Have you heard the clucking?
It’s the sound of Chicken Little returning to the municipal bond market.
In 2008, he paid a visit during the mortgage crisis. At the time, bond insurers were downgraded when they strayed from their traditional market and ventured into exotic – and toxic – financial products, while major banks, brokerages and hedge funds, which traditionally provided support to the muni market, became net sellers to enhance their own liquidity during the tumult.
Munis themselves were fine, but the chickens clucked, bond prices slumped and too many average investors panicked and sold. Veteran bond investors, meantime, did what they always do: take advantage of the disruptions and feast on fatter yields.
Two years later, Chicken Little reappeared, this time in the guise of a banking analyst whose comments on state and local finances during a TV interview spooked investors and spurred a muni selloff. Nevermind that her warnings of Armageddon were wildly off the mark; many took heed and, as a result, blew a hole in their portfolios.
Today, Chicken Little has returned, with the same, equity-oriented pundits warning of a calamitous interest-rate spike and urging investors to shed their bonds.
Which bonds are they referring to? We’re not sure, and due to their lack of expertise in bonds, they’re probably not either. We only hear about Treasury bonds, but we don’t know of a single individual investor who owns any.
And that’s the rub.
Successful tax-free bond investors don’t buy and sell based on prognostications. Their goal is to generate a steady and dependable stream of tax-free income. Because investors know they have a promise to be paid at a specific time – a maturity date – unrealized losses or gains are irrelevant. They know that over the life of their long-term bonds, they will sometimes be worth more than they paid for them and sometimes less. Neither scenario should initiate a sale.
In fact, a substantial number of municipal bond buyers welcome higher interest rates to boost their tax-free income, which is the reason they buy tax-free bonds in the first place.
A buying opportunity
Chicken Little’s most recent cry to indiscriminately sell an entire asset class is reckless and can once again be catastrophic for investors.
Unique opportunities abound as muni bond fund shareholders panic and rush to the exits. This forces fund managers to reluctantly toss good bonds overboard to meet redemptions.
With high-quality municipals now yielding 4.25% or more (a tax-equivalent yield of 6.54% for investors in the 35% federal tax bracket), successful long-term investors hear the shrieks for what they really are: a signal to buy.