Thursday, June 05, 2014

SF Prop A and California Prop 41 Tax Defeasance Through Muni Bonds

San Francisco Voters passed Proposition A this week, calling for a $400B muni bond issue to fund seismic retrofits of first responders' facilities in the City.  California voters passed Proposition 41, diverting bond proceeds raised for CalVet home and farm loans to low-income housing for homeless veterans.  San Francisco voters will eventually pay higher property taxes to pay off the principal and interest of these bonds.  Taxpayers are also investors.  They can effectively get their money back through a form of defeasance.

A San Francisco property owner can theoretically buy a sufficient amount of city and state muni bonds whose interest payments will offset their property tax increases.  They would have to buy whatever new general obligation issues are specifically intended to fund these most recent ballot measures.  If enough San Franciscans do it, their increased property taxes transform into tax-free income.

Here's an illustration of how this would theoretically work.  The San Francisco June 2014 Voter Information Pamphlet and Sample Ballot described the fiscal impact of Prop. A.  The City Controller estimated that Prop. A's fiscal impact is an average tax rate of $9.61 per $100,000 of assessed value through 2040.  Offsetting this with a purchase of San Francisco muni bonds means buying enough of them to pay at least that much in annual interest.  The California Voter Information Guide for Prop. 41 has a similar analysis but does not reveal the property tax rate impact for assessed property.  Darn, that's no help.  California's bonds carry the lowest rating in the nation because this state can't get its act together.

I logged into the brokerage where I maintain my portfolio and searched their bond inventory.  The California GO bond inventory revealed coupons of 4.25%-5.25% for maturities out to 2029, which is the target maturity implied by Prop. 41's analysis.  The San Francisco GO coupons for all maturities past 2014 ranged from 4.00%-5.00%.  Buying one SF GO 4% bond of $5000 face value will pay $200 in interest per year, more than enough to offset a Prop. A tax assessment on $100,000 worth of property.  I'll assume the same holds true for the state's Prop. 41 assessment; buying one $5000 California GO bond should be sufficient.  The bottom line is that San Francisco real property owners can elect to set aside the liquid equivalent of 10% of their real property's value (i.e., two $5K muni bonds for each $100K) as a defeasance for the taxes to fund these bond issues.  That's what I would do if I owned real property in this town, but I don't tell anyone else what to do with their own money.  I would of course receive much more from interest than I would pay in taxes, so muni bond defeasance of property taxes sure looks like a transfer of wealth from City taxpayers to bond holders.

I won't debate the political merits of either measure except to say that I voted against them.  I generally oppose issuing new government debt unless it is earmarked for spending on capital goods in the "public commons" that enhance economic activity.  I suppose I can live with Prop. A because it supports The City's long term capital improvement plan, but City Hall needs to cut other things first IMHO before planning bond issues.  I also won't recap my hyperinflation warning, which would make any bond purchase worthless.  Hyperinflation would rapidly eliminate property tax burdens anyway so defeasance would be a waste of effort.

Full disclosure:  None of this analysis constitutes financial advice; go see a registered financial advisor for that service.  I do not own any muni bonds at this time.  I do not own real property with assessable value in San Francisco.