WASHINGTON A major institutional purchaser of District of Columbia debt issued a credit report last week saying the district's general obligation bonds should remain investment grade, even though they are susceptible to a rating downgrade.
The July 13 report by Kemper Securities Inc. is the financial markets' latest show of confidence in the district, said Ellen O'Connor, the district's chief financial officer and deputy mayor for finance.
Congress is not as friendly: Last week the full House and a Senate panel voted to slash the district's fiscal 1995 budget.
But O'Connor pointed to a "very successful" sale of $231 million in GO bonds last Thursday, which drew bids by three syndicates and was insured by Municipal Bond Investors Assurance Corp. The winning bid, led by Goldman, Sachs & Co., had a "nifty" true interest cost of 6.25%, she said. Proceeds will be used for capital spending and to restructure about $25 million of debt by refunding 1986 bonds that mature June 1, 1995.
In its report, Kemper said the district is managing its near-term financial difficulties "reasonably well" in response to the effects of the national recession.
This view differs markedly from congressional rhetoric by both Democrats and Republicans, such as Rep. Pete Stark, D-Calif, who laid into the district with charges that it failed to control its spending. Stark is the chairman of the House Committee on the District of Columbia, which authorizes district spending.
The Kemper review followed credit reports by Standard & Poor's Corp., which kept its rating at A-minus, and Moody's Investors Service, which maintained its Baa. However, Standard & Poor's in June revised the district's outlook from stable to negative to reflect "acute budget stress."
Kemper rates the district Upper BBB, which is"a notch lower" than the Standard & Poor's rating, but it disagrees with Standard & Poor's that the credit is in a negative trend.
"Our rationale ... is that, ironically, the district's credit could well have been seen as declining over the past few years, but we now see it grappling realistically to balance its budget and resolve its problems," Kemper said.
Unlike other governments in recent years that have sold debt to balance their budgets in the face of recession and stagnant tax bases, "the district has not had recurring budget deficits," Kemper said.
The district's only recent issuance of deficit recovery general obligation bonds, a $331 million sale in 1991, was to finance liabilities dating back to the 1970s, when the district made the transition to home rule and the use of generally accepted accounting .principles, Kemper said.
Other jurisdictions with sizable deficit funding debt include Philadelphia; Bridgeport and West Haven, Conn.; Chicago Board of Education; Detroit and its Board of Education; and California, Connecticut, New York State, and Massachusetts, Kemper said.
"If the District of Columbia's credit standing were based on the media reports that appeared over the last several months, bondholders might be heading for the exit," Kemper said.
But despite recurring headlines that the district is running out of money and will be forced to seek federal loans, "it is our opinion that while the district does have significant financial problems, they are manageable," Kemper said, adding that federal borrowing is unlikely.
The district, like many other state and local governments, is restructuring to deal with "the economic realities of the 1990s," the report said. "It is not an even, smooth process, however, as the press headlines suggest. Instead, it is a series of reductions in services and tax increases, all of which are unpopular and draw critical attention."
"While its cash position is expected to continue to be weak, the district's ability to manage its finances conservatively should enable it to oversee its cash flow without incurring short-term debt that carries over yearend," Kemper said. "This will be a key benchmark to watch for future credit direction."
The different outlooks of the financial markets and Congress reflect to an extent a "Beltway mentality," O'Connor said. "To understand us, you have to understand what is happening in state and local governments... When you look at what other people have been doing to streamline, reduce spending and staff, to privatize government operations, all of [these] have been bloody battles for Mayor [Sharon Pratt] Kelly."
"These battles are being used to paint us as unique, as out of it, as wayward children. We are trying to bring the message back, and we see this [Kemper] commentary as helping to say, that's not the right way to look at it," O'Connor said. "This is what's been happening in the country," and Wall Street understands that, she said.
The district is trying to restructure so that it can reverse historical trends and keep its budget in balance, O'Connor said. But district council members have found proposals such as restructuring the District of Columbia General Hospital hard to accept. The council has bottled up Kelly's proposal to create a private corporation to run the hospital while retaining its public mission.
With Congress "stepping up to the plate and saying, 'let's support spending reductions,' in a perverse way that's supporting what Mayor Kelly has been saying for the past three years -- you have to reduce spending, you have to reduce the workforce," O'Connor said.