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Fixed-Income Insights

Here are the important takeaways for investors from the municipal bond market’s recent sell-off—and its subsequent return to stability.

 

In Brief

  • The municipal bond market came under pressure in late 2016 for a variety of reasons, including post-election concerns about changes in U.S. tax rates and prospects for economic growth.
  • But the market has since stabilized. In the wake of these developments, it now seems to be a good time for an assessment of munis’ performance during the period in question.
  • Here, we examine in detail important lessons from the late 2016–early 2017 period, covering topics such as market liquidity, the relevance of key indicators, supply/demand issues, tax-loss selling, and issuer credit quality.
  • The key takeaway: The final months of 2016 were challenging for municipal bonds, but, overall, the market functioned well and credit fundamentals remained strong.

 

The final quarter of 2016 was extremely challenging for the municipal bond market. It started with record levels of supply—that is, newly issued muni bonds coming to market—during October. Then things calmed down, until Donald Trump was elected president on November 7. After the election, the muni market dropped considerably during the second half of November, owing to concerns about what a Trump presidency would mean for tax rates and government spending. 

Even as the market stabilized during December, with the broad muni benchmark Bloomberg Barclays Municipal Bond Index returning 1.17% for the month, the market was significantly challenged by sizable outflows from municipal bond mutual funds. According to Lipper, more than $17 billion was withdrawn from funds during the month, leading to active trading in muni issues and funds’ need for liquidity to raise cash to meet redemptions. 

It was a challenging period for the muni sector, but the market operated effectively and successfully.  Because of the factors that tested the market, many lessons were learned. Here, we’ll focus on seven that we believe are the most important ones.

1.  The municipal bond market displayed good liquidity during November–December 2016.

Based upon the volume of outflows from municipal bond mutual funds during the quarter, a lot of money needed to be raised by fund companies to cover redemptions. During the second half of November, prices of muni bonds adjusted lower in rapid fashion, as liquidity costs were high due to uncertainty as to whether there was enough secondary-market demand. As it became clear that demand was sufficient, the liquidity costs shrank quickly. 

When muni mutual funds are facing outflows, it is tough to find liquidity from other muni funds (many of which are also facing redemptions), so most of the demand has to come from other sources. This time, there were many buyers, including hedge funds, total return funds, dealers, banks, insurance companies, and individuals buying bonds through brokerage accounts or separately managed accounts (SMAs). Each day during the market slump, trading volume was high, with many funds circulating bid lists because they were forced to sell. The average par value of bonds put out for bid on Bloomberg in December 2016 was $1.3 billion per day—nearly double the $655 million daily rate for the first 11 months of 2016.

The nontraditional buyers mentioned above took advantage of the opportunity to buy bonds when funds were forced to sell to meet redemptions. Since prices rallied during December, the trade paid off for many of these buyers.

2.  Market indicators can be unclear.

As fund outflows accelerated and remained high through December, many analysts believed that this was an indication that there was reduced demand for municipal bonds. While that may have been true during November, it definitely was not the case in December. Many market observers use the weekly fund flow numbers from Lipper or the Investment Company Institute (ICI) as representative of investor demand.  Because flows were negative, many saw that as confirming the consensus view that demand for munis was flagging.

As it turned out, while the outflows right after the election may have been in reaction to concerns about Trump’s potential policies, in December there were different reasons. Investors could have observed this by seeing that SMAs created to hold muni bonds were growing in assets, or by the large number of investor requests for bonds to be sold out of SMAs to realize losses. On the mutual fund side, the only way to recognize a loss is to sell shares; that made investor activity very different for mutual funds compared to SMAs. After the calendar turned to 2017, fund flows turned positive in the first few weeks of January, suggesting that most of the selling during 2016 was done in order to recognize losses.

What is important to keep in mind is that the headline of negative fund flows didn’t tell the whole story. The outflow numbers from Lipper and ICI made it appear that demand was light, when in reality it wasn’t. 

