Municipal Monthly

Monthly Municipal Market Update, September 2020

A brief monthly update on what's happening in the municipal bond market.

Figure 1: Market snapshot

IMPORTANT NOTICE: Please note that the following contains the opinions of the manager as of the date noted, and may not have been updated to reflect real-time market developments. All opinions are subject to change without notice.

Month in Review

Despite closing September several percentage points lower, major U.S. stock indices managed to record sizable gains in the third quarter. Meanwhile, the municipal market was characterized by a continued influx of supply. September’s $47.3 billion in new issuance marked the highest figure for the month since record keeping began in 1986.Footnote1 The increased supply boosted yields on the long end of the AAA Municipal Market Data (MMD) curve, with yields beyond eight years up by 5-6 basis points (bps). By contrast, yields inside of four years came down by 3 bps. One driver of lower yields in short-dated maturities was increased demand for short-duration funds, as market uncertainty prompted more of a risk-off sentiment. The 10-year tenor closed out September at 0.87%.Footnote2 Notably, taxable municipal debt surpassed $100 billion on the year for the first time since 2010, when the Build America Bonds program was in effect. September’s figures brought 2020 year-to-date municipal issuance to $341.8 billion, with taxable issuance accounting for $102.7 billion.Footnote3

  • The Federal Reserve expressed its commitment to leave interest rates “lower for longer” following September’s two-day policy meeting. Additionally, revisions were made to the Fed’s trigger for raising interest rates; the Fed will now require evidence of a tight labor market, inflation measures printing at or above 2%, and expectations for inflation to “moderately exceed 2% for some time.” A survey of the 17 Fed officials indicated that 13 expect interest rates to remain near zero through 2023.Footnote4
  • Two high-profile municipalities, the State of New Jersey and the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), each expressed considerations to tap into the Federal Reserve’s Municipal Liquidity Facility as a source of short-term liquidity. Such a move would mark the first time that New Jersey moved to tap the facility for borrowing needs. The NY MTA has already tapped the facility once, and additional borrowing would allow it to access the additional ~$2.9 billion made available through the program.Footnote5 Nonetheless, the MLF remains underutilized relative to other Fed facilities and continues to serve primarily as a liquidity backstop.
  • Both investment grade municipals and high yield municipals inched up slightly in September. The Bloomberg Barclays Municipal Bond Index returned 0.02% for the month, bringing its year-to-date total return to 3.33%, while the Bloomberg Barclays High Yield Municipal Bond Index gained 0.10%, bringing its year-to-date total return to 0.37%.Footnote6
  • Against the backdrop of a steepening municipal curve and a flattening Treasury curve, municipal/Treasury taxable-equivalent spreads* decreased slightly at the front end and increased modestly at the long end of the curve in September. At month-end, taxable-equivalent spreads equated to eight bps at the one-year tenor, 17 bps at the five-year tenor, 79 bps at the 10-year tenor, and 129 bps at the 30-year tenor.Footnote7
  • The secondary market was slightly more active in September than in August, with 630,000 total trades (up from 590,000) and $218 billion par traded (up from $202 billion).Footnote8

Muni technicals in focus: Muni yields stay anchored as muni investors show patience

Markets exhibited a modest risk-off tone throughout much of the month, with the ongoing pandemic, fluctuating federal stimulus prospects, and the upcoming presidential election contributing to near-term uncertainty. Although the Federal Reserve signaled that it may hold rates near zero through 2023, investors shifted to safety and the 10-year Treasury yield declined to 0.68% to close the month.Footnote9 10 Often considered a “safe haven”, municipals did not track Treasuries’ course in September. Instead, municipal yields remained largely stagnant over the month, with municipal investors generally curbing duration exposure and awaiting further market developments for clearer signs of directionality. After a relatively notable move on the last day of the month, the 10-year AAA municipal yield rose to 0.87% at month-end.Footnote11

Following last month’s negative return, the Bloomberg Barclays Municipal Bond Index delivered a slight gain of 0.02% in September.Footnote12 In line with seasonal trends, elevated new issue supply outweighed reinvestment capital over the month. Although a net ~$1.34 billion was added to municipal funds this month, 19 consecutive weeks of inflows were reversed at month-end.Footnote13 Meanwhile, on the supply front, monthly new issuance of $47.3 billion was the greatest for a September on record.Footnote14 Taxable issuance comprised $16.0 billion of this total, surpassing last September’s taxable volume by nearly 116%.Footnote15

September also brought some encouraging news about state and local finances. New research released by Brookings found that although state and local governments continue to confront significant revenue losses in fiscal years 2021 and 2022 (cumulatively just over $300 billion), the figures are less than certain earlier projections of more than $500 billion. We have seen a number of states with recent tax collections that are exceeding estimates, although many of these estimates were dialed back considerably months ago as states anticipated deep revenue shocks. While this is good news, we believe that the revenue outlook still suggests a need for additional federal stimulus in order to stave off additional austerity measures to close budget gaps.

