The active/passive debate frequently focuses on equities, where active approaches have historically underperformed passive strategies. The story is decidedly different in the world of fixed income, where active managers can more easily exploit mispricing and other inefficiencies. In this Q&A, product strategists Daniel Noonan, Avi Sharon, and Alan Trice discuss the advantages of active muni bond investing.

Q: In recent years, billions of dollars have flooded into low-cost, passive MUNICIPAL BOND exchange-traded funds (ETFs). Why should investors consider active fixed income strategies?

A: The active/passive debate typically centers on the underperformance of active equity managers relative to passive peers. But the narrative is decidedly different in the world of fixed income – including municipal bonds – where median active funds have outperformed their benchmarks and passive peers the majority of the time. According to Morningstar, over the past 10 years ended 30 June 2021 more than 70% of active bonds fund beat their benchmarks while less than 40% of active equity beat their benchmarks. We believe the potential to generate alpha in municipal bond funds is especially promising today for securities rated BBB or non-investment-grade – investments exchange-traded funds (ETFs) often overlook.

Q: What are the challenges of tracking fixed income benchmarks?

A: While many equity indices reflect market capitalization, most fixed income indices are debt-cap-weighted. The most indebted issuers – frequently in the largest and most indebted states – have the greatest index weights. That’s not a compelling investment strategy, in our view. Moreover, unlike equity indices, fixed income benchmarks include tens of thousands of individual CUSIPs (security identifiers), making replication far more difficult. In fact, passive fixed income strategies typically track a smaller subset of the largest and most liquid bonds, which may leave gaps that skilled active managers can exploit.

Q: But wouldn’t many muni investors want to invest in the largest bonds?

A: Not necessarily. California and New York account for about 33% of the Bloomberg Municipal Bond Index, and they have a similar weight in other national indices. But those states’ high tax rates make them more valuable for in-state investors and less attractive for national investors. All else equal, we would expect bonds issued in high-tax states to have lower yields, and for that reason we tend to underweight them in PIMCO portfolios. Of course, while securities in these states may still provide value, it doesn’t make sense to own them blindly. That’s where the expertise of an active manager can come into play.

Q: What inherent inefficiencies in muni markets make active management compelling?

A: Several factors make the municipal market inefficient:

The municipal market has a large diversity of issuers, including 50,000-plus issuers and more than a million CUSIPs, all traded over-the-counter, rather than on a centralized exchange.

The dominance of retail investors in muni markets generally leads to a relative lack of institutional research and high transaction costs. What’s more, municipalities are not subject to standardized accounting procedures, forward-looking guidance, or even timely, audited financial statements.

Many bonds have complex structures and unique tax treatment – which may include tax-exempt, double and triple tax-exempt, taxable, and AMT (alternative minimum tax) bonds.

All these factors make the case for professional active bond managers – at least those with significant resources and expertise.

Q: How could an active bond manager exploit these inefficiencies?

A: Active managers understand the nuances of the fixed income market and can seek to avoid the pitfalls of passive indices. Consider that bonds of small issuers tend to have less demand, leading them to trade with higher yields, whereas bonds from larger issuers often attract greater demand, leading to lower yields, even if risk characteristics are similar. Active managers can buy these higher-yielding bonds that passive strategies typically avoid because they’re not part of the indices they track.

Q: Should investors consider alternative minimum tax (AMT) bonds and taxable munis?

A: Private activity bonds, otherwise known as AMT bonds, are federally tax exempt, unless an investor is subject to the alternative minimum tax (AMT), in which case they are taxed at the full federal rate. Many mutual funds and ETFs are advertised as “AMT-free” to attract what had historically been a large universe of municipal investors subject to the AMT. The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017, however, all but eliminated the AMT, effectively making AMT bonds exempt from federal taxes for almost all municipal investors. However, given “AMT-free” funds are still unable to purchase AMT bonds, demand has not materially increased and investors can still pick up attractive yield frequently in AMT securities.

