In Wreckage of Muni Market Crash, Brave Investors Eye Bonds at 90% Yields

By some measures, the municipal-bond market is full of screaming buys for anyone brave enough to wade in.

Take a note issued by New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority that’s due in about two months. It traded among securities dealers at yields as high as 11.2% on Friday and hit 90% the day before that -- an unheard of payout for securities that not long ago yielded 0.6%.

Bonds repaid with Ohio’s share of the 1998 tobacco-company settlement that changed hands for as much as 116 cents on the dollar last month are now going for around 74 cents. Even so-called pre-refunded debt -- which is virtually risk free because it’s paid off with federal government bonds that are held in an escrow account -- are yielding about 2.8%, more than triple 10-year Treasuries.

“At these levels there’s value in the market,” said Lyle Fitterer, co-head of municipal investments at Baird Advisors, who was referring to broader market conditions. “You can find some very good muni credits trading at levels you haven’t seen in a decade.”

The record-setting sell-off that raced through the market until this week has left broad wreckage in its wake, in part because of unprecedented uncertainty about how badly local governments, hospitals and public transit systems will be hurt by an economy that has virtually ground to a halt in a matter of weeks. States and cities have pleaded with the federal government for hundreds of billions of dollars in aid, showing how severe they expect the hit to be as tumbling stock prices, shuttered stores and mass layoffs cut deeply into their tax collections.

But as mutual-fund managers unloaded whatever they could to raise cash, some bonds that may have very little risk to the coronavirus shutdown tumbled as well. Even top-rated, two-year municipal debt is yielding 934% what similarly-dated Treasuries do, up from as little as 56% just in January.

Pre-refunded municipals have sold off as investors dump everything