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Market View

Strengthening fundamentals, a healthy supply/demand balance, and relative valuations all support the muni market today.

We often view the state of the municipal bond market through three lenses: fundamentals, supply/demand dynamics, and valuations. When examining each of these aspects of the tax-free market, we believe there is good reason for investors to consider municipal bonds as part of a fixed-income allocation, particularly lower-tiered investment-grade debt. 

 

Chart 1. “A” Rated Municipals Offer Notable After-Tax Yield Relative to U.S. Treasuries
Data in chart as of January 24, 2018

*”A” rated general obligation municipal bonds.
** Moody’s, “Moody’s U.S. Municipal Bond Defaults and Recoveries, 1970–2016,” June 2017. Data used in Table are the most recent available. While municipal bonds are backed by municipalities, U.S. government securities, such as U.S. Treasury bills, are considered less risky since they are backed by the U.S. government. High-yielding, non-investment-grade bonds (junk bonds) involve higher risk than investment-grade bonds. Adverse conditions may affect the issuer’s ability to pay interest and principal on these securities.

Source: Bloomberg.
Yields of both municipal bonds and Treasuries are derived from Bloomberg Fair Value Yield Curves.
For illustrative purposes only and does not represent any specific portfolio managed by Lord Abbett or any particular investment. Past performance is not a reliable indicator or guarantee of future results. Performance during other periods may have been different.

 

Fundamentals
In general, the fundamentals of the municipal bond market have been improving. Although the pace of growth has slowed, state and local tax revenues have been increasing since 2010. While there are always challenges for specific issuers, most municipalities have been conservative with respect to future revenue growth in their budgeting process. These constructive actions have been recognized by the rating agencies, as evidenced by Moody’s ratings upgrades outpacing downgrades in four of the last five quarters. Rising tax receipts, conservative budgeting, and the trend of upgrades outpacing downgrades all support the claim that fundamentals, overall, have been exhibiting improvement.

Supply/Demand Dynamics
Leaner issuance, strong inflows, and reinvested capital should provide a tailwind to the tax-free market. As we covered in a recent article, the wind-up to the passage of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act caused certain issuers to rush to market late last year to get ahead of potential changes associated with the bill, particularly those changes that would disallow certain issuers from borrowing in the tax-free markets or the advance refunding of existing debt. According to J.P. Morgan, In December, 2017, municipalities issued a record $62 billion in bonds. In total, issuance in the fourth quarter of 2017 reached $145 billion, breaking a record that had remained in place since 2010.

As expected, issuance thus far in 2018 has been lean. J.P. Morgan estimates that roughly $23 billion slotted for a 2018 issuance was issued in 2017 instead, supporting their expectation for net negative supply through the first quarter and stronger market liquidity as a result. Demand has been strong as well. For the year-to-date period ended January 17, 2018, aggregate inflows into tax-free mutual funds totaled $2 billion.

Valuations
Investors are familiar with the concept that bond yields reflect risk. Generally speaking, the greater the risk, the higher the yield is that investors demand. However, if one were to compare taxable equivalent yields of municipal bonds with comparably rated corporate bonds, one might question the application of this standard across all investments.

For example, as of December 12, 2017, the “AA” rated component of the Bloomberg Barclays Municipal Bond Index offered a 3.88% yield on a taxable equivalent basis, higher than the 2.71% offered by the “AA” rated component of the Bloomberg Barclays U.S. Corporate Index. Consider now that “AA” rated corporates, according to a Moody’s study, default 39 times more often than “AA” rated munis. What’s more, the “AA” rated muni carve out also yields more than the “BBB” rated corporate carve out, despite “BBB” rated corporates defaulting 197 times more often than “BBB” rated municipals.  

Comparing municipal yields to U.S. Treasury yields is also a commonplace and useful relative-value exercise. In a normal environment, the ratio of comparable maturity “AAA” rated muni yields to Treasury yields, both securities with historical default rates of 0.00%, should be below one. In other words, the muni bond should offer a yield that is less than 100% of that of a Treasury because of the tax benefit associated with municipal bond interest income.