3.  The municipal bond market can often be driven by fears rather than facts.

Immediately after Trump was elected president, the municipal bond market came under pressure. Analysts were projecting that his infrastructure spending and taxation policies, although potential tailwinds to economic growth, could create an unfavorable environment for muni bond investors. But Trump’s growth proposals have not been finalized, and congressional approval is uncertain. The markets moved on the fear before material facts were available.

Meanwhile, the concern about tax-bracket changes contributed to munis’ underperformance relative to other fixed-income markets. Consensus projections are that the highest personal income tax rate will be lowered and that corporate income tax rate will be reduced, which we consider a likely outcome. Still, according to IRS data, less than 25% of tax-exempt income is declared by individuals with tax brackets higher than 35%, so the large majority of individual investors will not be significantly affected.

On the corporate tax side, insurance companies and banks might not have as much of a need for tax-exempt income if their income-tax rate changes. Still, municipal yield ratios for ‘AAA’ rated bonds are still close to 100% of U.S. Treasury rates, according to Municipal Market Data, so these buyers still might find municipals attractive based upon relative value. Insurance company portfolios also might continue to benefit from diversification of their investments with municipals. While there can be periods of reduced demand from corporate investors, that doesn’t mean that they are going to be selling significant portions of their holdings. These buyers often go through cycles when their profitability is low, so they would have less need for the tax-exempt income of municipal bonds. In the end, a reduction in demand from corporate investors would not necessarily be something new. All of this, however, makes it unclear as to what impact a reduced corporate tax rate might have on demand. One other point worth noting: Since approximately two-thirds of the owners of municipals are individuals, according to U.S. Federal Reserve data, corporations only represent only a pocket of overall demand. 

4.  Supply rapidly adjusts to demand.

The municipal bond market can be pressured by excess supply or insufficient demand. During October 2016, for example, the municipal bond market underperformed amid record new issue volume, with more than $53 billion in par value of new bonds brought to market, according to The Bond Buyer.  For all of 2016, the average monthly amount of new issues was $37 billion. Issuers refunded outstanding bonds issued at higher interest rates and funded new projects because rates were low. Many rushed to get their deals completed prior to the election and many to take advantage of lower interest rates. There was concern back in October that the high supply volume would continue with interest rates so low.

Weekly demand had been positive for more than a year before turning negative for a single week in October. After the negative week, flows turned positive again. Overall, the high supply throughout the first 10 months of the year led 2016 to be a record year for issuance. It was all possible because of the steady municipal bond demand from individual investors.

When rates started rising after the election, demand decreased significantly. Rates increased, but they still were at historically low levels, making borrowing still attractive for new issues or for refinancing outstanding deals at lower costs. Nevertheless, issuance slowed rapidly. During November, there were $31.6 billion of new issues, and in December the total dropped to $18.9 billion. December typically is a slower month, but by comparison, new issue volume totaled $25 billion in the same month during 2015. 

Supply slowed not because rates were not attractive enough for new deals but because demand was uncertain. Many of the larger new issues that did come to the market ended up putting additional pressure on the market. The slowing supply supported the positive performance of the market in December because it kept demand focused upon the secondary market, where funds were more successfully able to sell without as much competition from the primary market. The appetite of investors was satisfied by the secondary market supply, and likely would have been overwhelmed by more new issues. As has been the case historically, supply reacts to changes in demand, quickly changing the outlook.

5.  Some investors appreciate the value of tax losses.

While no one likes to see their investments lose value over the longer term, some investors see value in taking advantage of situations when prices do go down during shorter time periods. It is a strange concept to think that losses can be beneficial, but many investors viewed the situation in that manner during December 2016. 

