Monday, October 24, 2011

Stem Cell Agency Strikes New Financial Deal with State of California

The $3 billion California stem cell agency has worked out a creative, new financial arrangement with the Brown Administration and the state treasurer that assures the agency of cash at least until 2013.

CIRM was on track to run out of funds late next spring because of the earlier suspension of the sale of state bonds, the agency's only real source of money. When the sales resumed last week, it received only $50.8 million, which is well short of meeting CIRM's obligations to grant and loan recipients.

But new CIRM Chairman Jonathan Thomas said late Friday that CIRM now has what amounts to a $225 million line of credit with the state and assurances of a loan should additional cash be needed. In a telephone interview with the California Stem Cell Report, he said,
"We are in really good shape."
The arrangement appears to eliminate the likelihood that CIRM could run out of funds if the financially troubled state of California suspends bond sales again early next year. The state's current budget is built on optimistic revenue projections, which are not being met. If those fall short, severe, automatic budget cuts will be triggered in January. Under less dire conditions last year, the state suspended bond sales. Gov. Jerry Brown, who last week touted the $50.7 million in stem cell borrowing, has also deplored the state's debt load. Bond interest costs have risen from 3.4 percent of the state budget in 2003-04 to nearly 8 percent this year. That amounts to $2,542 per person, compared with the national median of $1,066, according to The Sacramento Bee.

CIRM's new deal with the state minimizes interest costs through the possible use of commercial paper, which is a form of very short term borrowing with low interest rates.

Here is how the new arrangement works, according to Thomas, who is a Los Angeles bond financier. Currently CIRM has $190 million on hand. The addition of the $50.8 million will carry it through June, which is the end of the current fiscal year. If CIRM has additional financial needs, the treasurer's office will provide up to $75 million through the use of commercial paper, which CIRM would ultimately have to repay.

If the state sells more bonds in the first part of 2012, CIRM will receive an additional allotment that will carry it into the 2012-13 fiscal year. If no bond sales occur, the treasurer's office will provide an additional $150 million via commercial paper over a six-month period. Should CIRM need cash beyond that, the state would provide a loan in much the same way that former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger did during CIRM's early days. The chief advantage to the state is that the arrangement helps to avoid the issuance of more bonds this year with their ongoing interest costs. The financial arrangement is subject to a review every six months.

Thomas, who was nominated for his post by both Brown and state Treasurer Bill Lockyer, said the arrangement makes it clear that the California stem cell agency is one of the state's priorities. He said,
"We got everything we want."
We asked Thomas who came up with the idea for the use of commercial paper. He said he could not remember specifically but said it popped up during discussions with the state Department of Finance staff, himself and CIRM co-vice chair Art Torres, a former state legislator and former head of the state Democratic Party. Ultimately the plan was approved in a meeting with Thomas, Torres, CIRM's outside counsel James Harrison and state Finance Director Ana Matosantos.

CIRM's cash needs are increasing as it more aggressively pursues development of clinical therapies. Next spring it is slated to mount a $240 million grant round. The agency has roughly $1.4 billion left, but a good chunk of that will go for operational costs, which are currently $18.5 million a year and are likely to increase. CIRM has projected that it will run out of its bond funding in about 2017.


  1. Jim Fossett8:44 AM

    Are any more details going to be released on how this deal is supposed to work? Based on what's here, this arrangement seems sensible--if the idea is that the state goes into the short term market, where interest rates are extremely low, and borrow money which it rolls over until CIRM can repay it from a subsequent bond allocation. That would be a reasonable way to keep CIRM going at minimal interest cost--probably lower than the rate the state could get for the bonds. There are things around called "bond anticipation notes" that work sort of like this that governments use a lot. Is this how things are supposed to work?

  2. Re the questions on the new financial arrangements, Thomas has portrayed it as less expensive than regular bonds. The agency used bond anticipation notes in its early days, but needed another $150 million loan from the state. We will continue to pursue more details on the new arrangements. I suspect the Brown administration is really trying to keep its longterm debt from increasing right now. Thanks for the comment and questions.

  3. Jim Fossett7:24 AM

    A colleague with long experience on Wall Street has noted that this strategy makes sense only if short term rates remain low relative to CA's GO rates, which are pretty high right now. If interest rates go up, as they certainly will, the interest savings go away and the state runs the risk of getting shut out of the short term market and getting stuck with the entire principal. This is a potentially useful bridge between bond allocations; it's not a replacement for long term financing.


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