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Trading of California IOUs catches regulators' eyes

Would-be buyers and sellers of the scrip hit EBay, Craigslist. Meanwhile, the state's bond rating is downgraded 'BBB,' a step closer to 'junk' status.

July 07, 2009|W.J. Hennigan

An informal market is springing up online for the IOUs that cash-strapped California began issuing last week, attracting the attention of regulators and state officials.

Meanwhile, the state's bonds moved a step closer to "junk" status because of the budget mess that has prompted the state to pay tax refunds and other obligations with the vouchers.

Would-be buyers of the scrip, officially called registered warrants, have expressed their interest on Web marketplaces including Craigslist and EBay.

Michael Roberts of Los Angeles said he posted such an ad on Craigslist so he could collect the 3.75% annualized interest rate the state is paying on them until Oct. 2, when the government presumably will have ended its fiscal stalemate and will have the money to redeem the warrants.

Roberts said he was willing to pay the full face value for the IOUs, but other investors are offering to buy them only at a discount.

Selling an IOU at a discount this week would appear to be a bad deal because many of California's banks have said they would redeem IOUs at face value for their customers at least through Friday.

Starting next week, however, some IOU recipients whose banks are no longer accepting them might resort to selling them at less than face value.

"People are in desperate need of [cash] these days, so when the government pays them in IOUs, they're getting killed financially," Roberts said.

Responding to the proliferation of offers to buy the warrants, state Treasurer Bill Lockyer's office said Monday that it wouldn't redeem IOUs sold by one person to another unless they were accompanied by a notarized bill of sale signed by the original recipient.

Meanwhile, the Municipal Securities Rulemaking Board, a national body that regulates the trading of municipal debt, is looking into whether the IOUs should be considered securities.

If they are, anyone who makes a business out of trading them could be breaking federal law if the business is not registered with the Securities and Exchange Commission, said Ernesto Lanza, general counsel of the board.

The IOUs have "all the hallmarks of being a security," Lanza said.

But the state controller's office, which issues the IOUs, said they weren't securities.

"They are a form of payment," said Garin Casaleggio, a spokesman for Controller John Chiang.

Also Monday, Fitch Ratings downgraded California's bond debt to "BBB" from "A-minus." The new rating still is investment-grade -- but not by much. After "BBB" is "BBB-minus," and then the junk rating of "BB."

California has never had a junk rating on its debt, but it's tempting fate now. Fitch indicated Monday that another downgrade was possible.

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william.hennigan@latimes.com

Times staff writer Tom Petruno contributed to this report.

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