5 Factors to Consider With Taxable Munis

October 4, 2022 Cooper Howard
Recent market conditions have made taxable municipal bonds attractive for some investors, as they can offer high yields without much credit risk.

There's a small portion of the bond market that investors may have overlooked but now may want to consider—the taxable municipal bond market. 

Most munis pay interest that is exempt from federal and potentially state income taxes. However, interest on some municipal bonds is subject to both federal and state income taxes. These bonds, known as taxable municipal bonds, generally pay higher interest rates than tax-exempt munis to make up for the lack of tax benefits.

Taxable munis have been among the hardest hit fixed income asset classes this year, but we believe the sharp selloff has created opportunities. Taxable munis look attractive to us because they can offer investors higher yields without having to take on too much additional credit risk. Below are some of the primary reasons we think some investors should consider taxable munis.

1. Taxable munis offer attractive yields relative to other fixed income investments

Yields for taxable municipal bonds are attractive, in our view, compared to both corporate bonds of similar maturity and credit quality and tax-exempt munis. Since taxable munis pay interest that is subject to federal income taxes, they often have higher yields than tax-exempt municipal bonds. Today, that difference is elevated relative to its longer-term average. Taxable municipal bonds may be an attractive option for investors in lower tax brackets or for tax-sheltered accounts like an individual retirement account (IRA).

The yield difference between taxable and tax-exempt munis is above its long-term average

Line chart shows the difference between taxable and tax-exempt munis from September of 2017 to September of 2022, and includes the 5-year average. Currently the difference is above the 5-year average.

Source: Difference in yield-to-worst between the Bloomberg Municipal Bonds Intermediate-term Index and the Bloomberg Municipal Bond 7-Year Index.

As of 10/3/22. Difference in yields may be due to factors such as differences in credit quality, maturity, duration, coupon structure, or other factors. Past performance is no guarantee of future results.

In addition to being attractive relative to tax-exempt munis, highly rated taxable munis are attractive relative to highly rated corporate bonds, as illustrated in the chart below. However, as you move down to credit spectrum to A-rated and BBB-rated issuers, the yield advantage fades. It's also important to note that these yields are based on indices, and there may be differences when comparing individual bonds.

AA rated taxable munis offer a yield advantage over AA corporate bonds

Bar chart compares the yields on taxable munis and corporate bonds by rating and maturity.

Source: Bloomberg, as of 10/3/22.

Taxable munis are represented by the Bloomberg Taxable Revenue AA+, AA, AA- BVAL Curve, the Bloomberg Taxable Revenue A+, A, A- BVAL Curve, and the Bloomberg Taxable Revenue BBB+, BBB, BBB- BVAL Curve. Corporates are represented by the Bloomberg US Corporate AA+, AA, AA- BVAL Curve, the Bloomberg US Corporate A+, A, A- BVAL Curve, and the Bloomberg US Corporate BBB+, BBB, BBB- BVAL Curve. Past performance is no guarantee of future results.

2. Taxable munis are generally high in credit quality, like other munis

Another potential benefit of taxable munis is that they're generally higher in credit quality than the alternatives. For example, 78% of the taxable muni market is rated in the top two rungs of credit quality. This compares to 72% for the tax-exempt muni market and only 7% of the corporate market, as illustrated in the chart below.

Most taxable munis are very high in credit quality

Bar chart shows how, by and large, taxable munis have a higher credit rating than either tax exempt munis and corporates, with the highest being AA rated taxable munis at close to 25%.

Source: Bloomberg, as of 9/29/22.

Taxable munis are represented by the Bloomberg Taxable Municipal Bond Index. Tax-exempt munis are represented by the Bloomberg Municipal Bond Index. Corporates are represented by the Bloomberg Corporate Bond Index.

This is notable for investors because higher-rated issuers tend to default—that is, to miss an interest or principal payment—less frequently than lower-rated issuers. For example, over a five-year period ending in 2019, 0.5% of Baa rated munis defaulted, according to Moody's Investors Service. During the same period, lower-quality B rated munis defaulted 25 times more often, at a rate of 12.2%.

Moreover, municipal bond issuers, which include issuers of taxable munis, tend to default less frequently than corporate bond issuers. Looking at the Baa rated cohort, the default rate for munis was 0.5%, compared with 1.5% for corporates.

The bottom line is yields for taxable munis are higher than most taxable alternatives, yet you generally don't have to accept greater credit risk to get those higher yields.

Default rates are lower for munis compared to corporates

Bar chart comparing the default rate of global corporates and municipal bonds; the default rate for a muni, rated Caa-C is 19.0% while the identically rated global corporate's default rate is 33.7%.

Source: Moody's Investors Service, as of 4/26/2022.

However, taxable munis do have some risks. Here are three of the most prominent:

1. The relatively small size of the market

Although issuance has risen recently, the taxable muni market is much smaller than many other fixed income markets, as illustrated in the chart below. Smaller markets are generally less liquid than larger ones, like the Treasury market, which means that it can be more difficult to sell your bond if you need to. Therefore, we suggest that if you're considering taxable munis, hold them until maturity. The smaller market and lower liquidity of taxable munis is also an issue for investors in funds like exchange-traded funds (ETFs) or mutual funds.

Due partly to the size of the market there aren't many mutual funds or ETFs that invest solely in taxable municipal bonds. In fact, there is only one open-ended ETF that we know of that invests in taxable municipal bonds and doesn't use leverage. Bonds that are less liquid are generally more volatile in times of market stress.

The size of the taxable muni market can pose additional risks

Bar chart shows how the taxable muni market is the smallest market compared to the investment grade muni, investment grade corporate, and the largest, the Treasury market.

Source: Index market values of the Bloomberg Taxable Municipal Bond Index, Bloomberg Municipal Bond Index, Bloomberg Corporate Bond Index, and the Bloomberg Treasury Bond Index.

As of 10/3/22.

In addition to being a smaller market, the taxable muni market is dominated by issuers in three states. Issuers in California, Texas, and New York account for over 40% of all the taxable munis in the taxable muni market.

2. A large portion of taxable munis are from smaller issues

Nearly one-third of all taxable munis are small issues and therefore not eligible to be included in the broad taxable muni index. This is important because passive strategies like ETFs that track the benchmark will generally not invest in these smaller issues, which can reduce some diversification benefits.

3. The taxable muni index is sensitive to interest rate changes

First, the taxable muni index has a longer average duration—which makes it more sensitive to changes in interest rates—than the tax-exempt index. For investments such as ETFs or passively managed mutual funds that simply track the index, investors are taking on greater interest rate risk with taxable munis compared to tax-exempt munis. This is the main reason taxable munis have underperformed other fixed income investments this year. If rates rise more than we expect, total returns for taxable munis would likely underperform their tax-exempt counterparts even more.

What to consider now

For investors in high tax brackets, we generally don't see value in taxable munis. However, investors in lower tax brackets or those investing a tax-sheltered account like an IRA may want to consider a small allocation to taxable munis to complement their other fixed income holdings.

Schwab clients can log in to their accounts and search for individual taxable munis using the "Federally Taxable" dropdown menu under "Search by Product" on Schwab Bond Source on Schwab.com. Clients can also search for funds like ETFs or mutual funds on Schwab.com that invest primarily in taxable munis. If you need additional help, reach out to a Schwab Fixed Income Specialist for guidance in selecting the investments that are right for you.

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