Let’s take a look at how the municipal bond market performed last year and what’s in store for 2023 and beyond.
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Municipal bonds lost about 8.5% of their value over the past year, marking their worst performance since 1981. While that’s better than the S&P 500’s 18% drop and the 12% decline in Treasuries, it’s a substantial drop for an asset class known for its even-keeled performance.
The drop came after the Federal Reserve pushed interest rates to their highest levels since the 2008 financial crisis. In response to rising interest rates, fund managers sold bonds and exacerbated the price decline, creating significant discounts across the market.
At the same time, fewer issuers sold new muni bonds in 2022. According to Refinitiv data, total issuances fell about 22%, although most of the decline came from a roughly 50% drop in refinancings. And higher interest rates suggest new issuances will continue to be sluggish in 2023.
Currently, interest rates stand at a 425-450 basis point range following the December meeting. And according to the CME FedWatch, interest rates have a nearly 75% chance of hitting a 475-500 basis point range by March and a more than 25% chance of rising to a 500-525 range in May.
Government finances also look shaky going into 2023. For example, a recession could hurt tax collection, and hard-hit state and local pension funds could drain working capital. And a Citigroup report suggests downgrades will exceed upgrades in 2023.
That said, historic drops in the muni bond market saw significant rebounds during the following years. For example, robust 40% gains followed the 10% correction in 1981. But, of course, as all investors know, past performance is no guarantee of future results.
The apparent economic slowdown in 2023 means investors should seek higher quality issues in stable sectors, such as general obligation bonds, water and sewer, and transportation-related revenue bonds, according to Commerce Trust’s Brian Musielak, CFA.
Investors may want to look at tax-equivalent yields to find opportunities when looking for bonds in these areas. For instance, long-dated muni bonds offer substantially higher tax-equivalent yields to Treasuries. And they may even be attractive alternatives to some corporate bonds.
Finally, it’s worth noting muni bonds could provide valuable diversification. In particular, they could help hedge against a decline in equity markets, which could become increasingly likely with the odds of a recession on the rise over the coming months.
Don’t forget to check our Muni Bond Screener.
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