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Monday, November 15, 2010

The Municipal Bond Rout

One thing I've always marveled at is just how quickly a bond market panic can materialize. Case in point, the municipal bond market rout over the past several trading days.

My favorite proxy for munis, MUB, has sold off in spectacular fashion, but this rout has not been entirely confined to munis. Treasuries have sold off too, as shown in this comparison with TLT.

Still, when you consider the generally narrower bounds in which MUB trades due to not only being long term securities, it is clear that this sell-off is more than just a turn away from government bonds generally. Now, as to the proximate cause of this panic, it is hard to say. There isn't a general financial panic like there was when muni bonds did this back in 2008.
That sell-off was caused by hedge funds desperately raising cash from whatever they could and they liquidated municipal bonds without mercy. This sell-off has been partially blamed on a large issue by California  coming to the market. I'm not so sure about that. I have a hard time buying that a $12 billion issue by California is enough to cause this mayhem. It is true that with Republicans now controlling one house of Congress that federal aid to state and local governments is unlikely to aid them as they attempt to bridge their budget gaps. Still, the election outcome was not a surprise and usually bond markets price things like that in.

The PIMCO California Municipal Income Fund (PCQ) might be making a bit of a fool of me, though. It has shown a sharper rout than munis in general and because California is such a large segment of the muni market this may make sense. However, with California now having the ability to pass budgets more easily, I'm not sure that questions about California's solvency are quite as pertinent as they used to be. Regardless, California munis have been obliterated.

Very oddly, this has been accompanied by a sell-off, not a rally, in gold. If there's one asset I would expect would do well in a rout of safe assets, it would be gold.

This bears watching and there's easy money to be made in munis if the sell-off gets out of control. Don't be so foolish as to pick up individual issues since if you happen to buy a special district's issues without understanding what revenue stream backs its payments, you can end up in a world of hurt. Those can and do default.

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