A federal judge gave permission for the city of Stockton, CA to begin bankruptcy proceedings, over the objections of bondholders in the city's pension system.
The bondholders believe that Stockton did not negotiate in good faith, preferring the bankruptcy route to the more painful and politically unpopular route of altering the pension system.
In a case being studied by other cash-strapped American cities including Detroit, U.S. Bankruptcy Court Judge Christopher Klein's decision was a setback for bondholders and insurers who had resisted the California city's bankruptcy filing. Stockton is the largest U.S. city ever to file for bankruptcy.
The judge also signaled that the California Public Employees Retirement System's position in the case was not above review. Stockton, a city of 300,000, has so far not reduced pension payments to retired city workers, although it has eliminated retiree healthcare benefits.
"This does not mean there is not potentially a serious issue involving Calpers," Judge Klein said. "But at this point I do not know what that is." He added that there were "very complex and difficult questions of law that I can see out there on the horizon," relating to Calpers.
The decision on Stockton marks the start of a lengthy restructuring of the obligations that currently overwhelm its finances, which were crippled by the housing crisis and recession.
Investors in the $3.7 trillion municipal bond market are concerned that if Stockton is able to avoid paying bondholders in full without cutting pension payments, other cities will pursue a similar strategy as they struggle to cope with budget shortfalls.
Kenneth Naehu, head of fixed income at Bel Air Investment Advisors in Los Angeles, agreed that the case could cloud the issue of where bondholders stand in relation to retirees and pension funds in a municipal bankruptcy.
In a lengthy preamble to his ruling, Klein delivered a stinging rebuke to the so-called capital market creditors - mainly the insurers for bondholders who own hundreds of millions of dollars of Stockton debt - who had opposed the bankruptcy filing.
He rejected the arguments of bondholders and insurers that Stockton was not truly insolvent when it sought Chapter 9 bankruptcy protection last summer and that it had improperly failed to seek relief from its pension obligations.
Klein said capital market creditors had failed to negotiate in good faith in a pre-bankruptcy mediation, as required by law, and also criticized their refusal to pay part of the bill for mediation.
Bondholders and insurers in this, and other municipal bankruptcies to come, will almost certain have to endure a substantial haircut - just as their sovereign debt holder counterparts in Europe. By the time this all shakes out, borrowing money will get a lot harder, and a lot more expensive for cities and states.