Municipal Bonds—When Full Faith and Credit Falls Flat

Why we don’t invest in uninsured general obligation bonds from the state of Illinois and the city of Chicago.

Franklin Templeton Fixed Income Group

PREVIEW

Once upon a time, US municipal bonds were generally considered less risky than corporate bonds. Backed by the full faith and credit of state governments, investors had confidence they would receive their principal plus interest without fail. Times have changed. For some states and local governments, decades of financial mismanagement and massive pension liabilities are threatening to upend the full faith and credit pledge.

In this article, we explain why we don’t invest in uninsured general obligation bonds from the state of Illinois and the city of Chicago. As municipal bond analysts, assessing pension risks hinges partly on the willingness of elected officials to implement tangible pension reforms. Absent that, large pension obligations can significantly degrade budgets, credit quality and eventually impair bondholders. Here’s the good news: after excluding some local bond exposures, like Chicago’s, that still leaves well over 85% of the general municipal market available for investment. In some instances, we think essential-service revenue bonds offer more stability than general obligation bonds.

WHAT ARE THE RISKS?

All investments involve risks, including possible loss of principal. Bond prices generally move in the opposite direction of interest rates. Thus, as prices of bonds in an investment portfolio adjust to a rise in interest rates, the value of the portfolio may decline. Investments in lower-rated bonds include higher risk of default and loss of principal. Changes in the credit rating of a bond, or in the credit rating or financial strength of a bond's issuer, insurer or guarantor, may affect the bond's value. Municipal bonds are debt securities issued by state and local governments and are generally exempt from federal income tax and also from state and local taxes for residents in the state where the bond was issued. They typically offer income, rather than capital appreciation potential. Corporate bonds are issued by corporations. Bonds with lower ratings and higher credit risk (risk of default) typically offer higher interest rates to compensate investors for the higher risk associated with the investment.