Tax reform is high on the agenda of the new administration, leading to speculation about what changes could mean for the outlook for tax-exempt municipal bonds. The two areas of focus: A reduction in tax rates for both corporations and individuals, and the elimination or capping of muni tax exemption.
Lower individual taxes … and a grain of salt
The hard truth: Lower individual tax rates reduce the value of a municipal bond’s tax exemption. For example, a drop in the top tax rate from 43.4% to 33% means $4,340 in annual savings would be reduced to $3,300. And to the extent that lower tax-exempt benefit mutes the demand for municipal bonds, market valuations could suffer.
To that salty dose of reality I would add two important provisos:
- The individual tax code is very complicated and politically difficult to amend, even under one-party control. Change may well come, but not likely in 2017 as Washington focuses on the comparatively easier task of corporate tax reform.
- A cut in individual tax rates would cause some adjustment in muni pricing (read on for our estimate). But the market has seen similar, and even more dramatic, tax changes before. The top marginal tax rate was reduced from 50% to 28% in 1986 and from 39.6% to 35% in the 2000s. And, under current conditions, muni investors still reap an after-tax benefit over taxable bonds, even at a 33% tax rate.
Tax exemption not dispensable
The tax exemption of municipal bond interest is a key draw for issuers. And while it may be deemed alterable, we don’t see it as dispensable. States and municipalities rely on municipal debt as a low-cost, efficient way to finance capital improvements and fund infrastructure. The federal government hurts itself if it impedes state and local ability to create jobs, sustain their economies and improve the quality of life for Americans. As such, we see the elimination of muni tax exemption as highly unlikely.
Other proposals center on capping the tax exemption at 28%. The odds of such an outcome are anyone’s guess.
Importantly, however, our analysis suggests that any market correction to overcome a 28% cap on the tax exemption, or a drop in the highest tax rate from 43.4% to 33% for that matter, would be manageable. By our estimates, the market might need to offer some 15 basis points (front end) to 50 basis points (long end) in higher yield to compensate for the reduced tax benefit. See the chart above. The market has digested adjustments of this magnitude in the past without a material change to the overall demand dynamic.
Corporate tax reform as an offset
Notably, corporate tax reform could be an important offset to any or all of the above. Current law allows companies to deduct interest payments on bond income. Under reform proposals, that benefit may be repealed to compensate for lower corporate tax rates. This could conceivably lead to lower corporate bond issuance. Munis, in turn, would become a greater source of supply for income-seeking investors. The associated uptick in demand would mute the effect of other tax changes.
There’s another wrinkle, however: The impact of corporate tax reform could vary for banks and insurance companies (relatively large holders of munis) depending on where corporate rates settle and what happens to the Alternative Minimum Tax, or AMT. This could have a negative impact on their need for municipal bonds.
Ultimately, “tax reform” is a series of potential scenarios featuring many variables and offsetting factors. Which reforms are implemented and to what degree will determine the extent of the market impact. Uncertainty is perhaps the only certainty. But this we can say with enough confidence: Munis will retain some tax-exempt benefit—and there will always be an appetite for that very unique feature in an investment asset.
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Investment involves risk including possible loss of principal. The two main risks related to fixed income investing are interest rate risk and credit risk. Typically, when interest rates rise, there is a corresponding decline in the market value of bonds. Credit risk refers to the possibility that the issuer of the bond will not be able to make principal and interest payments. There may be less information available on the financial condition of issuers of municipal securities than for public corporations. The market for municipal bonds may be less liquid than for taxable bonds. A portion of the income may be taxable. Some investors may be subject to Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT). Capital gains distributions, if any, are taxable.
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