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High Yield Municipal Bonds Hold Strong Despite Defaults

August 13, 2021

Read Time 2 MIN


The high yield municipal market’s resiliency passed its latest test in the COVID-19 pandemic. While default rates were elevated in 2020 and so far in 2021, a closer look offers a more encouraging picture.

Most municipal borrowers began to feel a financial impact from the Coronavirus by the second and third quarters of 2020. At the time, municipal investors were told to brace themselves for an unprecedented number of defaults across all sectors. Once the dust settled, the municipal bond space in 2020 saw 83 new defaults, quite a bit higher than the five-year average of 58, but not the calamity that was expected. This 43% increase, or 25 more defaults, totaled $3.3 billion1.

While default rates increased in several sectors, the healthcare sector is responsible for most of the spike, doubling its five-year average. The healthcare sector is known as one of the riskiest sectors historically, mainly due to the senior-living sub-category, which includes nursing homes, assisting living facilities, and continuing care retirement communities. This category was directly impacted by the pandemic and hit harder than any other municipal sector. The nation saw occupancy levels fall, broken supply-chains, and a loss of employees, which devastated them financially.

Looking at the first seven months of 2021, we see that defaults in every sector, with one exception, have plummeted, and appear primed to settle in at levels similar to pre-pandemic times. However, senior-living facilities continue to struggle. So far in 2021, 25 senior living bonds have defaulted, compared to 30 in all of 2020 and 12 in 2019.

The concentration of defaults in one sector affirms our belief in the strength of high yield municipal bonds overall. The shock to the system did not result in widespread staggering defaults, but instead targeted borrowers most vulnerable to a sudden health-event shift. It is no surprise that the sector most directly impacted by the Coronavirus continues to struggle through instability. However, the size and brevity of the disruption in the remaining sectors speaks to the continued strength of high yield municipal bonds.

Healthcare Defaults Are Growing in Number and %

Healthcare Defaults are Growing in Number and %

* First seven months of 2021

Source: All data and information, Municipal Market Analytics, Inc. (MMA). As of 7/31/2021.


Source Municipal Market Analytics, Inc. (MMA). As of 7/31/2021.

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