Home About Archives RSS Feed

The Independent Investor: Will the Municipal Bond Massacre Continue?

Bill Schmick

There was a time when municipal bonds were a staid but safe investment. Tax conscious investors, widows and orphans would plow money into these debt issues of towns, cities and state municipalities fully expecting price stability and a predicable stream of interest payments. No more.

What makes municipal bonds appealing to many investors is that interest income received by holders of municipal bonds is often exempt from federal income tax and from the income tax of the state in which they are issued. But ever since the financial crisis and the recession that had accompanied it, state and local governments have had a hard time of it and their bonds have reflected that trading in a wide range similar to stocks and other riskier investments. Vast sums have been made and more recently lost in Muni bonds as investors bet on which states and towns would go bust and which would survive. The betting continues unabated.

Over the last two months, the entire $2.8 trillion market has seen a sizable decline in value. In just one day last month, for example, these bonds were hit by more than $3 billion in redemptions. By the end of that week, bond sales totaled $15.4 billion. The average municipal bond fund suffered a 3.7 percent loss for the month. Losses overall are approaching 6 percent for the year which is a modern-day record.

Underneath those headline figures is a market in which investors are feverishly sorting out those state and local governments with strong fundamentals and even stronger prospects and those that don't.

Forty-six states experienced budget shortfalls this year and 39 of them have projected gaps next year totaling $112 billion to $140 billion. Tax revenues this year dropped 3.1 percent, although that's an improvement over 2009's decline of 8.4 percent. However, most states expect property taxes to begin to decline next year. These taxes tend to lag real estate prices by about three years since assessments trail prices. Towns and municipalities rely on these taxes for at least 25 percent of their revenues and they look to the states for at least another third of their budget in state aid.

States have no money to lend, however, because their own taxes continue to decline due to the large number of unemployed, slow economic growth and the inability to raise taxes while residents are struggling to make ends meet. In 2011, states will also have to begin paying back to the federal government the $40.9 billion they borrowed interest-free through the stimulus plan.

In a similar fashion to the debt problems within some countries in Europe (Greece, Ireland, Portugal, Spain and Italy), here in the United States we too have our weaker states with Illinois and Nevada most often rated the states most likely to experience further economic turbulence. As in Europe, those weak sisters must pay substantially more in interest to attract investors to their bonds while states that have a better financial footing benefit by paying less.

In addition to the shaky finances and unknown risk that confronts this market in 2011 we also face the prospect of interest rate risk — the threat of higher interest rates in the government markets (see my column "Why Are Interest Rates Rising?").

Long-dated municipal bond prices and interest rates track long-term Treasury bond. Unfortunately, U.S. Treasury interest rates on the long end have spiked over the last two months and are predicted to move even higher in the New Year. For investors of both U.S. Treasury and municipal bonds that will mean further losses as bond prices decline.

If you must own municipal bonds, then switching from bond investments in weaker states and localities into bonds issued by stronger municipalities seems to me is common-sense tactic to employ right now. Secondly, stick with revenue bonds as opposed to general obligation bonds.

Revenue bonds repay investors from a specific source such as a highway toll rather than from a tax. General Obligation bonds, on the other hand, are secured by a state or local government's pledge to use whatever resources necessary (such as new taxes) to repay the bonds.

At the end of the day, Muni bond bulls argue correctly that if push came to shove the federal government would bail out any state that was on the verge of bankruptcy. In turn, any state would rush to the aid of a municipality within their domain that was on the verge of failure. I don't dispute that. And if it came to pass that something like that were to happen, it might be a buying opportunity to really aggressive traders but not for widows and orphans. For those who depend on these revenue streams to pay the bills, a far better approach is to simply sell the riskier securities and buy those that offer greater security.

Bill Schmick is an independent investor with Berkshire Money Management. (See "About" for more information.) None of the information presented in any of these articles is intended to be and should not be construed as an endorsement of BMM or a solicitation to become a client of BMM. The reader should not assume that any strategies, or specific investments discussed are employed, bought, sold or held by BMM. Direct your inquiries to Bill at 1-888-232-6072 (toll free) or e-mail him at wschmick@fairpoint.net. Visit www.afewdollarsmore.com for more of Bill's insights.

1 Comments
Tags: Treasuries, bonds      

Support Local News

We show up at hurricanes, budget meetings, high school games, accidents, fires and community events. We show up at celebrations and tragedies and everything in between. We show up so our readers can learn about pivotal events that affect their communities and their lives.

How important is local news to you? You can support independent, unbiased journalism and help iBerkshires grow for as a little as the cost of a cup of coffee a week.

News Headlines
Clark Art Virtual Conversation With Artist
Baker: State Told that Johnson & Johnson Ramping Up Vaccine Production
PANT CONNECTOR Opening Friday
NAACP Berkshire President Recognized At Black Excellence on the Hill Event
North Adams Eyeing Federal Relief Funds to Support School Programs
Lenox Students Planting Trees to Offset Paper Use
Williamstown Board to Receive Training on Communicating with Constituents
Adams Hires Finance Director to Replace Retiring Accountant
Burning Crosses Across the Berkshires: KKK Thrived Locally 100 Years Ago
Williams College Investigating 'Unsafe Party'
 
 


Categories:
@theMarket (360)
Independent Investor (450)
Retired Investor (32)
Archives:
February 2021 (8)
January 2021 (5)
December 2020 (6)
November 2020 (8)
October 2020 (7)
September 2020 (6)
August 2020 (6)
July 2020 (10)
June 2020 (7)
May 2020 (9)
April 2020 (9)
March 2020 (5)
Tags:
Currency Markets Debt Europe Deficit Housing Retirement Selloff Debt Ceiling Greece Stimulus Pullback Rally Fiscal Cliff Interest Rates Economy Recession Wall Street Europe Taxes Metals Congress Federal Reserve Euro Commodities Stock Market Energy Jobs Bailout Banks Crisis Stocks Election Japan Oil
Popular Entries:
The Independent Investor: Don't Fight the Fed
@theMarket: QE II Supports the Markets
The Independent Investor: Understanding the Foreclosure Scandal
The Independent Investor: Does Cash Mean Currencies?
@theMarket: Markets Are Going Higher
The Independent Investor: General Motors — Back to the Future
The Independent Investor: How Will Wall Street II Play on Main Street?
@theMarket: Economy Sputters, Stocks Stutter
The Independent Investor: Why Are Interest Rates Rising?
The Independent Investor: Will the Municipal Bond Massacre Continue?
Recent Entries:
@theMarket: Higher Interest Rates Clobber Stocks
The Retired Investor: SPAC Attack
@theMarket: Stocks Versus Bitcoin
The Retired Investor: Clubhouse Comes of Age
@theMarket: Financial Froth Infects Markets
The Retired Investor: Gambling, the Vice We Love
@theMarket: Stocks Regain Momentum
The Retired Investor: The Business of Space
@theMarket: A Roller Coaster Market
The Retired Investor: Make Way for the Retail Investor