to me, having sat through this presentation, that the concept of value capture and public-private partnerships also extends to traditional infrastructure assets that would still be owned and controlled by the public sector. In Massachusetts, corporations and private developers have contributed to the development and upgrades of MBTA subway stations, road and highway improvements and even the proposed extension of the MBTA’s Green Line to Somerville.

MassDOT is incorporating P3 analysis into its capital planning process. It will consider all types of ownership and development arrangements in its project planning. It sees several types of projects as especially suitable for these partnerships, including tunnel lighting, bridge repairs, wireless communication facilities, parking facilities and highway interchange expansions. These assets presumably would add value to the private partners’ own facilities and especially their planned real estate development projects.

At this time, it is not clear what financial incentives the Commonwealth has offered to private participants – other than the ability to deduct their contributions on their tax returns. On the Federal level, there has been talk of giving tax credits as an incentive to enter into these arrangements; but in my mind, such tax credits should be less than dollar-for-dollar. Otherwise, these partnerships would merely redirect government revenues rather than increase funding for infrastructure projects.

Increased participation by the private sector along these lines would provide both tangible and intangible benefits to participants. It may be a way for them to ensure that their projects move higher up on the government’s list of priorities. This initiative may be slow to ramp up, but it has a good chance of becoming an important source of funding for infrastructure improvements in the years ahead, especially if government budgets become increasingly tight.

Massachusetts Issuer Roundtable: The Essential Collection.

1. Massachusetts Housing Finance Agency. The MHFA or MassHousing, as it is also known, is an agency of the Commonwealth formed in 1966 for the purpose of promoting the development, construction, rehabilitation and improvement of multi-family and owner-occupied single-family housing in Massachusetts. It provides financing for a number of programs designed to achieve that purpose including subsidized mortgage loans to low- and moderate-income families and loans to real estate developers. The interest and principal of bonds issued by MassHousing are not guaranteed by the Commonwealth or any of its subdivisions. Consequently, investors must assess the merits of each MassHousing bond issue by the structure of collateral and debt service funds provided to service the debt.

Housing is an integral part of the Commonwealth’s strategy to support its economy. Massachusetts has a long history of promoting housing affordability for its residents. According to the Urban Land Institute, among the 100 largest U.S. counties, five of the top six in affordable housing units per 100 renter households were in Massachusetts.

With recent increases in house prices and rental rates, MassHousing has a greater role to play in ensuring that housing is affordable for all state residents. A decline in moderate-income households in the City of Boston in recent years highlights the city’s affordability problem. More than half of all working households in Boston are classified as low- and moderate income. Consequently, the agency has developed a number of programs to promote housing affordability for these cohorts. They include:

a. Massachusetts Housing Partnership, that develops many of the programs financed by MassHousing

b. The ONE Mortgage Program, which allows first-time homebuyers to qualify for a low fixed-rate mortgage with as little as a 3% downpayment and without private mortgage insurance. The program also allows certain income-eligible homebuyers to receive mortgage assistance payments for a limited number of years.

c. Workforce Housing Fund. In May, MassHousing launched a $100 million Workforce Housing Fund designed to promote housing for households earning 61% to 120% of the state’s median income.

d. Financing for Developers. MassHousing provides financing to developers of new and existing rental communities either directly or through several Federal programs where all or a portion of the rental units are reserved as affordable for low- and moderate income residents. In 2016, the interest payments on about two-thirds of loans made under these programs were taxable, because of Federal volume caps that limit the amount of tax-exempt financing based upon a per capita formula. However, Massachusetts is one of only a few states to devise methods for recycling the volume cap (from prepaid loans) to increase the amount of available tax-exempt lending. As a result of this and other initiatives, MassHousing extended just over $800 million in loans in 2016, more than double the average over the past five years. Financing for multi-family housing is also available under the MassWorks program which targets projects that are part of high profile initiatives that target economic development and job creation in the towns and cities of Massachusetts.

In 2016, nearly two-thirds of MassHousing loans were issued under the FHA-HFA Risk Share program. Under this program, the state shares the risk of loss with the Federal Housing Agency (FHA). Of the remaining 33%, 20% receive some other form of assistance (such as the Federal Section 8 housing subsidy), while 13% have no assistance.

MassHousing issues bonds through its Single-Family Housing Revenue Bonds program and also its Housing Bond Resolution program. The Single-Family Housing Revenue Bond (SFHRB) program issues tax-exempt revenue bonds backed by qualified collateral (mortgage-backed securities (MBS), whole mortgage loans, housing loans and home improvement loans). The loans extended under this program are intended to promote single-family homeownership among low- and moderate-income households. There were $954 million of bonds outstanding under this program at June 30, 2016. Those bonds were rated Aa2 by Moody’s Analytics and AA by Standard & Poor’s. Under the program, all collateral is placed in a single pool that is available to service and support all bond issues. I plan to take a closer look at the structure of the SFHRB program and the collateral pool in a future post.

MassHousing services its entire portfolio of 22,000 loans under the SFHRB. Its mortgage servicing platform was upgraded in 2016. In fiscal 2016 (ended June 30), collateral pool delinquencies (in terms of the number of loans) averaged 7.82%, which was 63 basis points below the national average of 8.45% on FHA-backed mortgage loans, but 318 basis points above the national average of 4.64% on conventional mortgage loans.

