Robert Citron made Orange County (California, US) declare for Chapter 9 bankruptcy

Robert Citron Orange CountyPhoto by Orange County Archives

Robert Citron was a Democratic Party politician who was the longtime Treasurer-Tax Collector of Orange County, California, when it declared Chapter 9 bankruptcy on December 6, 1994.

Robert Citron was the only Democrat to hold office in heavily Republican Orange County at the time. The bankruptcy was brought on by Citron’s investment strategies, which seemed to be an effort to earn high incomes for the county, without raising taxes, through risky, leveraged positions in bonds. The strategy paid out at first. In 1994, a cash crunch occurred when interest rates increased and financiers for the county required increased collateral from the county.

Citron controlled several Orange County funds including the General Fund, the Investment Pool, and the treasury Commingled Pool. He sent out the county’s tax bills with catchy slogans, such as “Taxes paid on time never draw fines.” He won re-election seven times; in his last election victory, his opponent, John Moorlach, charged that his handsome gains were the result of risky betting.

As controller of the various Orange County funds, Robert Citron had taken a highly leveraged position using repurchase agreements (repos) and floating rate notes (FRNs). The loss incurred by the use of these financial instruments reached the amount of $2 billion and was caused by being too highly leveraged for rising federal interest rates. In other words, if federal interest rates had not risen, the massive trading position would have been a substantially profitable position; if interest rates did rise, the trading position would result in substantial losses. In fact, rates rose.

County bankruptcy

The Orange County funds, managed by Citron, were worth $8 billion. However, Citron went out to the repo market and leveraged the County Pools to amounts ranging from 158% to over 292%. To obtain this degree of leverage, he used treasury bonds as collateral. Profits of the fund were excessive for a period of time and Citron resorted to concealing the excess earnings. He pleaded guilty to improperly transferring securities from the Orange County General Fund to the Orange County Treasury Commingled Pool.

The county’s finances were not suspect until February 1994. The Federal Reserve Bank began to raise US interest rates, causing many securities in Orange County’s investment pools to fall in value. As a result, dealers were requesting extra margin payments from Orange County. These extra margin payments were funded in part by another bond issue made by Orange County; the size of that bond issue was $600 million. However, this fix proved to be only temporary. In December 1994, Credit Suisse First Boston (CSFB) realized what was going on and blocked the “rolling over” of $1.25 billion in repos. At that point some claim that Orange County was left with no recourse other than to file for bankruptcy. Others would argue that Orange County’s decision to enter bankruptcy protection was voluntary.

Facing 14 years in prison, Robert Citron pleaded guilty to six felony counts and three special enhancements. Charges also included filing a false and misleading financial summary to participants purchasing securities in the Orange County Treasury Investment Pool.

While in bankruptcy, every county program budget was cut, about 3,000 public employees were discharged, and all services were reduced. Citron was sentenced to one year of work release and five years of supervised probation, and performed 1,000 hours of community service.

Orange County emerged from bankruptcy 18 months after it filed. From a fiscal perspective, the county’s bankruptcy was very successful in that it reduced the county’s debt to an affordable level. Indeed, Orange County was able to access the lending markets a mere two years after its bankruptcy. Seven years after the filing, Orange County had a AA bond rating.

 

Photo by Orange County Archives

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