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SPECIAL! Select Cities Lead the Pack in Providing Investor Relations Content

March 15, 2011 · Print · Email

 When a city maintains current information for bondholders, it sends a message: 

“We care about our investors.”

Given recent headline news regarding the credit quality of local governments, transparency has taken on a more significant role than ever before.  Cities and other local government agencies are facing a myriad of financial challenges that carry the potential to significantly impact bondholders and taxpayers. 

Many municipal issuers have taken a proactive approach to providing up-to-date financial information and, as a result, have established a higher level of accountability and, in turn, a greater level of trust among their investors.

The College of Urban Planning and Public Affairs (CUPPA) at the University of Illinois at Chicago and MuniNetGuide.com recently surveyed the 75 largest cities in the U.S. to identify those that stand out as frontrunners in providing online investor information.  

The good news is that we are starting to see some city websites emerging as clear leaders in providing investor relations content, and hope that they will be considered trailblazers in the municipal marketplace, with other issuers following their lead sooner rather than later. 

Most publicly traded corporations consider investor relations content standard fare on their websites, where posting annual reports is just the beginning. From financial news to charts illustrating stock performance, many corporate relations websites pull out all the stops when it comes to keeping investors informed, engaged, and investing in their companies.

While most of the cities in our survey sample provided access to current and archived financial reports, less than 30 percent of these cities – the largest cities in the nation – provided additional content aimed at investors.

The good news is that we are starting to see some city websites emerging as clear leaders in providing investor relations content, and hope that they will be considered trailblazers in the municipal marketplace, with other issuers following their lead sooner rather than later.  

These cities have demonstrated courage in taking on the challenge to communicate about issues of importance to people in the position to assess their creditworthiness and financial condition in a direct, up-front manner. Their websites incorporate an obvious mission to help bondholders make informed and educated decisions. 

Cities that emerged as leaders in providing investor relations content offer most or all of the following content and characteristics on their websites:

Current and archived financial information At the very least, the majority of cities in the survey provided access to their current and archived Comprehensive Annual Financial Reports (CAFR), but in many cases, that was the extent of the bondholder-related information provided on their websites.  The cities that we found to offer the strongest investor information offered access to their CAFR, and in some cases, to their Popular Annual Financial Reports (PAFR), which offer annual financial information in an easier-to-understand format.  A few websites we reviewed also included monthly and even daily financial updates.

Primary market disclosure A relatively small percentage of the cities in our survey provided primary market disclosure online, most commonly in the form of Official Statements for new bond offerings.

Secondary market disclosure – These documents contain pertinent information most likely to have a bearing on the borrower’s ability to repay a general or special obligation bond issue after the bonds are sold.   In practice, most secondary market disclosure documents are produced annually.  They provide updated information contained in the original official statement, however, secondary disclosure can also refer to notices of material events or other information deemed relevant to the issuer’s ability to repay its debtholders.  Only a handful of cities in our survey provided secondary market disclosure using this umbrella label; however, many did provide this information using a variety of other terminology, from “yearly information statements,” or “supplemental reports to bondholders,” for example.

Bond ratings – Some issuers publish their credit ratings, and sometimes even credit reports, from the major bond rating agencies on their websites.  Many cities in our survey – including Buffalo, Milwaukee, Denver, and San Antonio, to name a few – disclosed bond ratings in the form of a press release, though did not list them in a permanent spot on the website.

In order to maintain the integrity of the content, the website must be responsibly maintained with updated information ... The fresher the information, the more value the site provides.

Calendar of upcoming bond sales – Only a handful of cities in the survey provided either notices or a list of upcoming bond sales.  This lack of inclusion could simply be because these cities have no bond sales on the horizon, or issue bonds so infrequently that a regular spot on the investor page would be unnecessary. 

Investor Focus – With an increased emphasis on transparency, many issuer websites already include considerable information about the issuer’s financial condition, says Eric Johansen, the City Treasurer in Portland, which offers a top-notch investor relations site.  “In some cases, the challenge for governments is to make it easier for investors to find the information they’re looking for.”

An investor-friendly website does more than simply provide information; it does so in a convenient manner, where content is clear and accessible.  If information like bond ratings, for example, is buried within the pages of an official statement or annual financial report, it didn’t count.  This information should be easy to recognize – and easy to find.

Timeliness – Perhaps even more important than ease of navigation is the timeliness of content.  In order to maintain the integrity of the content, the website must be responsibly maintained with updated information.   Simply setting it up and leaving a stale set of data doesn’t cut it.  The fresher the information, the more value the site provides.

