Just two days after S&P downgraded Hartford to junk, Moody’s has piled on, pushing the Connecticut State capital below investment-grade due to “the increased likelihood that the city will pursue debt restructurings to address its fiscal challenges.”
One week ago, Illinois passed its three year-overdue budget in hopes of avoiding a downgrade to junk status, however in an unexpected twist, Moody’s said that it may still downgrade the near-insolvent state, regardless of the so-called budget “deal.” In fact, a downgrade of Illinois may come at any moment, making it the first U.S. state whose bond ratings tip into junk, although as of yesterday, credit rating agencies said they were still reviewing the state’s newly enacted budget and tax package. The most likely outcome is, unfortunately for Illinois, adverse: “I think Moody’s has been pretty clear that they view the state’s political dysfunction combined with continued unaddressed long-term liabilities, and unfavorable baseline revenue performance as casting some degree of skepticism on the state’s ability to manage out of the very fragile financial situation they are in,” said John Humphrey, co-head of credit research at Gurtin Municipal Bond Management.
And yet, while Illinois squirms in the agony of the unknown, another municipality that as recently as a month ago was rumored to be looking at a bankruptcy filing, the state capital of Connecticut, Hartford, no longer has to dread the unknown: following S&P’s downgrade to junk on Tuesday, Moody’s just shifted Hartford’s GOs to B2 from Ba2, with a negative outlook.
Excerpted Moody’s note:
Moody’s Investors Service has downgraded the City of Hartford, CT’s general obligation debt rating to B2 from Ba2. The outlook is negative.
The rating was placed under review for possible downgrade on May 30, 2017. The par amount of debt affected totals approximately $550 million.
The downgrade reflects the increased likelihood that the city will pursue debt restructurings to address its fiscal challenges. Last week, the city hired a law firm to advise it on debt restructurings. City management has made public statements indicating they will need to have discussions with bondholders about restructuring its debt regardless of the outcome of the state’s biennial budget as debt service costs escalate sharply leading to budget deficits over the next five years.
The rating also reflects the city’s challenging liquidity outlook in the current fiscal year and weak prospects for achievement of sustainably balanced financial operations. The city currently projects a fiscal 2018 deficit of $50 million and is seeking incremental funding from the state to close that gap. The state has not yet adopted a budget specifying aid for the city for the fiscal year beginning July 1. Even if the state’s biennial budget allocates sufficient funds to address the current and following years deficits and create a fiscal oversight structure, the budget is still unlikely to provide a pathway to structural balance over the longer term. City deficits, partially attributable to escalating debt service costs, are projected to grow to $83 million by 2023, making the city’s weak financial position vulnerable to further deterioration.
The negative outlook reflects the possibility that the city will restructure its debt in a way that will impair bondholders. The outlook also incorporates uncertainty over state funding in the current fiscal year and beyond and the associated impact on reserves, liquidity and the ability to achieve sustainably balanced operations.
In short: the capital of America’s richest state (on a per capita basis), will – according to both S&P and Moody’s – be one of the first to default in the coming months.