We sometimes see similar opportunities in taxable munis. Occasionally, yields on taxable munis are higher after tax than they are for the exact same issuance in the tax-exempt market. It may benefit portfolios to have flexibility to buy the bond with the higher after-tax yield. Similarly, even for residents of high-tax states like California and New York, we frequently find better after-tax yields by investing nationally, despite foregoing state tax exemptions.

Q: Why is liquidity important for municipal investors?

A: Liquidity mismatches arise when the daily liquidity offered by ETFs and mutual funds doesn’t match the underlying securities held in these funds. Since the global financial crisis in 2008–2009, the portion of the U.S. muni market held in daily liquidity vehicles has increased by nearly 300%, while inventories held by broker-dealers – the market’s liquidity providers – have fallen by about 85%, according to Federal Reserve data as of 31 March 2021. When the market experiences outflow cycles, this liquidity mismatch can cause sudden increases in yields, as nontraditional municipal investors need to be incentivized to provide liquidity.

We have seen passive high yield muni ETFs get battered during outflow cycles, so investors should be thoughtful about how they assume risk. These outflow cycles can present attractive opportunities to buyers, but be very painful to sellers. This mismatch has to be managed prudently, and we believe liquidity management is incredibly important for municipal investors.

Q: What is the typical credit risk profile for municipal bonds? Do they rarely default?

A: It’s true that munis historically enjoy very low default rates. That’s reflected in the makeup of municipal fixed income indices, which tend to be concentrated in bonds rated AA and AAA. While passive, index-tracking funds tend to have high credit quality, quality comes at the expense of yield. We believe well-resourced active managers can take advantage of opportunities down the credit spectrum in an effort to enhance returns.

Q: What is the overall strategy of PIMCO’s new muni ETF?

A: Put simply, we are trying to exploit inefficiencies in the municipal market by broadening our opportunity set beyond that of most ETF managers. PIMCO Municipal Income Opportunities ETF (MINO) seeks to generate current income and capital appreciation while prudently managing liquidity in an effort to avoid risks that we believe high yield ETF offerings currently pose. To do so, we deploy PIMCO’s time-tested active, approach, reorienting the portfolio into portions of the market where we see the most value. By investing up to 30% in sub-investment-grade credits, as well as above-benchmark allocations to bonds rated BBB, we believe the fund will offer a compelling and unique risk-reward profile in the municipal ETF landscape.



1Source: Morningstar as of 30 June 2021
As of 30 June 2021; Source Morningstar Direct. Past performance is not a guarantee nor a reliable indicator of future performance. Averages are based on the five largest Morningstar fixed income and equity categories, based on Morningstar U.S. Fund categories (institutional shares only).

The Author

Avi Sharon

Product Strategist

D. Alan Trice

Municipal Fixed Income Strategist

Related

Related Funds

Disclosures

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

Source: Morningstar as of 30 June 2021

As of 30 June 2021; Source Morningstar Direct. Past performance is not a guarantee nor a reliable indicator of future performance. Averages are based on the five largest Morningstar fixed income and equity categories, based on Morningstar U.S. Fund categories (institutional shares only).

Investors should consider the investment objectives, risks, charges and expenses of the funds carefully before investing. This and other information are contained in the Fund’s prospectus, which may be obtained by contacting your PIMCO representative. Please read the prospectus carefully before you invest.

Investments made by the Fund and the results achieved by the Fund are not expected to be the same as those made by any other PIMCO-advised fund, including those with a similar name, investment objective or policies. A new or smaller fund’s performance may not represent how the fund is expected to or may perform in the long-term. New funds have limited operating histories for investors to evaluate and new and smaller funds may not attract sufficient assets to achieve investment and trading efficiencies. New and smaller funds may also require a period of time before they are invested in securities that help meet their investment objectives and policies and achieve a representative portfolio composition. Fund performance may be lower or higher during this “ramp up” period and may also be more volatile than a fund that is fully invested.

