We passed a good year last week, and we still have two big months to go. That's one way to look at the volume statistics from Securities Data Co., showing 1993's long-term municipal bond volume at $237 billion, surpassing 1992's total of $235 billion.

Okay, some of you are thinking now: Nothing crazy in the Spectator this time around, now on to business. But wait a minute. Take a look at those volume figures, and what they say.

Compare the two years, So many of us are hung up on volume. In 1993, so far, there have been around $45 billion in bond sales out for competitive bid. This is roughly the same as for all of 1992. On the negotiated side of the business, the figure is, no surprise, $190 billion, also about the same as 1992's issuance.

But take another look, now, at the actual number of issues, which is a better gauge of the national market. Competitive sales, despite the red-in-the-face furor of opposition of so many bankers, are actually down, by about 15%, to 3,620, compared to 4,249 for all of 1992. Negotiated sales are down, too, by about the same percentage, to 7,036 issues from 8,340, but I have not heard many complaints from the same bankers about there being too many or too few negotiated bond sales.

The numbers tell us a few things. Most of the volume this year has been in refundings, and those are usually done on a negotiated basis. The decline in the number of issues would seem to indicate that most issuers are refunding their debt first -- getting refundings, which may be done only in a window of opportunity, out of the way before they enter the market for new-money financings. The decline in the number of sales also means that the refundings have been larger, perhaps combining a number of issues. It also means the refunding binge seems to be running out of gas.

The competitive side of the ledger is a bit more mystifying. I am willing to buy the notion that more issuers are doing refundings first, before new money. A lot of smart bankers I know, however, do not. New money, they say, comes to the market at its own pace. It gets done, in other words, no matter what.

Then why the decline in new competitive sales? Rates, in recent memory, have never been lower. The hunger for tax-exempt debt has probably never been as keen. Bond scandals in New Jersey, Massachusetts, and Louisiana have served notice to more than one issuer that competitive sales are, well, politic right now. And those three states have, in fact, prohibited negotiated sale altogether.

So why are we off 15% in the number of competitive sales? And why are so many well-known, and very well-respected, bankers railing every time someone, somewhere, says, There should be more bonds sold by competitive bid.

Surely, not every bond sold today is complex, or enormous, or clouded by a story.

I have the questions. Maybe you have the answers.

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