Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Luring CIRM Bond Buyers: What Cost to the State?

What sort of interest rates will the California stem cell agency have to offer to privately sell taxable state bonds to fill its research coffers?

They could be a bit higher than the 5.5 percent or so that CIRM Chairman Robert Klein has discussed publicly.

That's because of the juicy rates provided to investors this week on tax-exempt California general obligation bonds.

Here is what Liam Denning wrote today in the "Heard on the Street" column in the Wall Street Journal.
"California's issue was priced for success, at an effective coupon of 6.1% on its 30-year bonds. For Californians, that equates to a taxable yield of more than 9% -- a spread of more than 550 basis points over equivalent Treasurys.

"Little wonder individual investors scooped up half the issuance, helped along by a high-profile advertising campaign. But the risk-reward balance was the main driver. California may be just a single-A credit, but in muni-land that still implies ultra-low default rates and a call over the state's considerable tax-raising powers. The prospect of tens of billions of federal stimulus dollars provides further comfort -- and probably precludes the need for more formal intervention.

"Somewhat perversely, the very prospect of higher taxes to refill state coffers makes munis more attractive to individuals, particularly the growing number of retirees burned by the stock market crash."
Of course, the private sale of the bonds is a different matter than the recent bond sale. But it is not all clear that potential purchasers of CIRM bonds would be willing to accept less than what was provided this week.

Higher interest rates are not a trivial matter for the state. CIRM is generally referred to as a $3 billion agency, which refers to its bonding and funding capacity. However, during the Prop. 71 campaign, estimates of the total cost, including interest, doubled that to $6 billion. That figure assumed the use of tax-exempt bonds. Using taxable bonds could add another $700 million to the $6 billion, according to one estimate.

None of the bonds that have been issued thus far for CIRM are tax-exempt. The whole issue of what was promised during the campaign and Bob Klein's statements on tax-exempt bonds led to something of a flap a few years ago involving allegations of deceit. You can read about it here.

Whatever the cost, CIRM does not appear to have much of a choice other than to privately market the bonds. The alternatives appear to be a shut-down or severely curtailing its operations.

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