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Despite fiscal woes, muni bonds' appeal stays strong

The good news in the sell-off that has clipped California tax-free municipal bond prices over the last six weeks is that the market now should be harder to shock.

So for muni investors, the report Wednesday that Sacramento already may be facing a $21-billion budget gap over the current and next fiscal years was more a firecracker than a bomb.

After rallying sharply in August and September, the California muni market has given back some of those gains since early October. Amid a flood of new bond sales by the state investors have demanded higher yields, which in turn has pushed prices of existing bonds down.

California is back in the market this week with a $1.34-billion revenue bond offering from the Public Works Board to finance infrastructure projects. Yields on those bonds will be set today.

Fi-MUNI19 All in all, though, the damage to the market from the supply glut has been relatively modest, at least for muni mutual fund investors who have the benefit of wide diversification. Case in point: The per-share net asset value of the Franklin California Tax-Free Income fund, which holds $14.2 billion of state and local debt, was $6.90 on Wednesday, a drop of 4% from the 52-week high of $7.19 on Oct. 5.

That’s unfortunate for anyone who bought near the high, but year-to-date the fund’s total return (share price gain plus interest earned) still is a hefty 15.6%. And that’s even better than it looks, given that the interest earned is exempt from state and federal income tax.

The muni market nationwide has been suffering a bout of indigestion since September, driving yields higher. But nationally and in California the market has been stabilizing over the last week or so.

Despite the dire fiscal outlooks for many state and local governments, there are three main reasons to believe that the muni market is unlikely to fall off a cliff from here and wipe out all of its recovery from the worst of the credit crunch:

--- Big investors just don’t buy the idea that actual defaults by muni issuers in 2010 will match the doomsday predictions that are out there.

"There is going to be a lot of ‘headline’ risk in the market over the next 12 to 18 months," said Chris Sperry, co-manager of the Franklin California fund. But local governments of any size know, he said, that the decision to default would make it impossible to get the basic credit they need to function. The market clearly believes that the vast majority of politicians will get out the cleaver and hack expenses further, not bond payments.

--- Muni yields still are historically high versus yields on taxable bonds. A 10-year California state general obligation bond now yields about 4.55% tax-free, compared with 3.36% for a 10-year U.S. Treasury note that is federally taxable. Muni bond yields normally are below Treasury yields.

"In order for muni yields to get a whole lot [higher] you’re going to have to see the Treasury market sell off," said John Carbone, manager of the Vanguard California Long-Term Tax-Exempt bond fund. That could happen, of course, but it probably would require the backdrop of a robust economic recovery or an inflation surge -- neither of which seems likely in the near term.

--- Many muni investors figure that tax rates at the federal, state and local levels can only go up as governments struggle to close deficits. That would boost munis’ appeal for yield-hungry investors. "Munis are going to become more attractive from a pure income standpoint," Sperry said.

Yes, he’s talking his book. But raise your hand if you think taxes are more likely to go down than up.

-- Tom Petruno

 
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