Integrity – It appears to go without saying that information should be accurate, but it bears mention.  Accuracy plus timeliness equals quality, and no fancy design or unique feature comes close in importance to quality of information.  Many websites in our survey required online visitors to accept a disclaimer before being granted access to information.  We believe that this prerequisite signals that these cities take the information seriously, and that they are aiming to achieve the highest level of integrity.

The following cities provide great examples of investor relations portals, websites that other cities might look to follow – or best. 

San Diego  

If we were to identify an exemplary city investor relations website, San Diego would be it.  Clearly designed with the bondholder in mind, the recently redesigned portal is comprehensive, yet unintimidating – a tough balancing act that few issuers are able to achieve.   We believe that the overall design of this portal reflect a goal of usability, and conveys a message that the City wants people to be able to easily find the information they need to make informed investment decisions. 

In addition to information about its general obligation bonds, San Diego also provides access to information pertaining to related authorities and special districts, which are often hard to find.

The site covers all bases, from official statements to bond ratings, and annual continuing disclosure documents.  It also provides quarterly cash flow summaries, and periodic pension updates.  San Diego is one of the few cities we reviewed that includes messages aimed at investors from the Mayor, Chief Financial Officer, and Chief Operating Officer.  According to Lakshmi Kommi, Director of Debt Management, the Investor Information website is one way in which the city communicates with investors.  “The website is focused on providing information to our investors in a timely manner, and is used as a disclosure tool to communicate various financial events to our investors.”  

On average, the Investor Information website receives more than 100 visits per day.  “We believe with the ever-evolving investor base, regulatory environment, and a growing movement of data and information transparency, that other cities will follow the lead of the City of San Diego,” says Kommi. 

Jacksonville  

Jacksonville’s Investor Relations page has a subtle and streamlined appearance, but it packs a lot of punch when it comes to providing comprehensive information pertaining to its outstanding bond issues.  In addition to bond ratings, official statements, and Comprehensive Annual Financial Reports, the site provides links to other relevant pages of the City’s website, including its budget and capital improvement plan, thereby serving as a true portal for investors and others with an interest in the City’s finances. 

The investor community has expressed positive feedback to the City for its continuing disclosure materials, the bond program overview and updates for revenues and debt coverage, according to Michael Givens, Jacksonville’s Treasurer.  And we second the kudos. 

Jacksonville’s Debt Affordability report is particularly impressive because of its premise, which explains not how much debt the City “can” issue, but rather how much it “should” issue. The Debt Affordability Report “has evolved to be a central element in how we manage our debt program,” says Givens.  This report coordinates the city’s key growth drivers (population, property tax base, general fund spending, etc.) with those of the Budget Office, and incorporates the debt issuance schedule from the adopted five-year capital improvement plan.  In doing so, Givens says, “we can effectively give policymakers a look at future implications of current capital financing measured against adopted parameters.”   The city has received positive feedback on this tool from policymakers and citizen advisory groups alike, he reports.

We also commend the City’s decision to post its Investment/Operating Portfolio on its website, another move that furthers its transparency for investors.  The fact that the City has chosen to share detailed characteristics and attributions of its investment portfolio is both bold and admirable.

Albuquerque  

MuniNet has been a long-standing fan of Albuquerque’s website, naming the site a Top Pick for providing investor information back in 2003.  Eight years later, Albuquerque’s Investor Information portal still stands out as one of the most comprehensive city investor relations websites.   In addition to annual reports (financial reports, CAFRs, and investment), Albuquerque provides access to CUSIP numbers for all outstanding bond issues, making it easy to find information pertaining to these bonds on other websites, such as EMMA.  It also publishes current bond ratings, links to official statements for bonds issued over the past ten years, and annual financial statements.

The City’s Interactive Revenue Data feature, which allows users to view and manipulate the City’s revenue statistics (like gross tax receipts, for example) is particularly impressive.

Albuquerque doesn’t rest at providing an expansive array of information.  The data and reports posted on this website are maintained on a very timely basis, offering investors the opportunity to access current information pertaining to the City’s debt and financial condition.

Portland 

Portland doesn’t call the Debt Management section of its website “investor relations,” but this content-rich portal is one of the most comprehensive investor information resources we’ve found.  Portland stands out for its comprehensive disclosure information, both primary and secondary.  The City provides current and archived official statements for bonds that have been issued within the past eight years, and full secondary market disclosure for its general obligation bonds and revenue bonds, as well as Urban Renewal and Redevelopment bonds. 

