Yield in the Time of Cholera

CoyneJohn E. Coyne, III, Vice Chairman, Brinker Capital

I recently reread the Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel from the 80s, Love in the Time of Cholera, and as I found myself being warped back to that decade, it naturally led made me reflect on the current municipal bond market! I’ll explain.

Because romance is nowhere near as risky as this market is today, it is easy to see how we can fall in love with the exciting, attractive yields in the after-tax world (around 8.5% on the long end). Nevertheless, there is something to be said for stability and safety in a time of incredible uncertainty especially with continuing interest-rate increases and, even more unnerving, a frightening credit risk landscape.

The rising-rate environment of the late 70s and early 80s played havoc on both the value and purchasing power of bonds held by individual investors. So whether for income or safety of principal, the holder was punished. And the credit markets were not nearly as challenged as today. Rates topped out in 1983, and we began the 30-year bond rally that has recently unraveled. I would imagine that during that extended period, an argument can be made that a passive-laddered approach might have been acceptable as opposed to active management—particularly in the bygone days of credit insurers like MBIA and AMBAC.

8.28.13_Coyne_Yield in the time of CholeraWell, not today. If investors want to navigate the treacherous credit markets while capturing these currently attractive yields they need a steady, experienced guide to help manage their portfolio. Advisors should be working with their municipal managers to craft strategies that can balance out their needs for income, safety and maintaining purchasing power.  Now that can make for a wonderful romance.

One For The Muni

Magnotta@AmyLMagnotta, CFA, Brinker Capital

Municipal bonds have delivered very strong positive returns since Meredith Whitney famously predicted hundreds of billions in municipal defaults during a 60 Minutes interview in December 2010. Municipal bonds outperformed taxable bonds (Barclays Aggregate Index) by meaningful margins in both 2011 and 2012.

iShares S&P National AM T-Free Muni Bond Fund

Source: FactSet

Municipal bonds have benefited from a favorable technical environment. New supply over the last few years has been light, and net new supply has been even lower as municipalities have taken advantage of low interest rates to refinance existing debt. While supply has been tight, investor demand for tax-free income has been extremely strong. Investors poured over $50 billion into municipal bond funds in 2012 and added $2.5 billion in the first week of 2013 (Source: ICI). This dynamic has been driving yields lower. The interest rate on 10-year munis fell to 1.73%, the equivalent to a 2.86% taxable yield for earners in the top tax bracket. Similar maturity Treasuries yield 1.83% (Source: Bloomberg, as of 1/15). We expect new supply to be met with continued strong demand from investors.

*Excludes maturities of 13 months or less and private placements.  Source: SIFMA, JPMorgan Asset Management, as of November 2012

*Excludes maturities of 13 months or less and private placements. Source: SIFMA, JPMorgan Asset Management, as of November 2012

While technical factors have helped municipal bonds move higher, the underlying fundamentals of municipalities have also improved.  States, unlike the federal government, must by law balance their budget each fiscal year (except for Vermont).  They have had to make the tough choices and cut spending and programs.  Tax revenues have rebounded, especially in high tax states like California.  Last week California Governor Jerry Brown proposed a budget plan that would leave his state with a surplus in the next fiscal year, even after an increase in education and healthcare spending.  Stable housing prices will also help local municipalities who rely primarily on property tax revenues to operate.

While we think municipal bonds are attractive for investors with taxable assets to invest, the sector is still not without issues.  The tax-exempt status of municipal bonds survived the fiscal cliff deal unscathed, but the government could still see the sector as a potential source of revenue in the future which could weigh on the market.  Underfunded pensions – like Illinois – remain a long-term issue for state and local governments.  Puerto Rico, whose bonds are widely owned by municipal bond managers because of their triple tax exempt status, faces massive debt and significant underfunded pension liabilities and remains a credit risk that could spook the overall muni market.  As a result, in our portfolios we continue to favor active municipal bond strategies that emphasize high quality issues.

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.