The municipal bond industry is tired of being bashed. It's gotten to the point ... , sources tell me. It's gotten to the point ... You name it, that's the point it's gotten to. People are afraid to send birthday cards to state treasurers, take finance directors out to lunch, send flowers to bereaved widows and orphans.
And The Bond Buyer is right in the thick of it. "Is this an article from the old Bond Buyer or the new Bond Buyer? " friends will ask in the same spirit as one would inquire, "Is this regular or high octane gasoline?" You can tell these boys have been in the industry for quite some time in order for them to remember "the old Bond Buyer," which was more of a trade newspaper than a newspaper covering a trade. The dividing line in many people's minds is somewhere around 1980 or 1981.
Well, what can The Bond Buyer do for the industry?
This: On Jan. 24, we're putting on a special one-day conference entitled "Review & Outlook: Ethics in Public Finance." What we can do, I think, is bring the smart and serious professionals in this industry, and that includes issuers and buyers, together to talk about it, frankly and candidly. Arthur Levitt Jr., chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission, has already agreed to be our luncheon speaker, and it is our hope that Mr. Levitt will stick around for most of the panels.
I want this conference to be something special. It's held in January because there is not a lot going on in public finance in January. I kept it to one day because a lot of serious and smart professionals do not have the time for two-day affairs held in exotic locales that basically demand an extra day to get to; in other words, they do not really care about extra little vacations. I also want the widest possible attendance at this, and the maximum audience participation. I have told the speakers that we do not want recitations of white papers, as so often happens at conferences.
The value is in the talking, in the public hashing out of the big issues. I want smart and serious professionals not only on the panels; I want them in the audience. And I want them to ask questions, make comments, vent some rage, and get into shouting matches and anything else short of a fistfight.
What are we going to talk about? I guess we'll inevitably talk about negotiated and competitive, but the panels I have planned deal with defining a conflict of interest, and syndicate selection processes, and who owns the takedown, and contributions and entertainment, and the future of minority underwriters. I think that just about covers the waterfront, but if it doesn't, well, whatever it is, I hope you'll bring it up.
That's what The Bond Buyer can do: Provide an independent, objective forum for this industry to make itself heard. And then write about it and explain it to the world.
That's right, the world. Because while we may understand the business, or think we understand most of the business, very few other journalists do, even if they are "business journalists." Again and again, we find ourselves answering the same basic questions from other reporters and editors. Usually, the tone they take is confrontational. As Jim Lebenthal once observed to reporters at a cocktail party for the 10th anniversary of Grant's Interest Rate Observer, "It sometimes seems as though every reporter and editor has parents who've been involved in some sort of disastrous municipal bond default."
That kind of comment ought to bring a blush to the face of business journalists, but whether or not it does -- such right now is the reputation this business has out there. I have taken on some of the more grotesque cases of sensationalism and exaggeration this column. But clearly it is time to expand our audience. in another month, I am pleased to say, The Bond Buyer will be featured on Adam Smith's Money World. Next week, The Bond Buyer Begins a Friday stint, from 8 a.m. to 8:30 a.m., on radio station Wale in Providence , R.I. Can a cable television show be far behind?
I hope not. The municipal bond market has more than $1 trillion in securities outstanding. It employs some Of the Smartest, most dedicated professionals and public servants. More than three million individuals report some form of tax-exempt income annually. Yet television, notably, stumbles in its discussions of the market and has to muster almost all its brainpower merely to distinguish between bearer and registered bonds. For all the average American knows about the municipal market, the financing of roads, bridges, sewers, and the rest of it might as well be done by wizards practicing alchemy.
Bringing the smart and serious professionals together and educating the public: That is the job ahead. In the meantime, I hope you all will attend "Review and Outlook: Ethics in Public Finance," even if you have to travel into town for the show. It should be a hot one.