2012-08-17washingtonpost.com

Ratings agencies only track the behavior of the bonds they rate, presenting a fragmented picture of the entire muni bond universe. For a more comprehensive look, the New York Fed merged defaults tracked by the three major rating agencies with unrated bonds reported by Mergent and S&P Capital IQ.

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General-obligation bonds, issued by municipalities, rarely fail because they are backed by tax revenue. But the Fed found bonds that finance hospitals, stadiums and nursing homes default at much higher rates because they have a narrower income stream. A sports stadium, for instance, needs to sell tickets, otherwise it may not generate enough to meet its debt obligations.

The worst-performing bonds were "industrial development" bonds that finance projects such as alternative energy plants or pollution control facilities. These bonds, which comprise nearly two-thirds of municipal issuance, fail at a 28 percent rate.


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