As of January 24, 2018, a 30-year “AAA” rated muni was yielding roughly 95% of a 30-year Treasury. Some might argue that this number suggests munis are rich relative to Treasuries. After all, at the depths of the credit crisis this ratio reached 200%, and since the start of 2008 it has averaged 104%. However, when looking at the 15-year pre-2008 average of 90%, munis still offer value at these levels. The steepness of the muni yield curve results in muni/Treasury ratios that are more attractive for intermediate- to longer-term bonds. Municipal bonds with maturities of 15 years or longer have been offering a yield ratio of 95% or greater.

Looking at “A” rated munis, we believe the story is even more compelling. Bonds with maturities of 10 years or greater have offered yields in excess of 100% of comparable-maturity Treasuries. Although you would expect the ratios to increase because “A” rated munis carry more credit risk and thus offer greater yields, the rolling 10-year cumulative default rate on “A” rated munis from 1970 to 2016 was just 0.07%.

And finally, the figures covered thus far have not yet grossed up muni yields by taxes. When factoring in the top tax rate of 37% plus the 3.8% Medicare tax on investment income (the Net Investment Income Tax) for a total top rate of 40.8%, “A” rated bonds across the curve yield over 100% of comparable maturity Treasuries, with longer term bonds exceeding 200%.

 

Chart 2. Municipal Tax-Equivalent Yields Remain Attractive

*”A” rated general obligation (GO) municipal bonds. ** “AAA” rated GO municipal bonds.

Source: Bloomberg.
Data as of January 24, 2018. Represents the relative value of municipal yields to Treasury yields. Tax equivalent yields shown based on highest marginal tax rate of 37%.
For illustrative purposes only and does not represent any specific portfolio managed by Lord Abbett or any particular investment. Past performance is not a reliable indicator or guarantee of future results. Performance during other periods may have been different.

 

Final Thought
We often field the question: “What will happen to municipal bonds in the face of rising rates?” While there certainly have been periods where higher Treasury rates were a headwind to returns, it might be worth reminding investors that, although rates may continue to climb higher, they have already risen significantly. On July 8, 2016, the 10-year Treasury yield closed at 1.37%. On January 24, 2018 it closed at 2.65%, an increase of 128 basis points, or 93%. An investment in the Bloomberg Barclays Municipal Bond Index on the day the 10-year hit the five-year low of 1.37% would have generated a positive return of 0.32%. Assuming we didn’t have the worst timing possible, trailing one-year and two-year returns as of January 24, 2018 were 4.2% and 2%, respectively, despite the notable increase in market yields within those time periods (see Chart 3).

 

Chart 3. Yields on Muni Bonds Have Risen Materially Since July 2016

Source: Bloomberg. 
For illustrative purposes only and does not represent any specific portfolio managed by Lord Abbett or any particular investment. Past performance is not a reliable indicator or guarantee of future results. Performance during other periods may have been different.

 

A Note about Risk: The value of an investment in fixed-income securities will change as interest rates fluctuate and in response to market movements. As interest rates fall, the prices of debt securities tend to rise. As rates rise, prices tend to fall. Investing in the bond market is subject to risks, including market, interest rate, issuer, credit, inflation risk, and liquidity risk. The municipal bond market may be impacted by unfavorable legislative or political developments and adverse changes in the financial conditions of state and municipal issuers or the federal government in case it provides financial support to the municipality. Income from the municipal bonds held could be declared taxable because of changes in tax laws. Certain sectors of the municipal bond market have special risks that can affect them more significantly than the market as a whole. Because many municipal instruments are issued to finance similar projects, conditions in these industries can significantly affect an investment. Income from municipal bonds may be subject to the alternative minimum tax. Federal, state and local taxes may apply. Investments in Puerto Rico and other U.S. territories, commonwealths, and possessions may be affected by local, state, and regional factors. These may include, for example, economic or political developments, erosion of the tax base, and the possibility of credit problems. There is no guarantee that markets will perform in a similar manner under similar conditions in the future.

This Market View may contain assumptions that are “forward-looking statements,” which are based on certain assumptions of future events. Actual events are difficult to predict and may differ from those assumed. There can be no assurance that forward-looking statements will materialize or that actual returns or results will not be materially different from those described here.

This material is provided for general and educational purposes only. The examples provided are hypothetical, are for illustrative purposes only, and are not indicative of any particular investor situation. Individual investor results will vary. Different benchmarks and economic periods will produce different results. All Indexes are unmanaged, do not reflect the deduction of fees or expenses, and are not available for direct investment. Hypothetical results are no guarantee of future results.

