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 traditionally considered low risk.
Past assumptions about municipal debt need to be reevaluated:
“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.
Once again, we can see the merit of allocating among assets based on intermediate-term relative strength as opposed to long-held assumptions.