The site’s bond ratings information goes a step further than most to include an explanation of Moody’s ratings recalibration that took place last year.  Portland is among the few cities in our survey to post not only its detailed Debt Management Policy, but its Swap Policy as well. 

City Treasurer Eric Johansen says that he receives more calls from investors today than he did before the bond insurance meltdown in 2008, but he is surprised that he doesn’t get even more inquiries.   He suspects that the information on the website, in conjunction with EMMA filings, answers most of the questions that investors have about the City’s debt.  “We attempt to make it easy for investors to find relevant information on our website ... and to focus our links to relevant information that would be of interest to investors.” 

And the City’s decision about what information not to include is also deliberate.  As Johansen points out, “I think it can be counterproductive to overwhelm the website with information that is not directly relevant to the City’s financial condition and outstanding debt and financial condition.”

Other top-notch sites for investors include the following websites. 

Note: While still taking a major step in the right direction, these sites fell a bit short of the aforementioned sites due to lack of inclusion of certain materials, or lack of timeliness. 

San Francisco

When a city’s mayor thanks online visitors for their interest and participation in the city’s debt program and its future, it’s a clear sign that this city recognizes the importance of investor relations.  Its Public Finance portal makes a valiant effort at every juncture, from the introductory page that states the agency’s mission, summarizes the types of debt issued by the city, and lists strategic issues in debt management to the financial documents, ratings information, primary and secondary market disclosure materials, and notices of upcoming bond sales.  

The City of San Francisco is an active issuer, selling five bond issues with an aggregate par value of over $600 million in 2010.  It also takes a proactive and hands-on approach to communicating with investors and residents regarding the City’s debt and financial condition through its administration’s ongoing participation in investor conferences and other public finance meetings.

“High quality, credible, and transparent disclosure practices are viewed as credit positives in the investor community and our office implements best government practices, including making full use of the website as an investor relations tool, where it makes sense,” says Nadia Sesay, Director of Public Finance for the City & County of San Francisco.

The one area where this site falls short, unfortunately, is in updating its content.  The Outstanding Debt and Long-Term Obligations page, for example, was lagging nine months at the time of this writing, though it says that the information is updated twice a year.   This is a website with all the right concepts in place, and keeping its data fresher would bump it up to the exemplary category.

New York

A little bit “Wall Street” and a little bit “Main Street,” New York City’s Bureau of Public Finance website does a nice job of keeping investors informed via notices of upcoming and recently completed bond sales.  For its Main Street audience, the site includes an informative introduction to New York City debt, and how bonds are issued and sold.  For more seasoned investors and analysts, the site includes an archive of official statements, ratings information, and a breakdown of outstanding debt by type. 

According to Carol Kostik, Deputy Comptroller for Public Finance, the City does not get a lot of feedback regarding the information provided on this website, but the feedback that does come in has all been positive.  “The most common comment is simply that they appreciate the information,” she says.  In addition to making investor information available, the website makes it convenient – for both sides of the table.  “Having the website has made our lives easier by having a place to direct callers for more information,” she says.  At the same time, “while we always talk directly to callers who phone us with questions, often they, too, are looking for web-based information they can review on their own timetable.” 

Some information – including Comprehensive Annual Financial Reports (CAFR) and budget data – is provided through a link to the City’s Bureau of Accountancy page.  The site does not include links to its related debt entities, nor does it provide a single, direct path to disclosure materials.

Chicago

Chicago’s Debt Management/Investor Relations website has all the standard fare – plus a few standout features.  We particularly like Chicago’s Investor Presentations, organized by credit. 

As Manmeet Taneja, a Senior Fiscal Policy Analyst with Chicago’s Department of Finance, explains, “Credit research continues to play an increasing role in bond selection.  Investors will continue to demand improved transparency, which will result in a tangible impact on interest rates paid by issuers.  Bottom line: the more transparent you can be, the better the pricing.”  The Investor Presentations outline the details of a specific offering, but also provide a plethora of information pertaining to that issuer.  For example, when the City of Chicago issued bonds for Midway International Airport last year, the presentation, which remains on the website for reference, included not only specifics about that offering, but also detailed financial, operating, and comparative data for Midway Airport.

“In today’s demanding regulatory landscape, it is increasingly important to ensure that organizations provide timely and financial and non-financial information to keep investors informed,” according to Taneja.  “The investor relations website is a great tool to communicate effectively with investors, provide transparency, and improve public confidence.”

The City’s graphic depiction of the breakdown of long-term debt as of February 2011 is good, showing the percentage of debt by type (general obligation, water, TIF, etc.).  Prior years’ detailed breakdown of outstanding debt is even better, but leaves off at year-end 2009 (at least for now ...). 

