One of the big risks to the muni sector that has gone underappreciated by the financial media and investing community is the threat of the soon-to-be revamped SEC making some big changes to the asset class. See the full story here on our parnter Magnifi's site.
One of the big risks to the muni sector that has gone underappreciated by the financial media and investing community is the threat of the soon-to-be revamped SEC making some big changes to the asset class. The reason for concern is that Elad Roisman has just been appointed interim chief of the SEC. Roisman has long had a focus on transparency in fixed income markets, which he and others at the SEC feel is too opaque. This has raised the risk of new regulation in the space. That said, his short term before likely being replaced by Biden will limit his time frame to change any policy.
FINSUM: Roisman is a Republican and was previously chief counsel at NYSE Euronext, which gives him a very significant command of market structure. This would certainly equip him with the know-how to overhaul fixed income markets, but unless the Biden administration wants that to be a focus, it doesn’t seem he will have enough time. Bullet dodged or opportunity missed?
Munis had a wild and rough year in 2020. Everyone who invests in the sector is wondering what’s next. While the lack of direct state and municipal aid in the recent congressional package is a downer for muni investors, there is a lot to be happy about. Election certainty, good news on the vaccine front, and the inauguration of Biden are all raising the sector’s prospects. Biden is seen as more likely to help local state and municipalities with aid, which has raised prospects for the sector. Downgrades are a risk, but widespread defaults seem unlikely.
FINSUM: On the whole, things seem like they are set up for a pretty positive year. As to the possibility of downgrades, it is worth noting that downgrades usually trail economic performance, so they would take a while to come through.
Munis have long been very popular with HNW clients because of their tax exempt income. However, a new—and slightly confusing—part of the industry is increasingly becoming popular. That new niche is taxable muni bonds. According to Barron’s “Taxable municipal bonds are the fastest-growing sector in U.S. fixed income. This year, issuance has totaled more than $170 billion, double the $85 billion sold in all of 2019. The total market has grown to $700 billion—sizable but still below the $3.7 trillion tax-exempt muni market”. Many think the new vaccines will give a boost to munis, which have suffered under COVID.
FINSUM: If you are interested in this market, check out Invesco’s Taxable Municipal Bond ETF (BAB).
The muni market is doing great, at least on paper that is. Muni bonds have seen an absolutely furious rally over the last few months, which has driven yields to the lowest level since the 1950s. However, many municipalities have huge budget deficits, so the trick is to buy prudently. Eaton Vance published a piece with a state by state analysis of financial health, since the pain of tax revenue losses is not spread evenly. There are multiple ways to look at the info. The states who will see a 20%+ fall in revenue include: Idaho, Wyoming, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Missouri, New York, Alaska, Maine, West Virginia, Louisiana, and New Jersey. The top ten states for creditworthiness (meaning the most creditworthy) according to Eaton Vance are Idaho, Wyoming, South Dakota, Utah, Nebraska, North Dakota, Tennessee, Iowa, Virginia, and Minnesota.
FINSUM: New York and New Jersey are the most alarming ones on this list, since they are seeing big revenue falls and were already in quite poor financial condition. Illinois is obviously troubling too, as it is dead last in creditworthiness and likely to see a 13%+ fall in revenue.
Muni bonds have been on a relentless rally. Any advisor is surely aware of this because there is likely a lot of their client’s money in the space. The inflows have been so sharp, and the price action so swift, that average ten-year yields in munis are at 0.7%, the lowest since the 1950s. At the same time, the COVID pandemic has decimated local and state budgets and there is a $1 tn budget deficit. Worse, the federal government has no clear plans in place to help local and state governments, meaning such municipalities may not be bailed out any time soon.
FINSUM: So on the one hand you have soaring prices, and on the other, significantly eroding credit quality. In any normal circumstance this would be seen as a bubble. However, given that Washington does seem likely to offer some aid to local governments, a meltdown will probably be avoided—but not without some volatility along the way.