Fund manager tells shaken municipal bond investors what they should do next.
The past year has meant a wild ride for investors in municipal bond funds. Between September 2015 and this past October, municipal bond funds had 54 straight weeks of inflows, with investors pouring some $68 billion into them. Muni fund owners were rewarded handsomely: In the first six months of 2016, the BlackRock Strategic Municipal Opportunities fund returned 4.7 percent, for example. The 10-year yield on the AP Municipal Bond index, which moves inversely to bond prices, hit a low of 1.69 percent in July. Then the bear came out roaring. In early October, the flow of dollars into muni funds stalled as bets increased that the Federal Reserve would raise interest rates late this year. Selling accelerated after Donald Trump’s victory on expectations that his plans to boost economic growth would hurt the price of bonds. In November alone, investors yanked over $10 billion from muni funds, according to the Investment Company Institute. BlackRock’s Strategic Municipal Opportunities fund fell 4.4 percent.
Peter Hayes, co-manager of the $4.7 billion BlackRock Strategic Municipal Opportunities fund, recently talked about how investors can best navigate the current uncertainties. Answers have been edited for length and clarity.
Q: Muni bonds have just undergone an intense sell-off. Do you think it has gone too far? A: Well, every big sell-off winds up being a good long-term buying opportunity, at some point. It’s a question of finding the right entry point.
This sell-off has been so dramatic that it created value in a short amount of time. Municipal bonds are yielding more than Treasurys right now, and last week we began to see some stabilization of the market.
But given the headwinds, I’m not sure we are completely out of the woods yet.
Q: Which headwinds worry you the most?
A: Interest rates continue to be a concern. If rates go higher, that will scare investors from long-term assets.
Q: With all the talk of tax reform, some have wondered if the municipal tax exception could be at risk.
A: We emphatically don’t believe that we will lose the muni tax exemption. Q: Sounds like taxes are a wildcard.
But it does seem likely that Presidentelect Trump will try to boost infrastructure spending. How do you think that will impact the muni market?
A: The initial reaction to the infrastructure proposals was that it would be negative, because it would mean more issuance in the muni market.
But if you really look at the Republican proposals, they’re talking about an infrastructure bank and private tax credits.
Q: So what’s the best strategy for investors right now?
A: If you already own munis, don’t sell. If you need a bit of income and want to take a position, shorter-term bonds look cheap. Because the correction has been so large, those looking for more income might want to put a portion of their money in the 10- to 15-year part of the curve.