Explaining Southern California's economy

Standard & Poor's upgrades California's bonds...but state is still in the bottom two

Gov. Jerry Brown

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California Gov. Jerry Brown speaks in support of Prop. 30 at a rally of UCLA students on campus, Oct. 16, 2012. The passage of the ballor measure in combination with fiscal discipline has led ratings agencies to re-examine California's debt.

Hot on the heels of lowering Illinois' general obligation (GO) bond debt one notch, from "A" to "A-", Standard & Poor's raised California's GO debt to "A" from "A-".

So California is now the second lowest rating U.S. state, among those whose debt S&P rates.

It was S&P's first upgrade for the state since before the financial crisis.

I talked to California Treasurer Bill Lockyer after the announcement, and he credited the combination of Prop 30 — the ballot measure passed last November that raised sales taxes and income taxes on wealthy Californians — along with improved fiscal discipline for prompting the upgrade.

Another agency, Fitch Ratings, is also keeping an eye on California's improving finances. Doug Offerman, an analyst I spoke with last year, wouldn't put a timetable on a possible upgrade, but he did indicate that Fitch likes the math Prop 30 delivers:

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Bond kings chase returns in a low-interest-rate world

A short sale home in the Spring Valley a

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A recovering housing market has yielding big returns for Southern California bond funds that have invested in risky assets.

Heather Perlberg and Pierre Paulden at Bloomberg have a good piece Wednesday about what I call Southern California's "bond triangle" - and its investment managers' relentless quest for returns when interest rates are at historic lows. 

The major players in the story are PIMCO, the nearly $2 trillion fixed-income colossus based in Newport Beach; TCW, with $135 billion in assets under management and in the process of being taken over by the Carlyle Group, a big private-equity firm; and DoubleLine Capital, run by former TCW trader Jeff Gundlach and one of the fastest-growing financing startups in history, with more than $50 amassed in assets in three years. ( TCW and DoubleLine are based in L.A.)

Here's Perlberg and Paulden on how these firms' investment in a risky category of debt has paid off big time:

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In SoCal's Bond Triangle, the Carlyle Group hits some trouble

TCW-Getty

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The Carlyle Group, a huge private-equity firm, has hit snag with its purchase of a majority stake in TCW, one of the big bonds finds headquartered in California.

Reuters ran a dense "exclusive" Monday about some financial gyrations that are making potential trouble for private-equity colossus the Carlyle Group's deal to buy a chunk of TCW, one of the biggest bond funds in the world and a part of what I call the Southern California Bond Triangle. It also includes PIMCO and DoubleLine Capital.

PIMCO is the biggest bond fund in the world, with $1.8 trillion under management. TCW has around $135 billion on its books. DoubleLine has been growing at a furious pace since CEO Jeff Gundlach established it after a controversial departure from TCW. It has taken on nearly $50 billion in under three years. 

You could also throw Pasadena-based WAMCO in there, creating a Bond Quadrangle. WAMCO has around $450 billion under management and has tried in recent years to regain its competitive mojo versus PIMCO.

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Moody's raises a red flag about November California tax revenues

CA Governor Jerry Brown Holds News Conference On Pension Reform

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California Gov. Jerry Brown discusses pension reform during a news conference in Los Angeles. The state's revenue outlook deteriorated slightly in November.

The tax revenue outlook for California has been improving. But Moody’s, the big credit rating agency, reported Friday that the take for November was lower than expected. 

The agency wasted no time is raising a red flag about the sudden reversal of a positive revenue trend. November came in 11 percent lower than the state’s budget called for.

Emily Raimes, a Moody’s analyst with whom we've talked before at the DeBord Report, pointed out that the shortfall highlights the volatility of California’s tax revenues — a point I've been droning on about for months now. In the state, we're overly dependent on the incomes of the rich to make the budget work.

This is something that Raimes says Moody’s “sees in states with high wealth.” The same issue arises in New York and New Jersey. 

"California’s progressive income tax structure fuels the volatility; the wealthiest 15% of state taxpayers pay approximately 80% of all state taxes, according to the state’s audited financial reports," she wrote in a contribution to Moody's Weekly Credit Outlook.

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Jeff Gundlach shows why US economic growth has become very expensive

The U.S. has added a huge amount of debt since the financial crisis, but it hasn't yielded higher levels of growth.

Southern California is home to a trio of important bond funds: PIMCO, TCW, and DoubleLine Capital. All of these have executives who routinely comment on the global financial system, although PIMCO and DoubleLine usually get most of the attention.

At Newport Beach based PIMCO, which manages $1.8 trillion, co-Chief Investment Officer Mohamed A. El-Erian acts as a sort of wise man for both his firm and for a variety of blue-chip news outlets (and the co-CIO and founder Bill Gross is a regular on CNBC and other financial broadcast outlets). 

Bond fund managers tend to be very macroeconomic and global in their outlook. They can see wheels within wheels and large-scale patterns because bonds are how countries, states, cities, and companies all fund themselves. If something is going right, bond markets can tell you. And if things are going to go wrong, bond markets can send the signals. Just ask Greece. Or California, which has one of the lowest credit ratings of any of U.S. state.

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