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5 Muni Bond Trends to Make 2015 ‘Year of Transition to Active Management’

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MacKay Shields’ team of municipal managers has taken to calling 2015 “The Year of Transition to Active Management.”

As market volatility and rate uncertainty continues, the MacKay Municipal Managers believe there is a positive trend toward portfolios taking an active approach to municipal bond investing.

The MacKay Municipal Managers, co-headed by John Loffredo and Robert DiMella, released this month their annual views and insights for the municipal market.

With reportedly more than 50 years of combined experience in active management, the group has outlined the top five muni bond trends for the upcoming year.

Demand for municipals remains high

1. Demand for municipals remains high

The MacKay Municipal Managers team predicts that the demand for municipals will remain high and liquidity will improve — largely thanks to certain institutional clients, including insurance companies, continuing to add municipals to their core portfolios.

“These institutions, with varying tax profiles, will likely view municipal bonds as a compelling investment solution that offers attractive, absolute income streams,” say the municipal managers in a statement.

The MacKay Municipal Managers also believe that proprietary trading desks will resurface, as a result of favorable market conditions and regulatory developments — and, therefore, they say “liquidity will improve on the margin.”

Yield curve flattening

2. Yield curve flattening

“We expect a flattening of the yield curve to cause disruption in the market and spread widening among high-grade bonds on the short/intermediate part of the yield curve and, as a result, we believe this segment of the market should be avoided in 2015,” the managers say in a statement.

AA and AAA-rated municipal bonds pose a particular risk, as they have higher correlations to Treasury securities.

“AA and AAA-rated municipal bonds in the three- to seven-year maturity range have higher exposure to potential interest rate hikes by the Fed than most other segments of the municipal market,” according to the municipal managers. “This is due in part to the expensive nature of the high grade, short/intermediate part of the municipal market.”

Thus, the managers’ preferred portfolio structure is to focus on cushion bonds, aka high coupon/premium bonds, as a way to get defensive on rates without sacrificing income.

“We believe this will cause actively managed portfolios to outperform passive municipal bond ladders in terms of total return and current income,” they state.

New bond issuance surprises on the upside

3. New bond issuance surprises on the upside

Although the managers project new bond issuance will surpass consensus and exceed $375 billion, they also believe that net new supply will remain negative for the fifth year in a row. And accordingly, the overall municipal market will continue to shrink.

The municipal managers team attributes the net negative supply to refinancing. They say that issuers will likely take advantage of the opportunity to “advance refund higher coupon bonds, while locking in more favorable long term borrowing costs.”

New bond issuance and increased market trading will contribute to pricing transparency, according to the group.

They add that “portfolios taking an active, credit research-driven approach to municipal bond investing should further positively differentiate themselves as the true value of underlying credits materializes.”

Return of new issue monoline insurance

4. Return of new issue monoline insurance

The market continues to rediscover the benefits of bond insurance, which is why the managers expect the penetration rate of monoline insurance on the new issue market in 2015 to exceed 10% for the first time in six years.

Many clients have an underweight position to insured municipal bonds in their portfolio, largely due to the challenges that monoline insurance companies experienced in the past.

“We believe that attractive spreads and improving fundamentals, while also recognizing the relative position of select monoline insurers, including Ambac, will yield opportunities in this segment of the market,” they say.

The MacKay managers don’t expect Ambac to re-enter the primary market in 2015, but they do believe that bonds backed by its insurance policies should “continue to experience spread narrowing as various legal settlements proceed to a final resolution.”

Tobacco industry outperforms

5. Tobacco industry outperforms

The tobacco industry’s overall return will place it as one of the top-performing sectors in 2015, the managers predict — despite anticipated periods of higher volatility throughout the year.

Investors will seek to maintain yield, as the managers project an increase in municipal refinancings taking out higher coupon bonds in 2015.

MacKay Municipal Managers remain confident in certain areas of the tobacco sector as deep credit research identifies valuable bonds at an attractive price.

“[W]e anticipate that municipal bond investors will look at tobacco settlement bonds to replace income in their portfolios,” the municipal managers say.

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