Municipal bonds have long been considered some of the most reliable fixed income options with a low default rate. Enter Covid-19 and a once untouchable space could now be in jeopardy with defaults.
“The pandemic is threatening the creditworthiness of many municipal securities long seen as safe investments—bonds for higher education, health care, tourism and travel,” a Wall Street Journal report noted. “Moody’s Investors Service has lowered its outlook to negative on all municipal bond sectors except for housing-finance agencies and water, sewer and public power.”
“It’s amazing that we’ve sustained six months of being shut down to some degree with very minimal rating actions,” said Lisa Washburn, a managing director at Municipal Market Analytics.
According to the WSJ report, the number of municipal bond “defaults have reached their highest rate since 2011, the aftermath of the last recession, according to Municipal Market Analytics data. Still, Americans continue to pour money into municipal bond mutual funds, which are clocking 17 straight weeks of inflows since mid-May.”
March’s sell-offs due to Covid-19 saw a flood of money head into municipal bonds as a safe haven with a tax-exempt benefit. Per the report, “fund managers see big-name borrowers who have good relationships with creditors as a good long-term buy even if their bonds are at risk of a short-term downgrade.”
“We’re modestly more comfortable with those guys because there is a possibility that we’re entering a terrain where sophistication and access to markets is a big credit differentiator,” said Adam Stern, co-head of research at Breckinridge Capital Advisors.
Here are a pair of municipal bond ETFs to consider:
- iShares National Muni Bond ETF (MUB ): seeks to track the investment results of the S&P National AMT-Free Municipal Bond IndexTM. The fund generally will invest at least 90% of its assets in the component securities of the underlying index and may invest up to 10% of its assets in certain futures, options and swap contracts, cash and cash equivalents. The index measures the performance of the investment-grade segment of the U.S. municipal bond market.
- SPDR Nuveen Bloomberg Barclays Short Term Municipal Bond ETF (SHM ): seeks to provide investment results that correspond generally to the price and yield performance of the Bloomberg Barclays Managed Money Municipal Short Term Index. The fund invests most of its total assets in the securities comprising the index and in securities that the Sub-Adviser determines have economic characteristics that are substantially identical to the economic characteristics of the securities that comprise the index. The index tracks the short-term tax exempt municipal bond market and provides income that is exempt from federal income taxes.