Chicago directs investors to the MSRB’s EMMA website for official statements, but does not provide secondary market disclosure on its investor relations website.

Miami 

Miami’s Financial Information section is a content-rich site that contains more than meets the eye.  This website provides detailed financial information geared to bondholders, including annual summaries of debt, supplemental reports to bondholders (secondary market disclosure), and Comprehensive Annual Financial Reports (CAFR).  In addition to the CAFR, Miami posts its Popular Annual Financial Report (PAFR), geared toward less sophisticated user.  It is one of the few cities in our survey to provide monthly financial reports.  Miami designates Digital Assurance Certification (DAC) as its official investor relations provider, and investors can follow a link to and instructions on how to use DAC to access Miami’s bond portfolio and official secondary market disclosure.

Nashville

Nashville’s Investor Relations website may be missing some of the elements included in other sites, from ratings information to notices of upcoming bond sales and bond-related news/commentary.  However, it makes our list of top-notch sites for investor relations by making up for it in the comprehensiveness of the content it does provide.  In addition to Comprehensive Annual Financial Reports (CAFR), Nashville stands out for its disclosure data – both primary (official statements) and secondary (annual SEC disclosure reports and official statements) as well as refunding reports.

Nashville’s Finance section – which hosts the Investor Relations page – is chock full of budget information and performance reports. 

Philadelphia  

The City of Brotherly Love holds its investors in high esteem, based on the comprehensive information provided in its Investor Information portal.  The introductory page of the website explains the types of debt issued by the city, and provides a nice overview of each type of debt.  The City’s bond calendar includes a list of recent and upcoming bond sales, including links to official statements for those issues.  Philadelphia is one of the few cities in our survey to post not only its detailed Debt Management Policy, but its Swap Policy as well. 

Los Angeles

Los Angeles’ Debt Management/Investor Relations portal includes financial reports, credit ratings, and a calendar of upcoming bond issues.  For secondary market disclosure, Los Angeles directs interested parties to DAC, a third-party repository. One of the highlights of Los Angeles’ Debt Management/Investor Relations portal is its recently added Investor Presentation, which includes information about the City’s economy, debt program, budget, and fiscal sustainability. 

Oakland

Oakland’s Treasury website provides a variety of investor-related content, including outstanding debt, official statements, continuing disclosure documents, and rating agency credit reports.  The site also includes links to other materials that may be relevant for investors, including the City’s budget and Comprehensive Annual Financial Reports (CAFRs).  One notable feature of Oakland’s investor relations website is that it provides official statements not only for the City’s general obligation bonds, but also for revenue bonds as well as bonds issued by related agencies, including the City’s Redevelopment Agency and Coliseum Authority.

Akron

Akron was not in the universe of city websites included in this survey; however, we believe the City deserves recognition for its progressive approach to providing investor relations information through its Open Books Online page.  Akron was among the first cities to provide a full annual secondary market disclosure report, similar in form to an official statement.  The City also provides quarterly reports and monthly revenue data, as well as daily reports on income and total taxes received.  While Akron may no longer be among the 75 largest cities in the U.S., its transparency efforts far surpass many of its larger city counterparts. 

Diane Miller-Dawson, Akron’s Director of Finance, says that citizens are the primary audience for the Open Books page, though investors are also directed to this site.  She says that in 2009, there were a lot of inquiries regarding the financial status – revenues and expenses – of the City, but that they have all but disappeared now that the information is posted online.  “Another very important audience,” she says, “are employees, who are aware, on a daily basis, of the status of our largest income source: income taxes.  They feel the website has helped to communicate our financial situation better and more frequently.”

Special thanks to Yonghong Wu, Assistant Professor of Public Administration, College of Urban Planning and Public Affairs (CUPPA) at the University of Illinois at Chicago, for his contributions to this project, which was a collaborative effort between MuniNet Guide and CUPPA.

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Tell Us About Your City’s Investor Relations Website

This article is part of an ongoing effort by MuniNet to promote ongoing municipal financial disclosure and openness in government reporting, which benefits taxpayers and investors alike.  MuniNet has begun adding links to city profile pages that take online visitors directly to city’s investor information pages, where available.  While starting with the nation’s largest cities, over time we intend to include this information for cities of all sizes.

Are you proud of your city’s investor relations site?  If so, use this comment form to tell us about it!  We welcome your input, and are always interested in hearing about what cities are doing to enhance their online investor relations presence.

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