James Colby has more than 30 years of fixed income experience. Portfolio Manager of Municipal Bond ETFs at VanEck, he is known for his perspective on the U.S. municipal bond marketplace.
VanEck, as the sponsor of VanEck Vectors municipal bond exchange-traded funds (ETFs), naturally has serious concerns following the filing of the petition by the City of Detroit seeking protection under Chapter 9 of the bankruptcy code. What implications do I think are to be drawn? I believe it does mean an immediate adjustment to the valuations of securities issued by the City of Detroit and its instrumentalities. The potential diminution of those values may have an impact upon some investors’ personal as well as large institutional portfolios, to varying degrees. VanEck Vectors’ municipal bond ETFs seek to track indices constructed with a rigorous rules-based structure. The City of Detroit and some of its instrumentalities are, because of their prior creditworthiness and presence as large issuers of municipal bonds, included in these indices and, hence, are present in several of the ETFs (HYD, MLN, ITM and SMB). The following table displays exposure of VanEck Vectors municipal bond ETFs to City of Detroit municipal bonds versus each ETF’s underlying index. As of yesterday (July 18), prior to the Chapter 9 filing, these issues were appropriate holdings, in my view. If the ratings agencies were to adjust the credit ratings of these issuers, many holdings may no longer be eligible for inclusion in the ETFs’ underlying indices. Such is the rules-based approach of index funds and, in particular, of ETFs. If removed from the index, and as the market allows, those securities may be removed from the ETFs.
City of Detroit Municipal Bond Exposure (% of Portfolio)
As of June 30, 2013
Source: VanEck. 1Indices are as follows, HYD: Barclays Municipal Custom High Yield Composite Index; MLN: Barclays AMT-Free Long Continuous Municipal Index; ITM: Barclays AMT-Free Intermediate Continuous Municipal Index; SMB: Barclays AMT-Free Short Continuous Municipal Index. See below for index descriptions.
To be clear, I believe filing for bankruptcy by a municipality is not an end. Nor do I believe it necessarily means mass firings, closing of offices and shuttering of municipal services (e.g., police, fire, water, sewer and electric). It does mean, in my view, that there may now be a process, overseen and directed by a judge, to stop the clock on expenses to seek to redress the massive imbalance of revenues and obligations. I feel that Detroit may continue to function day-to-day as a going concern, relieved temporarily from some of the burden of payments. Assuming the bankruptcy court accepts and approves the Chapter 9 filing, I would expect the court to begin directing payments as needed. [NOTE: The outcome of the bankruptcy and legal proceedings are uncertain and there is no guarantee of payment.]The critical element underpinning this event, in my view, also fundamentally sets the foundation for the majority of all financings done in the municipal bond market. That is, of a "moral obligation" on the part of the issuer of bonds to promise to set the "full faith and credit" and taxing power of that entity ahead of other debts in order to repay the owners of those bonds. The state-appointed emergency manager of the City of Detroit has already made representations that he, and the State, may be willing to break that foundation in its effort to save Detroit and put it back on the path to financial solvency. What is of concern to me here, and has been voiced by analysts and portfolio managers alike, is that the path chosen for Detroit may likely set a precedent for other struggling cities and communities that undermines the totality of municipal finance. Should that occur, I believe there would be damage done to untold numbers of portfolios as confidence may disappear and valuations may potentially drop.
I believe the process, to be sure, will not please everyone and pain will likely be borne. But I urge caution with regards to any precedent-breaking measures that leave a nearly $3.7 trillion municipal bond industry looking worse than Detroit in its darkest day.
Barclays Municipal Custom High Yield Composite Index is calculated using a market value weighting methodology and it tracks the high-yield municipal bond market with a 75% weight in non investment-grade municipal bonds and a 25% weight in Baa/BBB-rated investment-grade municipal bonds for liquidity and balance. Barclays AMT-Free Long Continuous Municipal Index is a market value weighted index designed to replicate the price movements of long-duration bonds with a nominal maturity of 17 years or more. Barclays AMT-Free Intermediate Continuous Municipal Index is a market value weighted index designed to replicate the price movements of medium-duration bonds with a nominal maturity of 6-17 years. Barclays AMT-Free Short Continuous Municipal Index is a market value weighted index designed to replicate the price movements of short-duration bonds with a nominal maturity of 1-6 years.
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All indices listed are unmanaged indices and do not reflect the payment of transaction costs, advisory fees or expenses that are associated with an investment in a fund. An index’s performance is not illustrative of a fund’s performance. Indices are not securities in which investments can be made.
Any discussion of specific securities mentioned in the commentary is neither an offer to sell nor a solicitation to buy these securities.
Municipal bonds are subject to risks related to litigation, legislation, political change, conditions in underlying sectors or in local business communities and economies, bankruptcy or other changes in the issuer’s financial condition, and/or the discontinuance of taxes supporting the project or assets or the inability to collect revenues for the project or from the assets. Bonds and bond funds will decrease in value as interest rates rise. Additional risks include credit, interest rate, call, reinvestment, tax, market and lease obligation risk. High-yield municipal bonds are subject to greater risk of loss of income and principal than higher-rated securities, and are likely to be more sensitive to adverse economic changes or individual municipal developments than those of higher-rated securities. Municipal bonds may be less liquid than taxable bonds.
The income generated from some types of municipal bonds may be subject to state and local taxes as well as to federal taxes on capital gains and may also be subject to alternative minimum tax.
Diversification does not assure a profit or protect against loss.
Investing involves substantial risk and high volatility, including possible loss of principal. Bonds and bond funds will decrease in value as interest rates rise. An investor should consider the investment objective, risks, charges and expenses of a fund carefully before investing. To obtain a prospectus and summary prospectus, which contain this and other information, call 800.826.2333 or visit vaneck.com/etfs. Please read the prospectus and summary prospectus carefully before investing.
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