States See 1998 Tobacco Settlement Money Go Up in Smoke

Ashtray closeup full of smoked cigarettes in the sand
The 1998 settlement between major cigarette companies and various governments was supposed to provide massive payouts in perpetuity to 46 states, five territories and the District of Columbia. Instead, nine states, three territories and D.C. owe $64 billion on bungled financial arrangements following the deal, intended to cover the costs of treating tobacco-related illnesses.

The problem is securitization, according to a report and analysis by ProPublica and public radio show "Marketplace." The troubled governments worked through Wall Street to get large sums up-front from investors, who would in turn be paid out of the settlements ($200 billion in the first 25 years).

How Securitization Is Supposed to Work

Securitization at its essence is simple. An organization (like a government) expects to receive a lot of money over time -- maybe mortgage payments arranged by subprime lenders or a settlement with tobacco companies -- but wants the cash now. So it goes to Wall Street, which creates a bond that is sold to investors. The investors pay up front for the right to get payments, with interest, over time. The up-front money becomes a lump sum for the organization. Investment banks collect hefty fees. (In the tobacco case, ProPublica estimates that bankers, consultants and lawyers have pocketed more than $500 million in fees so far.)

If everything is structured properly, the original flow of cash will cover what is owed to everyone. In the meantime, the organization has its lump sum to use. A well-structured deal will anticipate some potential drop-off -- maybe some mortgage payers lose their jobs. However, in the case of the tobacco settlement deals, cigarette sales have dropped 3 percent and 3.5 percent annually -- twice as fast as the Wall Street wizards expected.

Now there's not enough money coming in to pay investors. In the case of subprime mortgage securitizations, this issue led to a major financial crash and massive government bailouts, with taxpayers ultimately footing the bill. With some of the tobacco settlement securitizations, ultimately taxpayers will foot the bill.

The Fatal Twist

That wasn't supposed to happen. Most deals were designed so that investors would take the hit if smoking dropped off and settlement payments shrunk. Capital appreciation bonds differed, and they represent $3 billion out of the $36 billion in outstanding tobacco bonds. A CAB doesn't make regular interest payments like most bonds. Instead, investors are promised both their principle and interest at the maturation date. Now nine states, three territories, and the District of Columbia owe a total of $64 billion on an advance payment of $3 billion

According to ProPublica, these CABs promise final payments upwards of 76 times what was originally obtained. Even if the tobacco payments stayed strong, that is still a huge amount. But the payments have dropped with cigarette usage, making the gap far worse.

Many of the CAB deals were done in the 2000s. Wall Street went wooing governors and legislators, telling them that the time to make deals was fast closing.

New Jersey was supposed to pay $1.3 billion in CABs in 2041 for $92 million it received up front to help Gov. Chris Christie and the legislature close a budget deficit. To retire the debt and avoid that incredible imbalance, Jersey agreed in March to pay out $406 million of the remaining tobacco payments it expected to get. Then the rating agencies dropped the state's credit rating as a result, meaning more expensive borrowing in the future.

Ohio brought in $319 million up front. It's ultimate final bill: $6.6 billion. A number of Wall Street firms collectively made $23 million in fees. The state treasurer at the time was Richard Cordray, who is now head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

A Gasping Result

Wall Street wanted to convince states to seek big initial payouts because firms make big bucks from structuring such deals. Pols, bewitched by the big sums they could get, agreed, even though critics warned of the eventual financial problems. As Christine Gregoire, a former Washington state governor and attorney general said in 2002, "It's not good fiscal management of public money to give away 75 cents on a dollar of income."

The tobacco settlement money was supposed to go to anti-smoking campaigns and health care considerations made necessary in the first place by smoking. Instead, it's become the property of investors so states could get chunks of money that they used for other reasons.

As for the investors, if they can wait, the payoff is weighty. Oppenheimer Funds, the biggest holder of CAB debt, would pull in $40 billion if the bonds all went to maturity. But the value of these investments is also spiraling downward. Oppenheimer recently valued its CAB investments "at only about $700 million, or about 1.8 cents on the dollar."

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So, Wall Street made the deal with the tobacco companies to secure the payments and then screw the stupid states and their citizens into robbing the settlement money? Who's to blame on this? The companies that paid out the settlements - no, Wall Street? How about the politicians in these states who took the settlement money and paid for other programs! Wall Street is not complicit for these states acting stupid. But the politicians need to abide by their promises. The tobacco companies paid the settlements as they should. The states were to use the settlement money as the article mentioned; "to cover the costs of tobacco related illness". It didn't happen so look to your local officials as to why it didn't.

