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BEST PRACTICE

Selecting Underwriters for Negotiated Bond Sales (2008) (DEBT)*

Note: This Best Practice (BP) is one of a group of five relating to the sale of bonds. These five BPs should be read and considered in conjunction with each other because of the interaction of the processes to which they apply. The five BPs are:


Selecting and Managing the Method of Sale of State and Local Government Bonds
Selecting Financial Advisors
Selecting Bond Counsel
Selecting Underwriters for Negotiated Bond Sales
Pricing Bonds in a Negotiated Sale


Background. State and local governments select underwriters for the purpose of selling bonds through a negotiated sale. The primary role of the underwriter in a negotiated sale is to market the issuer’s bonds to investors. Assuming that the issuer and underwriter reach agreement on the pricing of the bonds at the time of sale, the underwriter purchases the entire bond issue from the issuer and resells the bonds to investors. In addition, negotiated sale underwriters are likely to provide ideas and suggestions with respect to structure, timing and marketing of the bonds being sold.

Issuers must keep in mind that the roles of the underwriter and the financial advisor are separate, adversarial roles and cannot be provided by the same party. Underwriters do not have a fiduciary responsibility to the issuer. A financial advisor represents only the issuer and has a fiduciary responsibility to the issuer. In considering the roles of underwriter and financial advisor, it is the intent of this Recommended Practice to set a higher standard than is required under MSRB Rule G-23, because disclosure and consent are not sufficient to cure the inherent conflict of interest.


The issuer’s goal in a negotiated bond sale is to obtain the highest possible price (lowest interest cost) for the bonds. To maximize the potential of this occurring, the issuer’s goal in the underwriter selection process is to select the underwriter(s) that has the best potential for providing that price. Those underwriters are typically the ones that have demonstrated both experience underwriting the type of bonds being proposed and the best marketing/distribution capabilities.


Recommendation. The Government Finance Officers Association (GFOA) recommends that unless the issuer has sufficient in-house expertise and access to market information, it should hire an outside financial advisor prior to undertaking a negotiated debt financing. The financial advisor can lend objective knowledge and expertise in the selection of underwriters for negotiated sales. GFOA recommends that a firm hired as a financial advisor should not be allowed to resign in order to underwrite the proposed negotiated sale of bonds.


GFOA further recommends the use of a Request for Proposal (RFP) process when selecting underwriters in order to promote fairness, objectivity and transparency. The RFP process allows the issuer to compare respondents and helps the issuer select the most qualified firm(s) based on the evaluation criteria outlined in the RFP. An issuer and its financial advisors should have a clear understanding of the issuer’s underwriting needs and should carefully develop an RFP that complies with state and local bidding requirements (including the use of regional, local or disadvantaged firms if deemed appropriate by the issuer).


A negotiated bond sale does not entail the purchase of any goods or services by an issuer from an underwriter. Therefore, an RFP process for underwriters should not be treated as a procurement process for goods or services, notwithstanding the obligation of the issuer to comply with state and/or local procurement requirements. The only legal relationship between the issuer and an underwriter is created by a Bond Purchase Agreement signed at the time of the pricing of the bonds, wherein the issuer agrees to sell the bonds to the underwriter at an agreed upon price.


An RFP process can result in selection of one or more underwriters for a single transaction or result in identification of a pool of underwriters from which firms will be selected over a specific period of time for a number of different transactions. Each issuer should weigh the advantages and disadvantages of each type of arrangement with the assistance of their financial advisor.

 

No firm should be given an unfair advantage in the RFP process. Procedures should be established for communicating with potential proposers, determining how and over what time period questions will be addressed, and determining when contacts with proposers will be restricted.


Request for Proposal Content. The RFP should include at least the following components:

 

  1. A clear and concise description of the contemplated bond sale transaction.
  2. A statement noting whether firms may submit joint proposals. In addition, the RFP should state whetherthe issuer reserves the right to select more than one underwriter for a single transaction.
  3. A description of the objective evaluation and selection criteria and explanation of how proposals will be evaluated.
  4. A requirement that all underwriter compensation structures be presented in a standard format. Proposers should identify which fees are proposed on a “not-to-exceed” basis, describe any condition attached to their fee proposal, and explicitly state which costs are included in the fee proposal and which costs are to be reimbursed.
  5. A requirement that the proposer provide at least three references from other public-sector clients, preferably clients where the firm provided underwriting services similar to those proposed to be undertaken as the result of the RFP.