With bond prices dropping and stock prices rising after the election in November, many investors thought that it was beneficial to recognize bond losses in order to offset capital gains on stocks. This allowed them to evade paying capital gains taxes on the portion of their gains that they could offset with capital losses.  With mutual funds, investors needed to sell their shares to achieve this objective, and many of the sales were actually exchanges to other funds rather than outright redemptions, because investors wanted to remain in the market. On the SMA side, assets actually were increasing rather than decreasing. This was because some investors were opening accounts to take advantage of the higher interest rates, while many existing investors were keeping their accounts open, but requesting to have bonds sold for them to recognize losses and then be reinvested in different bonds to stay invested. 

There was a huge volume of these requests. While we as portfolio managers were very disappointed to see the value of client assets decrease with the market, we were very willing to complete the large volume of trades necessary to meet their needs to recognize losses. As we move into February, the municipal bond market has had positive returns, so there has been some recovery of market value. Just like investors, we prefer to add value by helping to increase asset values, but we also recognize that some investors see benefits in losses over short time periods.

6.  Some defaulted bonds actually performed well in 2016.

One of the strange dynamics within the municipal bond market during 2016 was the performance of Puerto Rico bonds. At the beginning of 2016, if investors had been told that the commonwealth would default on its general obligation bonds, that the deal negotiated between Power Authority creditors and government officials would not be completed, that there would be no material progress toward a settlement with creditors, that groups of investors would file lawsuits against each other, and that the government would not be able to develop an accurate accounting of its finances, would investors have thought that Puerto Rico munis could have had good investment performance? Most probably would have answered no to that question.

So, what did happen? Puerto Rico was among the best performing parts of the muni market. The Bloomberg Barclays High Yield Puerto Rico Index was up 11.40% for all of 2016, versus the broader Bloomberg Barclays Municipal High Yield Index gain of 2.99%. The High Yield Puerto Rico Index also outperformed during the fourth quarter, while the broader market was under pressure, down 3.70% versus the Municipal High Yield Index’s negative return of 5.84%. 

Why did this happen? It was not because of any solutions to the crisis. One reason for the positive performance was that Puerto Rico bonds had fared poorly during previous years as many investors were selling at whatever market price was available to get out of their investments. This cost of liquidity in response to the uncertainty of the outcome probably pushed prices down too much. Another positive during 2016 was that the U.S. Congress passed legislation called PROMESA (Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act) to start the process toward a solution to Puerto Rico’s fiscal woes. It did not provide any answers, but it created a board to work through the issues, and it put a stay on lawsuits against Puerto Rico for a period of time, which the market viewed as a positive. All of this allowed Puerto Rico bonds to outperform, even while the commonwealth was in default.

7.  The market can fall even when the credit quality of investments is strong.

As the municipal bond market’s performance turned negative after the U.S. presidential election, the credit quality of the market remained strong. The U.S. economy has been showing steady, positive growth, leading to increases in tax revenues at the state and local level. Oil prices have been low, benefiting the transportation sector with increased volumes on toll roads and at airports. Demand for higher education has remained strong, and schools’ endowments have been growing, with positive market performance, making the education sector attractive. 

This strength has been reflected by the fact that credit ratings agencies have been making more upgrades than downgrades. For example, during the third quarter of 2016, Moody’s made 163 upgrades and 96 downgrades of muni issues. Although there are a few states with negative credit trends, such as New Jersey and Illinois, most states have positive trends and are of very high credit quality. 

So, while it is vital to review credits and monitor overall credit quality, this has been an example of the ability of the market to fall, even as credit quality is steady to improving.

Summing Up
The last few months of 2016 were a challenging time for the municipal bond market. Sufficient liquidity was needed to meet investor needs, and transaction volume was high in reaction to changes in investment strategies. The market traded down, and investors had to make a lot of decisions, such as whether to buy, sell, or swap to take tax losses. Overall, the municipal market functioned well. The market followed some familiar trends, and displayed a few new wrinkles. Digesting the lessons of this difficult period—and analyzing their implications for the municipal bond market—will be critical in making successful future portfolio decisions. 

 

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