August 12 2014 at 1:57 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

The American public has never figured out that elections have consequences. The problem is Wall Street greed and American electorate stupidity and public employee unions that want more, and more, and more for less and less and less. This is the "perfect storm" and I would only hope that a few municipalities go bankrupt and a few Wall Streeters go to jail. Absent this, nothing in this F-uped country will ever change!

August 12 2014 at 8:24 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
Tom Harrell

Blame the Crooks and Theives and Lawyers and Speculators, but the REAL Blame lies with the People we Elect to make sure things like THIS don't Happen.

August 12 2014 at 6:27 AM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply

Well Obama, let's bail this one out too - right?

August 11 2014 at 9:44 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to kensucharski's comment

ASININE comment!

August 12 2014 at 12:38 AM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
Tom Harrell

--CONsidering that the Last "Great bail out" was George Bushes BrainFART, I think you're asking the WRONG Person for Help.

But then you already know that, Don't you kensucharski ? ? ?

August 12 2014 at 6:36 AM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Tom Harrell's comment

How did senator obama vote on that one?

August 12 2014 at 11:48 AM Report abuse rate up rate down

The states need another class action national lawsuit to get money for their state projects and pay raises without raising voters' taxes. How about a lawsuit against Monsanto and other food makers who used Aspartame without telling Americans of the dangers of the artificial sweetener such as Autism resulting from pregnant women using the product and then having an Autistic child? My guess is that it will not happen because of the contribution dollars these companies give to political campaigns or the jobs given to politician offsprings.

August 11 2014 at 8:57 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

It just goes to prove, one more time, that Wall Street is one hell of a lot smarter (or knowes who to pay off) than our goverment.

August 11 2014 at 7:35 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Another way wall street screwed the investers and the republicans want to end social security and workers start their own private account. Do you think wal mart will contribute to your personal account for the republican government will not make them. Good luck in November when it is time to vote.

August 11 2014 at 5:09 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to toosmart4u's comment

Are you collecting disability and other forms of handouts?

August 11 2014 at 5:29 PM Report abuse -5 rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to dem.r.dopes's comment

Are you robbing the average citizen and saying you have rights like people too?

August 12 2014 at 12:40 AM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down

I don't think dem r dopes is in a public sector union rogue.

August 12 2014 at 11:50 AM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down

Toosmart is a misnomer. Nobody ever said to end Social Security, though you can make whatever baseless accusations you'd like to here. Clearly, you are benefitting from some type (or many) government handout programs. Anything involving actual work must really scare you.

August 11 2014 at 8:19 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Fools and their money are soon parted.

August 11 2014 at 4:39 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to unitedpaintings's comment

That's very true. These ridiculous, greedy municipalities are the ones really at fault here. The "securitization" of the settlement was put into motion by municpalities, and ultimately politicians who have no idea how to handle a budget, or control spending. They want the money up-front for diminished future returns: how is that prudent management?

August 11 2014 at 8:24 PM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply

So my question is, when are the people who perpetrated this fraud going to be prosecuted? I see a few people profiting and countless others getting screwed as a result. So when will justice be served?

August 11 2014 at 4:33 PM Report abuse +6 rate up rate down Reply

"With some of the tobacco settlement securitizations, ultimately taxpayers will foot the bill."

No I don't think so, Motley Fool!! We aren't paying for sh**! Wall Street needs to start being hit for their "deals" and they should be responsible for the damage they inflict. When is Wall St going to be charged for the 2008 economic meltdown, huh? Why don't you try to be on the side of us taxpayers who are sick and tired of having to pay for someone else's mistakes when Wall St pulls these little scams that enrich them and leave everyone else holding the bag? Until you do, you're no better than they are, Motley Fool! Shame on you for protecting WS but then, not surprised, since that's your bread and butter, isn't it? Done reading your articles until you finally realize the ethics in what you're doing.

August 11 2014 at 3:47 PM Report abuse +4 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to belledamnit's comment

U-uh? You are not reading Motlety Fool, so why are you responding to them? Further, what is your beef with Wall Street here, it was the state legislatures that made the decision to take the money and run—Wall Street simply took advantage of their political aspirations and economic myopia. Finally, how do you conclude that the article that reported what happened is defending what happened?

August 11 2014 at 3:58 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply