Fiscal antics of the Governator and California state legislature aside, municipal bonds have a well earned reputation for being plain vanilla investments purchased by plain vanilla investors to achieve plain vanilla returns. Add in the fact that their interest is exempt from federal income tax, state income tax for in-state residents, and sometimes the alternative minimum tax, and it’s small wonder that investors have been devouring them since the start of 2009.
There were eight new muni bond ETFs that began trading in the first two months of 2010, according to Investment Company Institute data, more than any other ETF category, making a total of 28 funds. Muni ETF assets have surged 153% since January, 2009.
Muni bond ETFs offer investors the same benefits of muni bond mutual funds–broad diversification, monthly distributions, specific portfolios for high-tax states like New York and California, and a choice of duration at a lower cost. Most muni bond ETFs charge about 0.3% in annual fees, while the average muni bond mutual fund charges about 1%.
Six ETF sponsors–BlackRock’s iShares, State Street’s SPDRs, Van Eck’s Market Vectors, Allianz’s PIMCO, Grail Advisors and Invesco’s PowerShares–offer muni bond ETFs. The three funds offered by PIMCO and the Grail Fund are actively managed, while the other funds track an index. PowerShares, iShares and State Street offer funds that invest in muni bonds from all over the United States, known as “national” funds, as well as funds designed specifically for California and New York residents, which have high state income-tax rates. Of these funds, iShares S&P National AMT-Free Municipal Bond Fund (MUB) is by far the largest, with about $1.8 billion in assets. The fund’s last dividend payment was equivalent to a 3.75% annual yield.
Market Vectors offers long-, short- and intermediate-term funds, while SPDR and iShares each have short-term muni bond ETFs. Short-term funds currently yield about 1%, while the Market Vectors intermediate-term fund (ITM) currently yields about 3.5% and the long-term fund (MLN) about 4.6%. For those who want a more specific duration, iShares has six different “fixed end date” muni bond ETFs with maturities every year from 2012 to 2017. Those funds hold only securities that mature in the specified year and they liquidate when the last holding matures.
There are several specialty muni bond ETFs as well. Investors who can tolerate an extra degree of risk might consider the Market Vectors High Yield Municipal ETF (HYD), which invests in the highest yielding muni bonds available. This $156 million fund includes many investment grade issues, with the average credit quality of its holdings just below investment grade at BBB-. About 22% of its holdings were issued by the health and hospitals industry, and about one quarter comes from California or New York. Some 40% of its holdings have maturities of 20 years or longer.