Exchange Traded Funds (“ETF”) are afforded certain exemptions from the Investment Company Act. The exemptions allow, among other things, for individual shares to trade on the secondary market. Individual shares cannot be directly purchased from or redeemed by the ETF. Purchases and redemptions directly with ETFs are only accomplished through creation unit aggregations or “baskets” of shares. Shares of an ETF, traded on the secondary market, are bought and sold at market price (not NAV). Brokerage commissions will reduce returns. Investment policies, management fees and other information can be found in the individual ETF’s prospectus. Buying or selling ETF shares on an exchange may require the payment of fees, such as brokerage commissions, and other fees to financial intermediaries. In addition, an investor may incur costs attributed to the difference between the highest price a buyer is willing to pay to purchase shares of the Fund (bid) and the lowest price a seller is willing to accept for shares of the Fund (ask) when buying or selling shares in the secondary market (the bid-ask spread). Due to the costs inherent in buying or selling Fund shares, frequent trading may detract significantly from investment returns. Investment in Fund shares may not be advisable for investors who expect to engage in frequent trading. Current holdings are subject to risk. Holdings are subject to change at any time. An investment in an ETF involves risk, including the loss of principal. Investment return, price, yield and Net Asset Value (NAV) will fluctuate with changes in market conditions. Investments may be worth more or less than the original cost when redeemed. ETF shares may be bought or sold throughout the day at their market price on the exchange on which they are listed. However, there can be no guarantee that an active trading market for PIMCO ETF shares will develop or be maintained, or that their listing will continue or remain unchanged. Premium/Discount is the difference between the market price and NAV expressed as a percentage of NAV.

A word about risk: Investing in the bond market is subject to certain risks including the risk that fixed income securities will decline in value because of changes in interest rates; the risk that fund shares could trade at prices other than the net asset value; and the risk that the manager’s investment decisions might not produce the desired results. High-yield, lower-rated, securities involve greater risk than higher-rated securities; portfolios that invest in them may be subject to greater levels of credit and liquidity risk than portfolios that do not. 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. Derivatives may involve certain costs and risks such as liquidity, interest rate, market, credit, management and the risk that a position could not be closed when most advantageous. Investing in derivatives could lose more than the amount invested. Management risk is the risk that the investment techniques and risk analyses applied by an investment manager will not produce the desired results, and that certain policies or developments may affect the investment techniques available to the manager in connection with managing the strategy.

The credit quality of a particular security or group of securities does not ensure the stability or safety of an overall portfolio. The quality ratings of individual issues/issuers are provided to indicate the credit-worthiness of such issues/issuer and generally range from AAA, Aaa, or AAA (highest) to D, C, or D (lowest) for S&P, Moody’s, and Fitch respectively.

PIMCO does not provide legal or tax advice. Please consult your tax and/or legal counsel for specific tax or legal questions and concerns. The discussion herein is general in nature and is provided for informational purposes only. There is no guarantee as to its accuracy or completeness.

Statements concerning financial market trends or portfolio strategies are based on current market conditions, which will fluctuate. There is no guarantee that these investment strategies will work under all market conditions or are appropriate for all investors and each investor should evaluate their ability to invest for the long term, especially during periods of downturn in the market. Outlook and strategies are subject to change without notice.

This material contains the current opinions of the manager and such opinions are subject to change without notice. This material has been distributed for informational purposes only and should not be considered as investment advice or a recommendation of any particular security, strategy or investment product. Information contained herein has been obtained from sources believed to be reliable, but not guaranteed. No part of this article may be reproduced in any form, or referred to in any other publication, without express written permission. PIMCO is a trademark of Allianz Asset Management of America L.P. in the United States and throughout the world. ©2021, PIMCO.

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Munis in Focus: 2020 Municipal Market Outlook  – PIMCO
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