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Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Auction-Rate Securities

D. Andrew Austin
Analyst in Economic Policy

Many municipalities, student loan providers, and other debt issuers borrowed funds using auction-rate securities (ARSs), whose interest rates are set periodically by auctions. ARSs combine features of short- and long-term securities; ARSs couple longer maturities with interest rates linked to short-term money markets. Most ARSs are bonds, although some are preferred equities. ARS issuance volumes grew rapidly since they were introduced in the mid-1980s. By 2007, ARSs comprised a $330 billion market. The credit crunch of 2007-2008, however, exposed major vulnerabilities in the design of ARSs.

Turmoil in global financial markets that erupted in summer 2007, combined with vulnerabilities in the structure of ARSs, put mounting pressure on the ARS market. In addition, downgrades of some bond insurers increased stress on segments of the ARS market. In early February 2008, major ARS dealers withdrew their support for ARS auctions, most of which then failed. Widespread auction failures in the ARS market left many investors with illiquid holdings and sharply increased interest costs for many issuers, such as student lending agencies, cities, and public authorities. In particular, ARS failures, according to some, have made it more difficult for student lenders that had used ARSs to raise funds. CRS Report RL34578, Economics of Guaranteed Student Loans, by D. Andrew Austin, discusses these issues.

Many major investment banks, in the wake of lawsuits filed by state attorneys general as well as pressure from state and federal regulators, have announced plans to repurchase outstanding ARSs for certain relatively smaller investors and to make efforts to liquidate ARS holdings of larger and institutional investors. The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) reached several settlements with broker-dealers in late 2008 and early 2009. Lawsuits alleged that some investment banks sold ARS products as cash equivalents, but failed to disclose liquidity risks and the extent of bank support for auctions—the main liquidity channel for ARSs. Many major investment banks involved in the ARS market reached settlements and agreements to buy back ARSs from some investors, typically certain individual investors, non-profit organizations, and small businesses. Some large firms and high-wealth individuals, however, have not been covered by these settlements. Some large firms have called for federal help to sell their ARS holdings, whose market valuations have dropped sharply.

Some segments of the ARS market, such as municipal issues and closed-end mutual funds, have restructured much of their debt, as issuers have redeemed ARS securities and switched to other financing strategies. Only a small portion of existing student-loan-backed ARS (SLARS) debt issues have been refinanced.

In the past, Congress has expressed concern about policy areas that the ARS market's collapse has affected. For example, the House Financial Services Committee held a March 2008 hearing to examine how financial market developments may have increased interest and other financing costs of state and local governments, followed by another hearing in September 2008 on ARSs. In April 2008, Congress passed the Ensuring Continued Access to Student Loans Act of 2008 (H.R. 5715, P.L. 110-227) to allow the Secretary of Education to provide capital to student lenders, whose ability to borrow in some cases had been constricted by ARS failures. One proposed Senate amendment (S.Amdt. 4261) to a supplemental appropriations measure (Disaster Relief and Summer Jobs Act, H.R. 4899) would let the government buy certain federally guaranteed loans, which could affect the SLARS market.

Date of Report: June 9, 2010
Number of Pages: 33
Order Number: RL34672
Price: $29.95

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