The state-subsidized, $2.6 billion "American Dream" mall and rec center in New Jersey's Meadowlands, promoted by Canada-based Triple Five, isn't just a bad idea: It's also a taste of what federal make-work projects will look like after Hillary Clinton is elected President, warns bond-watcher Matt Fabian, partner at Connecticut-based Municipal Market Analytics and publisher of its daily MMA Report newsletter.
Fabian "is skeptical that a new, massive retail mall in one of New Jersey's most congested corridors is desirable or a good economic development bet; and that an entertainment facility -- amusements, waterpark, ski slope -- on the N.J. Turnpike will become a coveted destination location."
And he worries the use of the federal municipal-bond tax exemption "for a nonessential and probably-to-be-troubled project driven by deeply questionable motivations" looks bad -- and gives Congressional critics who would like to eliminate the muni-bond tax exemption "a fat new target."
Here's the details:
Last week the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority approved $800 million in tax-exempt Payment In Lieu Of Taxes (PILOT)-backed financing for the project (of which $141 million actually goes for pre-project interest, banker fees, lawyers and other expenses)...
Plus $350 million in 25- and 33-year bonds to be paid back by diverting future sales taxes from the mall's stores to the project. (Developer Triple Five also owns Minnesota's giant Mall of America, among other properties.)
The bonds will be arranged through the Wisconsin Public Finance Authority, of all people. "The purpose, value and cost of engaging this out-of-state conduit issuer is unclear," the MMA report notes. (The Sports and Exposition Authority spokesman wasn't available when I asked about this, and hasn't called me back.)
Now all developers have to find is another $1.5 billion from banks or other private lenders -- even though it's precisely "a lack of private capital (that has) kept this project on the sidelines" since work began under previous builders in 2003, according to Fabian.
Since it will compete with neighboring malls and regional attractions like Six Flags, and doesn't serve a new or untapped market, Fabian suspects the real purpose of the project, for New Jersey's government, is "to finance construction jobs so as to stimulate construction jobs so as to stimulate the state's economy and reward" developers and construction workers.
(New Jersey does it again! Remember the $2.4 billion, developer-labor-Gov. Chris Christie-backed, state-funded Revel casino, which failed in its first two years and hasn't reopened?)
The giveaways "deprive the federal and state governments of income tax revenues," will enrich "for-profit" developers who have been unable to get initial private financing, and "pledge away taxes the state can ill afford to use," Fabian complains.
He doesn't buy the familiar argument (which we heard from the Nutter administration when it agreed to similar financing for the delayed Gallery renovations) that these tax diversions don't really cost taxpayers anything, since they are for new construction.
"That Federal policymakers and thinkers would encourage these policies, despite record low tax-exempt interest rates and perhaps the easiest, most borrower friendly conditions ever," proves their political origins, to Fabian:
"Federal programs like these are not about economics but control. A national infrastructure bank deploys state and local repayment capacity (since they use state and local tax breaks and subsidies) to projects selected at the national level... subsidizing projects deemed worthy by Federal managers and lawmakers...
"Programs like the national infrastructure bank, Build America Bonds, and (Public-Private Partnerships) reward Federal stakeholders and-or lobbyists" -- U.S. and foreign construction giants, labor unions, and, he might have added, major banks -- "instead of local stakeholders, firms and operators."
It's a way the federal government can still direct giant construction projects, and state financial resources, without committing scarce federal dollars.
"That is why, despite dubious economics, these programs keep returning," Fabian wrote.
Isn't it a good thing to create jobs, put people to work, build up the country?
Fabian isn't disputing the goal. He is questioning whether it's wise to focus taxpayer-backed programs on risky private projects, and private profits.
And he's questioning whether his own clients -- bond investors -- are likely to get paid, once the construction dust settles.
ALSO: "The public sector simply can't bear the increased load from a new round of infrastructure investment," says Ted Brooks of BNY Mellon's Centersquare Investment Management, which invests $10 billion in real estate and infrastructure projects around the world from its offices in Blue Bell.