Doug Flynn, CFP, of Flynn Zito Capital Management, LLC on the many ways to Invest Municipal Bonds
Ali: ...He started by telling us exactly what a municipal bond is.
Doug: You're basically lending money to a municipality, to a government, a state, a city, to do particular projects, and for that they're going to pay you interest, and that interest is typically tax-free.
Ali: Generally speaking though, if I buy an individual bond, I know what my return is going to be. There might be some chance I don't get paid, they're all rated, but if I get paid, I'm going to get a return, a percentage return.
Doug: That's right, as a standard return, you might get interest every six months, which doesn't automatically reinvest, there's no way to do that: you're going to take that check and do something else with it. But absolutely, you know what you're going to get, and when you're going to get it. The problem now is if you buy a thirty year bond at a low point, and rates are higher in five years, you're going to be very angry that you locked in at a lower point when there will be higher bond rates coming in a few years.
Ali: So that is the advantage of buying it in a fund, because a fund manager trades in and out of these things.
Doug: That's right, and people dont realize that there is a benefit to trading, because when they do something called bond swaps, where there might be a way to do different things by buying one bond and selling another one that boosts the yield. But absolutely, you get bonds that get called on you, and the fund also has the benefit of a monthly dividend that can reinvest, so a lot of people like that. It's also a much better, easier, cheaper way to get involved. When you buy an individual municipal bond, people don't realize, unless you have $1,000,000, you're not an institutional investor, you're paying a price that can be 2 or 3 or 4% more, where a fund is going to pool that asset, or if you have that $1,000,000, you can get preferential pricing, but it's what the funds are going to hopefully bring to you. But you don't get a fixed return, and your fixed principal back to you.
Ali: So doesn't that defeat the purpose? Because I buy a bond knowing what I'm getting over time.
Doug: There are times you may want to buy an individual bond no matter what type of bond it is. I would say at a time when rates are extremely high, and possibly going down. That's when you want to lock in for as long as you can. But when rates are constantly going up, for the next couple of decades perhaps, and I don't know when, these are ways you can kind of roll into that, and not commit a whole bunch of money at a particular low point.
Ali: Right, and these have all kinds of flavors. So you talked about buying a certain type of individual bond, that's not for everybody, you talked about mutual funds. There are even exchange traded funds for bonds. Now I know how ETFs typically work, it's a basket of stocks that you buy, it's got a ticker, you buy it like a stock. How do they work when it comes to municipal bonds?
Doug: It's exactly the same way. Now an ETF is a mutual fund, it just happens to be one that also trades on the stock market. So you can find municipal bond funds that trade on the exchange throughout the day. You get into the movement of the market on a daily basis throughout the day, as opposed to only at the end of the day with a traditional mutual fund. But you can buy them in ETF format. Therefore they might be a little bit cheaper...
Ali: Cheaper because there's a lower fee because you don't have to pay a manager...
Doug: Correct, but you might not be able to reinvest the dividend off of that, so that's a little bit different.
Ali: It worries me though, because you need a certain sophistication to understand getting in and out of bonds. Now do I give that up by going for an ETF versus one where I am paying for a manager who's a specialist one hopes.
Doug: There is value in trading bonds if the manager you're choosing knows what they're doing, so if you take an individual municipal bond, you have one bond, you're subject to it, you buy an ETF that's a fixed basket that isn't necessarily actively traded, but maybe it's fifty bonds instead of one, but there is an active trading, but then you have a more common traditional fund, where the manager hopefully is trading and bringing something of value to the equation for you. So those are different risks depending on how you would like to do it.
Ali: Now let me ask you one more thing. A unit investment trust, what is that?
Doug: It's similar to an ETF, it's a basket of securities that many different firms put out there, but they have a maturity date. But all these things should be available to you, and you should research, or an adviser can help you out based on what your needs are, and that will be the best way to buy some municipal bonds if you need some additional, tax-free income.