Glossary of Terms

Aftertax yield is the rate of return on an investment after taxes have been calculated and subtracted. Aftertax yield, as opposed to pretax yield, is generally a preferred basis for comparing investment alternatives.

A basis point is one hundredth of one percent.

A tax gross-up is a payment that’s made to increase a net amount to include deductions such as taxes that would be incurred by the receiver.

Tax-equivalent yield (TEY) is the pretax yield that a taxable bond needs to possess for its yield to be equal to that of a tax-free municipal bond. This calculation can be used to fairly compare the yield of a tax-free bond to that of a taxable bond in order to see which bond has a higher applicable yield. The yields shown are based on the highest individual marginal federal tax rate of 37%, plus the 3.8% Medicare tax on investment income. Individual tax rates may vary. They do not take into account the effects of the federal alternative minimum tax (AMT) or capital gains taxes.

Treasuries are debt securities issued by the U.S. government and secured by its full faith and credit. Income from Treasury securities is exempt from state and local taxes. Although U.S. government securities are guaranteed as to payments of interest and principal, their market prices are not guaranteed and will fluctuate in response to market movements.

Yield is the annual interest received from a bond and is typically expressed as a percentage of the bond's market price.

yield spread is the difference between yields on differing debt instruments of varying maturities, credit ratings and risk, calculated by deducting the yield of one instrument from another.

Yield to maturity is the rate of return anticipated on a bond if held until it matures. Yield to maturity assumes all the coupon payments are reinvested at an interest rate that equals the yield-to-maturity. The yield to maturity is the long-term yield expressed as an annual rate.

The Bloomberg Barclays Municipal Bond Index is a rules-based, market-value-weighted index engineered for the long-term tax-exempt bond market. The index is a broad measure of the municipal bond market with maturities of at least one year.

The Bloomberg Barclays U.S. Corporate Bond Index includes all publicly held issued, fixed-rate, nonconvertible investment-grade corporate debt. The index is composed of both U.S. and Brady bonds. 

Indexes are unmanaged, do not reflect the deduction of fees or expenses, and are not available for direct investment.

The credit quality of the securities in a portfolio is assigned by a nationally recognized statistical rating organization (NRSRO), such as Standard & Poor’s, Moody’s, or Fitch, as an indication of an issuer’s creditworthiness. Ratings range from ‘AAA’ (highest) to ‘D’ (lowest). Bonds rated ‘BBB’ or above are considered investment grade. Credit ratings ‘BB’ and below are lower-rated securities (junk bonds). High-yielding, non-investment-grade bonds (junk bonds) involve higher risks than investment grade bonds. Adverse conditions may affect the issuer’s ability to pay interest and principal on these securities.

The information provided is not directed at any investor or category of investors and is provided solely as general information about Lord Abbett’s products and services and to otherwise provide general investment education. None of the information provided should be regarded as a suggestion to engage in or refrain from any investment-related course of action as neither Lord Abbett nor its affiliates are undertaking to provide impartial investment advice, act as an impartial adviser, or give advice in a fiduciary capacity. If you are an individual retirement investor, contact your financial advisor or other fiduciary about whether any given investment idea, strategy, product or service may be appropriate for your circumstances.

The opinions in Market View are as of the date of publication, are subject to change based on subsequent developments, and may not reflect the views of the firm as a whole. The material is not intended to be relied upon as a forecast, research, or investment advice, is not a recommendation or offer to buy or sell any securities or to adopt any investment strategy, and is not intended to predict or depict the performance of any investment. Readers should not assume that investments in companies, securities, sectors, and/or markets described were or will be profitable. Investing involves risk, including possible loss of principal. This document is prepared based on the information Lord Abbett deems reliable; however, Lord Abbett does not warrant the accuracy and completeness of the information. Investors should consult with a financial advisor prior to making an investment decision.

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CONTRIBUTING STRATEGIST

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The Lord Abbett Intermediate Tax Free mutual fund seeks to deliver a high level of income exempt from federal taxation. View portfolio and performance.
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The National Tax Free Fund seeks to deliver a high level of income exempt from federal taxation by investing primarily in investment grade municipal bonds.

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