 

Requested Proposer Responses. RFPs should include questions related to the areas listed below to distinguish firms’ qualifications and experience, including but not limited to:

 

  1. Relevant experience of the firm and the individuals assigned to the issuer, and the identification and experience of the individual in charge of day-to-day management of the bond sale, including both the investment banker(s) and the underwriter(s).
  2. A description of the firm’s bond distribution capabilities including the experience of the individual primarily responsible for underwriting the proposed bonds. The firm’s ability to access both retail and institutional investors should be described.
  3. Demonstration of the firm’s understanding of the issuer’s financial situation, including ideas on how the issuer should approach financing issues such as bond structures, credit rating strategies and investor marketing strategies.
  4. Demonstration of the firm’s knowledge of local political, economic, legal or other issues that may affect the proposed financing.
  5. Documentation of the underwriter’s participation in the issuer’s recent competitive sales or the competitive sales of other issuers in the same state.
  6. Analytic capability of the firm and assigned investment banker(s).
  7. Access to sources of current market information to provide bond pricing data before, during and after the sale.
  8. The amount of uncommitted capital available and the ability and willingness of the firm to purchase the entire offering of the issuer, if necessary, in the case of a firm underwriting.
  9. Any finder’s fees, fee splitting, or other contractual arrangements of the firm that could present a real or perceived conflict of interest, as well as any pending investigation of the firm or enforcement or disciplinary actions taken within the past three years by the SEC or other regulatory bodies.

 

Additional Considerations. Issuers should also consider the following in conducting the underwriter selection process:

 

  1. Take steps to maximize the number of respondents by using mailing lists, media advertising, resources of the GFOA, resources of the financial advisor and applicable professional directories.
  2. Give adequate time for firms to develop their responses to the RFP. Two weeks should be appropriate for all but the most complicated RFPs.
  3. Establish evaluation procedures and a systematic rating process, conduct interviews with proposers, and undertake reference checks. Where practical, one individual should check all references using a standard set of questions to promote consistency. To remove any appearance of a conflict of interest resulting from political contributions or other activities, elected officials should not be part of the selection team.
  4. Document and retain the description of how the selection was made and the rankings of each firm. Underwriter’s Compensation. The underwriter in a negotiated sale is compensated in the form of an underwriter’s discount or “spread”, which consists of the negotiated difference between the amount the underwriter pays the issuer for the bonds and the amount the underwriter expects to receive selling the bonds to investors. The underwriter’s discount includes up to four components: the management fee, takedown, expenses and underwriting fee. The only component of spread that can be fixed in a proposal is the management fee. The management fee compensates the investment bankers for the time and expertise brought to the negotiated sale by the investment bankers. It is appropriate to ask the proposer for a firm management fee quote, although its weighting in the evaluation criteria should be low. In addition, issuers may want to leave room to negotiate this fee lower or higher, depending on the actual complexities of the transaction.

 

The remaining components of spread, as noted below, should be determined through the negotiation process.

 

  1. Expenses – includes various fees and overhead expenses and also should not be part of the RFP evaluation criteria. However it is important to note that all underwriter expenses be clearly identified and defined at the appropriate time during the bond negotiation.
  2. Takedown – is the “sales commission” of the deal. Current market levels of takedown can be determined by the issuer or its financial advisor just prior to the time of negotiation. The takedown is the principal component of the potential profit to an underwriter in a bond sale. The issuer must weigh the impact of takedown on the resulting true interest cost to the bond issuer. An inadequate takedown may result in less aggressive marketing of the bonds and a higher interest cost to the issuer. A fair balance must be struck between a “market rate” takedown and the cost to the issuer in future interest costs.
  3. Underwriting Fee – is almost never part of the final underwriter’s discount and should not be part of the discussion at the RFP stage. Discussion of the payment of an underwriting fee may occur during pricing negotiation, but only to the extent the underwriter agrees to underwrite a substantial amount of unsold bonds.

 

Issuers should include a provision in the RFP prohibiting any firm from engaging in activities on behalf of the issuer that produce a direct or indirect financial gain for the firm, other than the agreed-upon compensation, without the issuer’s informed consent. Procedures should be established for communicating with potential proposers, determining how and over what time period questions will be addressed, and determining when contacts with proposers will be restricted.

 

References

  • Preparing Requests for Proposals, Issue Brief No. 3, California Debt Advisory Commission, October 1994.
  • Debt Issuance and Management: A Guide for Smaller Governments, James C. Joseph, GFOA, 1994.
  • A Guide for Selecting Financial Advisors and Underwriters: Writing RFPs and Evaluating Proposals, Patricia Tigue, GFOA, 1997.
  • GFOA Best Practice, “Selecting Bond Counsel,” 2008.
  • GFOA Best Practice, “Selecting Financial Advisors,” 2008.
  • GFOA Best Practice, “Selecting and Managing the Method of Sale of State and Local Government Bonds,” 2007.
  • Municipal Securities Rulemaking Board Rule G-23, Activities of Financial Advisors, http://www.msrb.org/msrb1/rules/ruleg23.htm.

 

* This Recommended Practice, along with the Recommended Practice on Selecting Financial Advisors, replaces
the 1997 RP, Preparing RFPs to Select Financial Advisors and Underwriters.

Approved by the GFOA’s Executive Board, October 17, 2008.