The Housing Bond Resolution Program (HBRP) issues tax-exempt multifamily housing bonds for qualified projects. There were $1.68 billion of bonds outstanding under this program as of June 30, 2016. The Resolution under which these bonds are issued requires that one-half of the maximum amount of debt service for the current calendar year be placed in a fund to cover any potential shortfalls. Bonds are secured by the investments, mortgage loans and MBS held in various funds supported under the Resolution. They carry credit ratings of Aa3 by Moody’s Analytics, AA- by Standard & Poor’s and AA- by FitchRatings.

In December, MassHousing floated four bond issues that span the breadth of its product and service offerings:

On December 6, MassHousing issued $47.0 million of Single-Family Housing Revenue Bonds, Series 185 (Non-AMT) and $56.3 million of Single-Family Housing Revenue Bonds, Series 186 (AMT). Some of the Series 186 bonds were issued at a premium of $2.0 million, bringing total proceeds to $104.4 million, net of $0.9 million of underwriting costs. The proceeds of this offering will be used mostly to redeem $98 million of outstanding Single-Family Housing Revenue Bonds and the remaining balance $6.4 million will be put into a purchase account that is available to buy more mortgages or MBS.

The Series 185 bonds include $14.5 million of serial notes that mature from 2021 to 2026. Interest rates on these serial notes range from 2.10% to 3.15%. The Series 185 bonds also include $10.2 million of 4.125% Term Bonds due 12/1/41 and $22.3 million of 4.2% Term Bonds due 6/1/46.

The Series 186 bonds include $7.1 million of Serial Bonds that mature from 2017 to 2020 with interest rates ranging from 1.1% to 2.15%. They also include $11.9 million of 3.95% Term Bonds due 6/1/30 and $37.4 million of 4.0% PAC Term Bonds due 6/1/29 that were issued at 105.469% of par value (i.e. at a premium).

Both the Series 185 and Series 186 Bonds are backed by the general pool of MBS, whole mortgage loans, cooperative housing loans and home improvement loans that serve as collateral for all outstanding SFHRB issues. The Bonds also benefit from a Debt Service Reserve Fund that is required to be maintained at 2% of the total of outstanding bonds under the SFHRB program.

Also on December 6, MassHousing issued $52.2 million of Housing Bonds, 2016 Series H (Non-AMT) and $25.0 million of Housing Bonds, 2016 Series I (Variable Rate)(Non-AMT). The Series H bonds include $10.1 million of Serial Bonds maturing from 2018-2026 with interest rates ranging from 1.3% to 3.3% and four series of Term Bonds with 15, 20, 25 and 30 year maturities and interest rates ranging from 3.875% to 4.4%. The Series I bonds are Term Bonds with a variable rate set initially at 70% of 3-month LIBOR plus a spread of 120 basis points. The spread would increase by 20 basis points with each one-notch downgrade in credit rating below Aa3/AA-. The bonds are being issued to provide permanent financing for certain multi-family residential developments (selected by MassHousing). Some of the mortgage loans financed by the bonds are insured by FHA. The bonds also benefit from various accounts and finds, including debt service reserve funds, in a total amount of $3.1 million.

On December 8, MassHousing issued $34.8 million of Construction Loan Notes, 2016 Series B (Non-AMT) and $5.8 million of Construction Loan Notes, 2016 Series C (Federally Taxable). The new notes were issued to fund construction loans to finance certain multi-family residential developments located in Massachusetts. The interest rate on the Series B Notes is 2.0% and on the Series C Notes is 2.25%. Both series of notes mature on June 1, 2019.

On December 15, MassHousing issued $9.25 million of Multifamily Conduit Revenue Bonds (Binnall House Project), Series A. They have an initial interest rate of 1.50% and mature on August 1, 2018. Proceeds were used to make a loan to Binnall House RHF Partners, L.P. to pay a portion of the cost of acquiring and renovating a 134-unit multifamily rental housing facility, known as Binnall House, which is located in Gardner, MA. The initial interest rate will accrue up until February 1, 2018, after which the bonds will be subject to a mandatory tender and remarketing. The Bonds therefore should be repaid from the proceeds of permanent financing to be obtained no later than the maturity date.

Part 2 of this review will cover the MBTA, Massachusetts Water Resources Authority, remarks by State Treasurer Deborah B. Goldberg and Governor Charles D. Baker, the Relocation of General Electric to Boston and comparison of the financial condition and performance of Massachusetts to national averages.

Links to other articles:
2016 Mass. Investor Conference (Part 2): the MBTA
2016 Mass. Investor Conference (Part 3): the MWRA

January 12, 2017

Stephen P. Percoco
Lark Research, Inc.
839 Dewitt Street
Linden, New Jersey 07036
(908) 448-2246

© Lark Research, Inc. All rights reserved. Reproduction without permission is prohibited.

[1] The BLS’s U-6 measure includes those who are unemployed; those who are not currently looking for work, but would like a job; and those working part-time but would prefer full-time employment.

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