On July 20, 2017, Moody’s Investors Service (Moody’s) downgraded the Commonwealth of Kentucky’s issuer rating to Aa3 from Aa2. Simultaneously, other Kentucky government entities were also downgraded, including Kentucky’s general fund appropriation lease revenue bonds to A1 from Aa3, Kentucky’s agency fund appropriation lease-revenue bonds to A2 from A1, the Kentucky Public University Intercept Program to A1 from Aa3, the Kentucky School District Enhancement Program to A1 from Aa3, and the Kentucky Turnpike Authority to Aa3 from Aa2. Reasons cited for the downgrades were the large unfunded pension liability, high fixed government costs and revenue underperformance. Moody’s credit outlook for the state remains stable.
The downgrades have been expected for some time as Kentucky continues to battle one of the largest unfunded pension burdens in the U.S. The state experienced positive revenue growth of 5.3% in fiscal year 2015, but saw a decline of 3.7% in fiscal year 2016, followed by a decline of 1.3% in fiscal year 2017. Despite the credit rating downgrade, the Kentucky Turnpike Authority exceeded revenue projections for the recent fiscal year.
Kentucky’s economy is considered stable and employment continues to strengthen. If the expected manufacturing expansions by Amazon, Ford and Toyota come to fruition, we believe that the credit ratings may see a reversal over the next couple of years. Moody’s mentioned in their report that the State’s current administration has demonstrated a willingness to cut expenditures and balance the budget. As of June 30, Kentucky’s available liquid resources remained at $4 billion, a level that has been maintained over the past four years, and the general fund had a $239 million balance.
The portfolio managers and credit analysts of Aquila Churchill Tax-Free Fund of Kentucky will continue to monitor all credits in the portfolio. The only impact we see at this time is a shift in the quality breakdown directly related the downgrades. Kentucky debt pricing has stabilized in the secondary market due to the lack of new issuance, which was down 38% year-over-year at the end of the second quarter. For the most recent quarter-end performance, holdings and manager commentary please see the Fund page on this web site.
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