Within higher education, preliminary data suggest undergraduate enrollment numbers were down 2.5% relative to the prior fall semester, with community-college enrollment also down sharply.Footnote16 While declines will result in revenue losses for many institutions, we believe it is important to note that the losses are not as steep as many had feared early in the pandemic when worst-case enrollment scenarios were significantly bleaker. Additionally, some institutions have not seen significant declines (public higher education, in particular, saw essentially flat enrollment trends), and we feel a portion of the losses for the sector are likely to prove temporary as many students are merely deferring enrollment until next year. We continue to believe that high-quality universities with strong endowments benefit from both ample liquidity to cushion revenue volatility and strong management teams that responded quickly during the pandemic with cost-cutting measures.

Figure 2: Municipal/Treasury aftertax* spreads

Figure 3: Month-over-month change in MMD yields (bps)

Figure 4: Market data

To learn more about investing in municipals at PIMCO, please visit pimco.com/munis



1 Aaron Weitzman, “Issuance surge continues in September with $47.28B and $342B YTD,” The Bond Buyer, 30 Sep 2020

2 Thomson Reuters TM3 MMD Interactive Data, 30 Sep 2020; Gunjan Banerji, “Stocks Finish Second Straight Quarter of Big Gains,” Wall Street Journal, 30 Sep 2020.

3 The Bond Buyer: Primary Market Statistics – A Decade of Bond Finance, 30 Sep 2020; SIFMA: US Municipal Issuance, 2 Sep 2020.

4 Nick Timiraos, “Fed Signals Low Rates Likely to Last Several Years,” Wall Street Journal, 16 Sep 2020;

5 Andrew Coen, “New Jersey ponders bond path for fiscal 2021 budget,” The Bond Buyer, 11 Sep 2020; Paul Burton, “New York MTA’s woes prompt call to max out on Fed MLF program,” The Bond Buyer, 24 Sep 2020

6 Bloomberg Barclays, 30 Sep 2020

7 Thomson Reuters TM3 MMD Interactive Data, 30 Sep 2020

8 SIFMA: US Municipal Trading, 1 Oct 2020; The Bond Buyer: Secondary Market Data, 30 Sep 2020

9 Nick Timiraos, “Fed Signals Low Rates Likely to Last Several Years,” Wall Street Journal, 16 Sep 2020

10 Thomson Reuters TM3 MMD Interactive Data, 30 September 2020

11 Ibid

12 Bloomberg Barclays Indices, 30 September 2020

13 Refinitiv Lipper, 30 September 2020

14 The Bond Buyer, “Bond Sales (Latest Month)”, 30 September 2020

15 Ibid

16 Todd Sedmak, “Undergraduate Enrollment Down 2.5% and Graduate Students Up 3.9%, Compared to Sept. 2019,” National Student Clearinghouse, 24 Sep 2020

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Disclosures

Past performance is not a guarantee or a reliable indicator of future results.

A word about risk: Investing in the bond market is subject to risks, including market, interest rate, issuer, credit, inflation risk, and liquidity risk. The value of most bonds and bond strategies are impacted by changes in interest rates. Bonds and bond strategies with longer durations tend to be more sensitive and volatile than those with shorter durations; bond prices generally fall as interest rates rise, and low interest rate environments increase this risk. Reductions in bond counterparty capacity may contribute to decreased market liquidity and increased price volatility. Bond investments may be worth more or less than the original cost when redeemed. Income from municipal bonds is exempt from federal income tax and may be subject to state and local taxes and at times the alternative minimum tax; a strategy concentrating in a single or limited number of states is subject to greater risk of adverse economic conditions and regulatory changes.

A “safe haven” is an investment that is perceived to be able to retain or increase in value during times of market volatility. Investors seek safe havens to limit their exposure to losses in the event of market turbulence. All investments contain risk and may lose value.

References to specific securities and their issuers are not intended and should not be interpreted as recommendations to purchase, sell or hold such securities. PIMCO products and strategies may or may not include the securities referenced and, if such securities are included, no representation is being made that such securities will continue to be included.

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Monthly Municipal Market Update, September 2020
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