As cities and states boost their debts by 800 percent, a housing-like crisis looms.
When state and local governments want to spend more than they collect in revenues, they issue bonds. Such bonds are a longstanding feature of the American landscape, going back at least as far as 1812, but during the last decade they have spun out of control, as states and cities have increased their borrowing to indulge in more and more spending on new stadiums, schools, bridges, and museums. They have even started borrowing to cover their basic operational expenses.
Since 2000 the total outstanding state and municipal bond debt, adjusted for inflation, has soared from $1.5 trillion to $2.8 trillion (see chart). The recession didn't slow the spending.
One reason for the increase in demand for these bonds is that in times of crisis, investors tend to abandon high-risk, high-return assets for safer investments. The presumed reliability of municipal bonds—only U.S. Treasury bonds are considered safer—have made them very attractive. From 1970 to 2006, the default rate for municipal bonds has averaged 0.01 percent annually. And the average recovery rate for those few municipal bonds that have defaulted is also notably high, about 60 percent. In comparison, corporate bonds' recovery rate is about 40 percent.