Friday, July 09, 2010

Hospitals' Star-Crossed Financial Engineering

And speaking of the costs of financial maneuvering by hospitals, the Wall Street Journal just reported on "Hospitals' Wall Street Wounds,"
Hospitals nationwide are tangling with Wall Street to get out of disastrous wagers that have complicated their financial problems.

Some hospitals are paying millions of dollars in penalties to get out of derivatives contracts, after betting incorrectly that interest rates would rise. Other hospitals are paying higher interest rates. At many, these ill-fated financial bets have contributed to layoffs and scuttled projects.

More than 500 nonprofit hospitals—at least one in six—bought interest-rate "swaps" in a bid to lower their borrowing costs, estimates Municipal Market Advisors, a Concord, Mass., consulting firm. The swaps allowed hospitals to act much like homeowners switching from a floating-rate mortgage to fixed-rate one, betting on rising interest rates.

For a fee, the hospitals received a fixed rate to sell bonds, lower than the municipal-bond market at the time. These bets backfired when the Federal Reserve cut interest rates to nearly zero from more than 5% in 2007.

Hospitals also issued auction-rate securities—which reset bond prices weekly or monthly through auctions—that represented about a third of the $330 billion market for these derivatives. Hospitals paid Wall Street firms more than $120 million in fees for the securities between 2005 and 2007, said data firm Thomson Reuters. That market dried in the 2008 financial panic, leaving hospitals with higher interest rates.

The article included a few pointed examples, e.g.,
In April 2007, Smith Barney brokers pitched Tri-City Medical Center in Oceanside, Calif., on ways to save money on interest rates. In a presentation, the brokers argued that the hospital could save tens of millions of dollars by refinancing its debt with derivatives from parent Citigroup, according to a lawsuit filed in April 2010 against Citigroup and Smith Barney, now co-owned by Morgan Stanley.

'Historically low' interest rates created an 'optimal environment,' according to Citigroup documents reviewed by The Wall Street Journal. 'Citigroup can mitigate the primary risks,' according to a slide presentation.

Persuaded that it could cut its interest rate—5.7% at the time—on $67 million in outstanding bonds, the hospital issued auction-rate securities and added interest-rate swaps, according to the lawsuit and Daniel Callahan, an attorney for the hospital.

Soon, the auction-rate market collapsed. Investors stopped bidding on these securities and the banks that sold them stopped acting as a buyer of last resort as they had in the past. This forced many hospitals and other issuers to pay a maximum penalty rate—sometimes up to 20%—that kicks in if there aren't buyers.

As a result, rates shot up to 17%, costing Tri-City some $16 million more than it would have paid under its old rates, according to the lawsuit, filed in California Superior Court in Orange County.

The hospital board replaced many top officials and paid Citigroup more than $6 million to get out of the auction-rate securities and the interest-rate swaps, Mr. Callahan said.

The loss 'continues to impact Tri-City's ability to meet the needs of the entire community,' Mr. Callahan said, delaying the expansion of services and capital improvements.

Auction-rate securities 'were an engineered, artificial market supported by the activities of the investment bankers designed to postpone a collapse,' the hospital alleges in the lawsuit.

At least one financial expert agreed:
'Financial engineering by Wall Street has been a huge part of hospital's financial problems and has even translated into a lack of hospital beds,' said Brian McGough, a managing director of health-care investments at Bank of Montreal Capital Markets in Chicago.
This is another example of how health care organizations, including respected not-for-profit institutions, jumped headlong into the transactions first economy of the last 20 plus years.  The were lured by the prospect of making easy money from financial transactions.  However, it looked like those who really made money were the middle men who sold everyone on the magic of derivatives.

You would have thought that the highly compensated financial wizards that hospitals and other health care not-for-profits chose for their leaders in the last 20 plus years would have been able to see through such nonsense.  Why were they paid so much, if not for expertise in this area?  But I would suspect that they too became distracted by all the money floating their way to think about how it might end. 

We have often decried the problems of ill-informed health care leaders who do not have direct experience in actually providing health care, or much sympathy for the values of health care professionals.  Breaking the medical "guild," and putting professional managers in charge of health care was once touted as a way to control costs.  It is ironic that after  health care organizations became sold on the uncanny abilities of managers with business, usually finance or marketing training, these geniuses turned out to be as gullible about the wonders of Wall Street as everyone else. 

No comments: