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Private-Activity Municipal Bonds: The Political Economy of Volume Cap Allocation

State governments allocate authority, under a federally imposed cap, to issue taxexempt bonds that fund “private activities” such as industrial expansion, student loans, and low-income housing. This paper presents political economy models of the allocation process and an empirical analysis. Due to an idiosyncrasy of the tax code, the annual per capita volume cap varies widely between states. I estimate that, on average, there is an additional $0.80 per capita per year of borrowing for each additional dollar per capita of volume cap. This confirms that the cap is a binding constraint in most cases, and authority to issue tax-exempt bonds is a scarce resource. I find that mortgage revenue bonds and student loan bonds are the most responsive to differences in the cap. The gross state product and employment in manufacturing and utilities drive allocations to industrial development bonds and utilities bonds. While controlling for the size of the education sector, I find campaign contributions from educational interests are associated with higher authorizations for student loans. One result runs counter to the theoretical models. Higher campaign contributions from utilities interests are associated with lower utilities borrowing. Unions do not have an independent effect on allocations.

Keywords: Private-activity municipal bonds, private-activity volume cap, political resource allocation process.

JEL Codes: D72, H71, H81.

Suggested citation: Whitaker, Stephan, 2010. “Private-Activity Municipal Bonds: The Political Economy of Volume Cap Allocation,” Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland, Working Paper No. 10-13

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