Monday, May 18, 2009

Municipal Bonds Are Worth A Look If You Can Handle The Risk

From USA

Q: How do I go about adding municipal bonds to my portfolio?

A: Lending money to cities, states and local government agencies used to be a good move for investors in high tax brackets. That's made municipal bonds attractive investments for years.

By buying municipal bonds, investors looking for income not only received regular payments, they got excellent tax savings. The income paid by municipal bonds is typically exempt from federal taxes and often exempt from state taxes, if the investor lives in the state issuing the debt.

The whole muni bond market suffered a body slam during the credit crunch. Now, investors have become increasingly concerned about the ability of states and local governments to pay their debts.

This wasn't much of a concern before, since most local governments offered investors insurance to cover the possibility of default. But many bond insurers have been crippled by mortgages losses, so the value of the insurance has diminished.

The result? Yields on municipal bonds are attractive, but only if you can handle the higher risk. Gone are the days when you could blindly buy a municipal bond and assume even if things went badly you could get your money back.

To show you just how turned around the muni bond market has become, consider the Vanguard Intermediate-Term Tax-Exempt Fund Investor Shares (VWITX). The fund, which owns a basket of muni bonds maturing in seven years on average, is yielding about 3.4%, exempt from federal taxes.

That's an astounding yield if you consider the after-tax yield for a person in the 25% tax bracket is closer to 4.5%. It's even more impressive if you consider that the yield on 10-year Treasuries is just 3.0%.

Does this mean you should consider muni bonds? Clearly, if you understand the risks it's hard to argue with the yields. Just remember, though, that you can't just blindly buy single muni bonds anymore. If you're buying individual bonds you must take the time to understand the municipalities' demographics, tax trends and fiscal position.

The alternative is to buy a mutual fund that does the work for you. One place to start looking is's Mutual Fund Screener. You'll find the funds under Fixed Income - Tax Exempt by state and by maturity, long, short or intermediate.

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