Municipal Bond Outlook: Looking Brighter after 2023 Rollercoaster

  1. Rates rode quite a roller coaster last year as the Fed aggressively hiked rates. How did the municipal market react to the rate volatility?

2023 was quite a ride for the municipal bond market – one that produced a positive annual return despite significant momentum swings from quarter to quarter.i While rates peaked in October, dovish Fed messaging in December sparked another rally as investors priced in an approaching end to the Fed’s tightening cycle. During the December move, Treasury yields fell more than 100 basis points from their peak and municipals rallied even more strongly. The rate relief helped produce positive annual returns for the Bloomberg Municipal Bond Index, which climbed back into the black after the longest stretch of cumulative negative returns (42 months) since its inception in 1980.ii The rate market selloff also provided an opportunity for actively managed portfolios seeking to harvest tax lossesiii and reinvest at higher yields, potentially increasing the tax-exempt income stream for their portfolios. We observed significant tax-loss-harvesting activity, which contributed to secondary trading volumes peaking in the fourth quarter.

  1. What is your view of municipal market valuations? How might they affect market performance in 2024?

In addition to strong nominal market performance, municipals registered strong relative market performance in 2023, especially versus Treasurys. Municipals were not distinct in that regard. Risk markets of all stripes generally outperformed Treasurys as investor sentiment abruptly shifted in the last months of the year. This outperformance pushed valuation ratios to the richer end of historical ranges (AAA-rated muni yields/Treasury yields).iv While valuations can be a useful shorthand technical metric for evaluating risk/reward conditions in the market, they are only one metric. We believe valuations should be weighed with other factors, particularly credit fundamentals and, as simple as it may sound, nominal yields. Though it may seem counterintuitive, our analysis found generally limited statistical correlation between richening or cheapening valuation levels and nominal forward one-year total returns.v In contrast, and perhaps more intuitively, we found very strong correlation between richening or cheapening nominal yields and forward one-year With current yield levels generally higher than those prevailing over most of the past decade, we continue to see opportunity in the municipal market, despite the recent rally.

muni bond chart