Interactive Brokers’ senior market analyst Steven Levine provides some insights into general obligation bonds (GOs), including what differentiates these securities from other municipal debt offerings such as revenue bonds, as well as methods of analyses. This lesson is part of a video series on the U.S. Municipal Bond Market – available at IBKR Traders’ Academy.
General Obligation (GO) bonds are typical, general purpose bonds issued by a municipality, generally to help finance a capital project like a railway or a road. This is similar to a corporation, which may use proceeds from a debt sale for general corporate purposes.
Only issuers that can charge and collect taxes, such as state and local governments, may issue GOs, since they are backed in large part by that issuer’s taxing power.
State GOs may be secured by a variety of funding sources such as tax receipts from:
- Sales, and
Local issuers, such as counties and cities, usually derive their revenue from taxes on:
- Property, and
First, the proposed issuance would require voter approval given it would be the taxpayers’ money that would be used for servicing the debt. Also, the state’s own statutory and constitutional powers may place a cap on how much debt the issuer may accumulate – this is commonly known as a debt ceiling.
Before investing in a GO, a bond investor may want to analyze several factors about the issuer such as:
- The health of its economy
- Its overall character, namely the industries or companies operating within its borders
- Its employment rate and the average income of its residents
- Changes in its population levels
- Its overall financial condition, including its existing debt burden
- The amount of its unfunded pension liabilities, and how it generally handles its fiscal responsibilities
When considering an investment in the New York City GO, an investor may want to consider:
- How the city’s employment base has been trending lower over the past few years,
- How its largest source of revenues is from property taxes, while its real estate market has been sluggish recently.
Meanwhile, other major sources of New York City revenue include:
- Income taxes, and
- Intergovernmental revenues such as
- Grants, and
- Shared taxes
Furthermore, while the U.S. census-estimated population for New York City in 2018 had risen over the past eight years – it is still only about half the rate of national population growth.
Like other issuers, a municipality is subject to default on its debt obligations, and bond investors generally look for any potential red flags to mitigate this worst-case scenario.
Some of the biggest municipal defaults of the past decade include:
- Puerto Rico,
- Detroit, and
- Jefferson County, Alabama
In 1975, New York City had also faced a bankruptcy, and a municipal bond analyst may look back at that time and assess how times have changed, and how they may be similar.
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