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Issuer Put Off by BAB Offsets

DORAL, Fla. — The Treasury Department is “acutely aware” of the importance of the continuity of federal subsidy payments under the Build America Bond program, an official said yesterday.

The remarks came after a state-level issuer said it would stop issuing BABs until there is clarification from the federal government on the policy of offsetting subsidy payments with any other money the issuer might owe the federal government.

But Alan B. Krueger, assistant secretary for economic policy, told the audience at the National Municipal Bond Summit — sponsored by The Bond Buyer and the Regional Bond Dealers Association — that the issue is not new and that the original guidance on BABs addressed offsets.

“My understanding is that IRS and Treasury have relatively little discretion in this area,” he said. “But I would assure you that Treasury is acutely aware of the importance of continuity and payments in this area.”

He added: “This is an area where we’re happy to work with issuers if they have any questions.”

Krueger’s remarks came just hours after Ben Watkins, director of Florida’s Division of Bond Finance, said he postponed a new-money competitive deal scheduled for next week — $265 million of new-money turnpike revenue bonds — until there is clarification from the federal government regarding the offsetting of subsidy payments.

Watkins said the deal was expected to be a mix of BABs and tax-exempts. He also said BABs have been a “great tool” for state financings, but he decided to stop selling them for now because of the risk that the Internal Revenue Service could intercept subsidy payments if issuers have payments due to the federal government under any federal program, including Medicaid and unemployment compensation.

“From a risk-management standpoint, we’ve made the internal decision to step away from BABs and not use them any longer until we get clarity around this issue and this new risk,” Watkins said.

Florida has sold $1.6 billion of BABs, with the level of savings varying between 22 basis points and 85 basis points, or a savings of $250 million over the terms of the financings, Watkins said. The total subsidy to be paid by the federal government over the life of the BABs is $600 million. Nationwide since the program’s inception, issuers have sold nearly $80 billion of BABs.

The Bond Buyer last month reported that at least one other issuer, who has not been identified, had a subsidy payment reduced because it owed money to the federal government.

Watkins and Krueger said the lines of communication will remain open on this issue.

Another issuer, Brian Mayhew, chief financial officer and treasurer of the Bay Area Toll Authority, which has also sold BABs, said getting an answer to the offset question is key for him, as the agency’s deals pledge the BAB subsidy payments directly to debt service.

“We still feel the federal government will keep their word, but we certainly are looking into this,” he said.

From the Washington’s perspective, BABs have been successful, according to G. Edward DeSeve, special adviser to President Obama on the implementation of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, who opened the conference.

DeSeve said $462 billion had been spent from February 2009 through January of this year on the stimulus program. The increased federal spending has created or saved 2.5 million jobs to date and increased the gross domestic product in the last two quarters of 2009, DeSeve said, but noted: “We haven’t gotten away from job losses yet.”

BABs also have been successful in the way issuers, investors, and underwriters have “embraced them,” , DeSeve said.

But he said while the ARRA program has stimulated the economy, “there are challenges ahead.”

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