The debacle in Florida, namely a $27 billion short-tern investment fund being frozen after the revelation it held $700 million of defaulted debt (today reported as $900 million) led to $12 billion in withdrawals, is producing a cash crisis at the government entities that hadn’t gotten their money back.
Aside from the troubles this impairment is creating in and of itself, it will feed “run on the fund” behavior if any other government-operated funds encounter similar difficulties.
School districts, counties and cities across Florida are scrambling to raise cash after being denied access to their deposits in a $15 billion state-run investment fund.
Florida’s State Board of Administration, manager of the Local Government Investment Pool, halted withdrawals yesterday at an emergency meeting after $12 billion was pulled out this month from participants. Governments from Orange County, home of Disney World, to Pompano Beach asked for their money back following disclosures that the fund held $1.5 billion of downgraded and defaulted debt.
“The unthinkable and the unimaginable have just happened here in Florida,” said Hal Wilson, chief financial officer of the Jefferson County school district, which kept its entire $2.7 million of cash in the fund. “What we just experienced here is a classic run-on-the bank meltdown.”
Thousands of school districts, towns and fire departments across the U.S. keep their cash in state- and county-run pools. These public accounts, modeled after private money-market funds, are supposed to invest in safe, liquid, short-term debt such as Treasuries and certificates of deposit from highly rated banks.
By freezing the Florida fund, officials left governments without ready access to cash they are accustomed to drawing upon for routine expenditures. The pool was the largest of its kind in the U.S. at $27 billion before the unprecedented withdrawals.
Just 30 miles (48 kilometers) east of the state capitol in Tallahassee, there was no money to pay the 220 teachers and other employees in Wilson’s Jefferson County school district today. Wilson said he trusted the State Board of Administration’s assurances that the money was safe even as other pool participants withdrew billions of dollars.
“We are in the process of working out provisions of a short-term loan with our bank to cover the overdrafts that will occur in our payroll account today,” Wilson said….
Standard & Poor’s yesterday said it contacted state officials about whether the fund holds any money for debt service payments by local governments and whether that cash will be made available. The credit-rating company said it hadn’t yet received information and was monitoring the situation….
The board is considering ways to shore up the fund, including obtaining credit protection for $1.5 billion of downgraded and defaulted holdings hurt by the subprime market collapse. In voting for the suspensions, officials sought to stem the flood of money leaving the pool and avoid losses on forced sales of assets…
The fund’s $900 million of asset-backed commercial paper that was downgraded to default amounts to 6 percent of its assets. Another $650 million, or 4 percent, is invested in certificates of deposit at Countrywide Bank FSB, a unit of Countrywide Financial Corp. The bank’s rating was cut to Baa1, three levels above junk status, by Moody’s Investors Service on Aug. 16.
Update 11/30. 6:00 PM: Other states are seeing removals from their cash funds. MarketWatch reports that roughly 10% has been withdrawn from its vehicle.