The Name is Bond, Muncipal Bond

Magnotta@AmyMagnotta, CFA, Senior Investment Manager, Brinker Capital

As interest rates have moved higher over the last six weeks, municipal bonds have sold off along with other fixed income sectors, but to a slightly greater degree. From May 1 through June 17, the Barclays Municipal Bond Index declined -2.25%, compared to -1.98% for the Barclays Aggregate Index and -1.72% for the Barclays Treasury Index. While municipals are still in negative territory year to date, they are slightly ahead of taxable bonds.

6.19.13_Magnotta_InterestRatesBoth the technicals and the fundamentals in the municipal bond market remain on solid footing. From a technical perspective, supply and demand dynamics are favorable. New issuance isn’t keeping up with maturing debt, resulting in a reduction in total outstanding supply. With 10-year municipal bonds now yielding 2.4% and 30-year maturities yielding above 4%, we will likely see buyers step back into the market. The muni/Treasury ratio is north of 100%. In addition, June and July are typically large months for reinvestments, potentially creating more demand for municipals.

On the fundamental side, state and local government finances have improved. State revenues are back to pre-2008 levels across the board and are expected to increase. Local governments, which source their revenues primarily from property tax receipts, have received a boost from stabilizing home prices. Most states have taken steps to address their longer-term entitlement program and pension issues in some form. While credit is improving generally, there are still areas of concern. Headlines surrounding Detroit, MI, Stockton, CA and Puerto Rico could negatively impact the municipal bond market, but we do not see a concern regarding widespread municipal defaults.

The backup in interest rates has resulted in significant outflows from both taxable and municipal bond mutual funds over the last two weeks. ICI reports that municipal bond funds experienced $2.2 billion in outflows the week ending June 5 and $3.2 billion in outflows the week ending June 12. The recent sell-off could provide an opportunity for municipal bond investors, especially those focused on higher quality intermediate and longer-term bonds where valuations are attractive.

The State of Municipal Bonds

 Amy Magnotta, Brinker Capital

In December 2010, analyst Meredith Whitney made a prediction of hundreds of billions of defaults in the municipal bond market. While we have experienced defaults, we have not yet seen anything close to the magnitude of that statement. Prior to that statement, in October of that same year, Brinker Capital released a paper that discussed our positive view on the municipal bond market due to technical factors and improving municipal credit. Because we invest in municipal bond managers with strong, deep credit research teams and a focus on high quality issues and structures, we encouraged our investors to remain invested in municipal bonds. Investors have been handsomely rewarded with close to 20% cumulative returns in municipal bonds since they bottomed in January 2011.

The financial health of municipalities is again hitting the headlines. Moody’s has warned of more problems for California cities after San Bernardino, Mammoth Lakes and Stockton have each sought bankruptcy protection. Scranton, Pennsylvania, which made the news after the mayor cut the pay of all city employees to minimum wage this July, is now seeking help from hedge funds in an effort to delay a bankruptcy. Even Puerto Rico municipal bonds, widely held by municipal bond strategies because of their attractive yields, are being seen as a greater credit risk.

We don’t believe the headlines are representative of the broader municipal bond market. There are more than 50,000 municipalities across the country, each with their individual issues. This makes municipal credit research in this environment extremely important, especially without the fallback of bond insurance. A positive corollary of these types of headlines is that it forces change. Many state and local governments have made the necessary changes to their budgets to set them on a sustainable path, but many still have more to go. Often, the largest owners of a municipality’s bonds are their own constituents – they need to maintain a good relationship with these investors in order to access financing in the future.

We feel the technical factors in the municipal bond market remain positive. Demand is very strong. While supply has been higher in recent years, most of it is refinancing, so net new supply remains at low levels. The budgets of state governments continue to improve while local governments remain under pressure. Rates are low, offering the opportunity for refinancing. The fights over pension and healthcare benefits for public workers will continue, but these issues do not present an immediate cash flow problem. However, this is a broad characterization of the municipal bond market. We will continue to invest with managers that have deep credit research teams and focus on high quality issues, seeking to avoid the problem issues as a result.

Municipal Market Update by Dan Genter, RNC Genter Capital Management

The city of Stockton, CA has decided that it will file for bankruptcy protection under Chapter 9 of the Federal Bankruptcy Code. This announcement is likely to be a national news item that may catch the eye of many investors.

This call to bankruptcy was anticipated considering that Stockton had already defaulted on its debt and, for the last 90 days, had been in a mandatory mediation period in an attempt to negotiate concessions in labor costs and benefits, which are currently almost 70% of the city’s general fund. We do not believe this headline will be considered unexpected or that it will have a negative impact on the municipal bond market.

We also do not consider that this is the start of an epidemic among municipal entities to use default or bankruptcy strategies. Though there may be more smaller entities that will use this option going forward, we view this as more of a politically expedient approach versus a viable solution, which will generally be adopted by municipalities under financial stress.

Frankly, it is hard to understand after the Vallejo, CA experience that a municipal entity nearby would even consider the bankruptcy route. Vallejo spent many months initially having the bankruptcy proceeding approved (it is not as automatic as with corporations), spent three years in bankruptcy proceedings, spent $10 million in legal fees, and almost a year, after emerging from bankruptcy, is still struggling to meet the mandates that were dictated by the bankruptcy court. Considering that their tainted reputation has now effectively barred them from the capital markets, and that the ultimate concessions that they received in bankruptcy mirrored what likely would have been accomplished through diligent negotiations, they clearly have not established an attractive road map for others to follow.

It does reaffirm, however, that smaller municipal entities continue to be under stress and that clients should be very cautious in stretching for yield.