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Muni Bond Outflows Could Last For Months; Equities Funds Gain in Popularity

Outflows from municipal bond mutual funds are likely to continue for the next few months, given municipalities' budget problems. But, after a strong 2010, retail investors are wading back into stock funds.

Outflows from municipal bond mutual funds are likely to continue for the next few months, according to mutual fund analysts.

Jeff Tjornehoj, head of Lipper Americas research, said historically, investors pull out of municipal bond funds for a period of two to three months. When investors yanked money out of munis in 2004, the outflows lasted from April through August, he said, while 2008 outflows went on from October to December. “We’re probably just at the half-way point.”

According to Lipper data, municipal bond mutual funds saw outflows of about $7 billion in November and $7.8 billion for the first four weeks of December. In the first week of January, the trend continued with an estimated $2.8 billion being pulled out of munis, according to the Investment Company Institute.

Veerendra Virkar, research analyst with Financial Research Corporation, said the outflows could last through the first half of this year. With the Build America Bond program ended, municipalities no longer have federal backing. These funds have also been overbought for the last couple of years, Virkar said, and these effects will be there for a while before investors get back in.

Morningstar Analyst Kevin McDevitt also believes the outflows could be a several-month trend. With the end of the Build America Bond program, it will be interesting to see whether outflows continue beyond that, he said. And they might, since many municipalities (and states) are teetering on defaulting on their debt, according to Meredith Whitney, founder of Meredith Whitney Advisory Group. Whitney, who got famous for predicting the problems that would befell Citigroup back in 2007, said there is $6 trillion — that’s trillion — of total outstanding debt (including underfunded pension plans) in U.S. cities and states. That equals 2.5 times their tax base, the FT Lex Column quotes her as saying. Put another way, that’s equal to about 40 percent of the nation’s GDP. (If she is right — that a wave of government defaults is on the way — how do you position your clients’ portfolios? Especially those clients in high tax brackets who rely on munis for income?)

Stock funds are a different story. Tjornehoj believes the equity market of 2011 could look similar to 2010; he expects the total return on equities to waver between -5 percent and 5 percent this year.

“I don’t see the pieces in place for a rebounding bull market,” he said.

It will take a while to change the mindset of Baby Boomers, who favor taxable bonds at the expense of equities, he added. The younger crowd would have the take the lead in the resurgence in retail equity investing, he said.

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