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Bonds, Income Investing

During the current period of intense market volatility, some investors have grown fearful. For these concerned investors, municipal bonds, aka “munis,” are worth a look. Munis are issued by state and local governments, and generally pay tax-exempt interest at the federal and potentially state levels.

Municipal bonds have played a vital role in building the framework of America’s modern infrastructure, and were a major source of financing for canals, roads, and railroads during the country’s westward expansion in the 1800s.

Today, the proceeds from municipal debt continue to fund a wide range of state and local infrastructure projects, including schools, hospitals, universities, airports, bridges, and highways, as well as water and sewer systems.

Here’s all you need to know, and how to buy them…

Munis 101

Municipal bonds are often thought of as tax-exempt vehicles that are appropriate only for investors who fall into higher tax brackets. However, municipal bonds can offer potential advantages to investors of all income brackets.

In general, municipal bonds fall into one of two categories: general obligation and revenue. The main difference between the two is the source of revenue that secures their principal and interest payments. Here are the specifics from the Invesco Primer on municipal bonds…

General obligation bonds are secured at the state level by the state government’s pledge to use all legally available resources to repay the bond. At the local level, general obligation bonds are backed by an ad valorem tax pledge that can be either “limited” or “unlimited.” The agreed-upon definitions of these terms that appear in ordinances across municipalities are:

  •  Limited tax: Secured by a pledge to levy taxes annually “within the constitutional and statutory limitations provided by law”
  • Unlimited tax: Secured by a pledge to levy taxes annually “without limitation as to rate or amount” to ensure sufficient revenues for debt service

Other than states, issuers of general obligation bonds include cities, counties, and school districts.

Revenue bonds are secured by a specific source of revenue earmarked for repayment of the revenue bond.

  • Enterprise revenue bonds are typically issued by water and sewer authorities, electric utilities, airports, toll roads, hospitals, universities, and other not-for-profit entities.
  • Tax revenue bonds are backed by dedicated tax streams, such as sales taxes, utility taxes, or excise taxes.

Muni bonds come with a large tax break for taxpayers. Without this, there are few reasons to hold them. How much is the tax break worth? As Invesco explains in their basic Muni primer, to work out the Tax Equivalent Yield (TEY) you have to do a bit of math:

Given that different investors pay different marginal rates of tax federal income tax, the tax equivalent yields that you receive from the same bond will be different. In simple terms, the higher your marginal tax rate, the higher your TEY.

There are several reasons why looking into the $4 trillion municipal bond market may make sense now.

Why Buy Munis?

One reason munis make sense for many investors is that many issuers have a monopoly over their services and don’t face competition like corporations do.

An even better reason is that issuers are often backed by durable revenue sources such as taxes. As a result, defaults tend to be rare, even during recessionary periods. For example, during the financial crisis of 2007–2009, only 12 rated issuers defaulted, compared with 414 corporate bonds of similar credit quality.

Currently, many muni issuers are financially strong. That’s due to substantial pandemic-related support from the federal government as well as recently surging tax revenues as the economy has recovered from the pandemic.

In fact, the balances of rainy-day funds—money states set aside to use during unexpected deficits—are at near-record levels. Even Illinois, the lowest-rated state in the muni market had a rainy-day fund balance of more than $600 million in 2022, compared with just $4.15 million in 2020.

Also keep in mind that, in general, muni bonds have strong credit ratings—usually higher than corporate bones. Nearly 70% of the Bloomberg Municipal Bond Index is rated in the two highest categories, compared with just 8% of those in the Bloomberg Corporate Bond Index.

And then, of course, we come to yields.

Raymond James’s Municipal Bond Investor Weekly shows that the yield on 10-year Single-A-rated Munis trades below U.S. Treasuries, but the Tax Equivalent Yield of 10-year Single-A-rated Muni trades at the equivalent U.S. Treasury yield plus 126 basis points.

Here is some of the commentary from the March 20 issue of Municipal Bond Investor Weekly:

All this [market] uncertainty has caused a flight to quality as investors shift out of risky assets and into bonds. As investors pour into high quality bonds, municipal bond prices have rallied sending yields lower. 10-year muni yields are ~25 basis points lower, but this pales in comparison to Treasury yields which are ~53 basis points lower from March 7-17, 2023. Longer maturities followed a similar path with 20-year muni yields lower by 16 basis points compared to Treasuries, down 32 basis points.…Taking a longer view, 10 and 20-year maturity municipal bond yields are at or close to their historical highs not seen since 2018. The past year has been marked with volatility and, while off their recent highs, 20-year muni yields are approximately 100 basis points higher than a year ago and 10-year yields are approximately 30 basis points higher.

How to Buy Munis

Your best bet may be to buy individual munis tailored to your specific financial situation. All the major brokerages have bond specialists that can do this for you.

However, there are municipal bond mutual funds and ETFs that you can buy online in your brokerage account. Here are a few examples…

The largest muni bond ETF is the iShares National Muni Bond ETF (MUB). It is up about 1% year-to-date and has a 30-day SEC yield of 3.15%. The expense ratio is a tiny 0.07%.

There are also closed-end funds that focus on munis—and often on specific states and that often have a higher yield.

The largest national muni closed end fund is the Nuveen Municipal Value Fund (NUV). It is up about 0.50% year-to-date and has a distribution rate of 3.85%. However, its expense ratio is higher at 0.50%.

The biggest of such funds focused on a single state is the Nuveen California Quality Municipal Income Fund (NAC). Many of the larger states have a closed fund dedicated to them, so make sure to check on the internet for a list.