When First Boston Corp. prices an expected $532.7 million Massachusetts general obligation refunding issue Monday, it will be the second time the firm has had the top slot on the Massachusetts syndicate this year.
That has some underwriters wondering if First Boston now has a lock on the state's bond business. The firm served as lead manager on a $500 million GO deal in May.
Joseph D. Malone, a Republican, was elected treasurer and receiver general of Massachusetts on a pledge to end perceptions of favoritism that tainted the state's debt issuance under the 26-year reign of his Democratic predecessor, Robert Q. Crane. In Mr. Crane's final two years, Goldman, Sachs & Co. maintained a virtual monopoly on the lucrative lead manager slot for the state's GO deals.
So Mr. Malone reconfigured the state's general obligation bond syndicate, making it bigger than ever with 27 members. He designated five firms as senior managers, hinting though not promising that the senior manager slot would change.
Now, as Mr. Malone and his staff get ready for Monday's pricing, bankers who expected a rotating lead manager post may be disappointed. One, who spoke on condition that he not be named, groused that in the office of the treasurer and receiver general, the more things change the more they stay the same.
"How come First Boston's got the books again?" asked one, who requested anonymity. "It's business as usual in the commonwealth of Massachusetss. Crane had Goldman Sachs, and Malone has First Boston. They never promised rotation, but they sure did promise a level playing field. Now it appears there's only one player on the field." Several bankers interviewed for this story requested that they not be named.
Behind the dissatisfaction lies about half a million in underwriting profits on the deal. As book-running manager, First Boston can reasonably expect $1.5 million in management fees and bond sale profits. The four co-senior managers, meanwhile, can expect to make only about $750,000 each on the deal.
But Eric M. Turner, deputy treasurer under Mr. Malone, said that the commonwealth has good reason to avoid changing lead managers for now.
"We were interested in some continuity," Mr. Turner explained. "Don't forget, it was just four short months ago where there were questions of market access. We were in fact able to access the market, and we felt that continuity, at least this time around, made some sense."
Bradford R. Higgins, a managing director at First Boston, said that the emphasis on continuity "made a lot of sense" for the commonwealth. And, he added, "the other co-senior managers have been very helpful in the process."
Mr. Turner said that although Mr. Malone in the past made no specific commitment to rotating the top senior management spot on Massachusetts GO deals, "he does intend on rotating."
One position being rotated for Monday's deal is underwriter's counsel, for which the Boston law firm of Gaston & Snow will replace another Boston firm, Choate, Hall & Stewart. "Choate did a hell of a job. We told them this isn't a demotion or a slap in the face," Mr. Turner said.
Mr. Turner said that changing underwriter's counsel is easier than changing bond counsel or disclosure counsel, posts which are not being changed for this deal. And, he said, the change indicates just how determined Mr. Malone is to spread his business around.
"You have to judge something like this with some degree of hindsight," he said, "and I think when it's all said and done, the treasurer will have demonstrated that it's been a level playing field and that he has in fact spread the business around."
But, as one state official pointed out, some firms would be disgruntled no matter what decision the treasurer had made on the syndicate. And, the disgruntlement aside, things look good for this second major GO offering of the Malone administration.
Market perception of the state's offering seemed to be on an upswing yesterday, amid rumors that Standard & Poor's Corp. or Moody's Investors Service, the rating agencies that assign the lowest ratings to Massachusetts bonds, could change their assessment of the state's debt.
Massachusetts bonds traded up yesterday on teh rumblings of possible rating changes. Officials from Standard & Poor's did not return telephone calls by press time. And George W. Leung, managing director for state ratings at Moody's, said that a decision was not likely before Friday.
At Fitch Investors Service, the rating agency that has steadfastly maintained an A-plus rating on Massachusetts bonds, it was a moment of some triumph. "I guess I would say that our rating's been vindicated," said Executive Managing Director Claire G. Cohen. "It's probably a little bit early to say much of anything, although it would seem to me that the commonwealth has stabilized a great deal."
Triet Nguyen, a municipal bond fund manager at the Putnam Companies, said that a rating change, at this point, would be too soon. "That would be a fairly bad precedent to even talk about, with only six months of balanced operations," Mr. Nguyen said. "But i think that [the rumors of an upgrade] may help the issue, anyway."
Mr. Nguyen said the expected that the 20-year bonds in the issue could offer yields on the order of 7.15% to 7.20%. "It may get lower than that because there are not a lot of term bonds," he added. According to Mr. Higgins, Massachusetts bonds are already trading as though they had A ratings. "The market has already viewed this as a turn-around situation, and it is more of an A-rated bond," Mr. Higgins said.
One banker close to the deal predicted that it would come to market yielding 6 7/8% to 7% on the long end, if insured, and 7 1/8% to 7 1/4% if uninsured. In late secondary trading yesterday, bellwether 7% bonds of the New York Local Government Assistance Corp. due in 2016 were quoted up 1/8 point on the day to yield approximately 7.11%. The bonds are rated A-plus by Fitch and Standard & Poor's and A by Moody's
Mr. Malone, who visited Wall Street yesterday with Administration and Finance Secretary Peter Nessen and First Deputy Treasurer Thomas H. Trimarco, said the use of insurance on the deal was still being discussed.
Meetings with Fitch and Moody's here yesterday afforded Mr. Malone the chance to "state the case that things are improving in Massachusetts." But, he added, "we don't want to anticipate any upgrades at this juncture. We just want to let the process take its course."
Staff reporter Sean Monsarrat also contributed to this article.