“Munis” Can Still Work for You - Even in Tough Times

July 15, 2011
Financial Focus

By Mike Kelley

No matter where you live, the chances are good that a state or local government near you may be having some difficulty in balancing its budget. As a citizen, you’re probably concerned about how this situation will affect your life and your community. But as an investor, you may also wonder how this might affect any municipal bonds you own. Fortunately, the outlook might be brighter than you think.

Of course, taken to the extreme, the financial challenges of some state and local governments could conceivably affect their ability to fulfill the payment obligations on their municipal bonds. But investment-grade quality municipal bond default rates historically have been very low, especially when compared to those of corporate bonds. And municipalities are cutting spending, eliminating nonessential programs and, in some cases, raising taxes or fees. In short, they are taking steps that, while potentially painful to residents, are likely to help them continue making timely payments of interest and principal on their municipal bond obligations. Furthermore, municipalities must still fund various projects, and even one bond payment default could impact their future ability to borrow money in the form of new municipal bonds.  

So are munis right for you? The answer depends on your situation — your goals, need for investment income, current investment mix, risk tolerance and so on. But if you want to receive interest payments that are exempt from federal taxes, you may well be interested in exploring municipal bonds. Keep in mind, though, that municipal bonds may be subject to state and local taxes and the alternative minimum tax (AMT).

In addition, you’ll want to be familiar with “taxable-equivalent yield.” Typically, municipal bonds pay an interest rate that’s lower than those paid by taxable bonds. Since this interest is free from federal taxes, however, the rate may not be as low as it appears. The taxable-equivalent yield measures the rate you’d have to earn on a taxable bond to match the income from a tax-exempt municipal bond. And the higher your tax bracket, the higher your taxable-equivalent yield.

Suppose that you’re in the 35% marginal tax bracket, and you are considering a tax-exempt municipal bond with a 3.33% yield. You simply divide 3.33% (0.0333 in decimal form) by 1 minus 0.35 (your tax bracket), which would give you 0.0512, or 5.12%. In this tax bracket, a muni with a 3.33% yield is equivalent to a taxable bond with a 5.12% yield. (This example is for illustration purposes only.)

Keep in mind that, before investing in bonds, you should understand the risks involved, including interest rate risk, credit risk and market risk. Bond investments are subject to interest rate risk such that when interest rates rise, the prices of bonds can decrease, and you can lose principal value if the investment is sold prior to maturity. So it’s best to discuss municipal bonds with your financial and tax advisors.  

By adding quality municipal bonds to your portfolio, you can show faith in your municipality, your investment dollars can help support worthwhile projects in your area, and you receive a steady source of tax-exempt income.

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