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Archive for the ‘Municipal Market Letter’ Category

Should We Be Traders?

March 24th, 2021 by Kurt L. Smith

One year ago, I wrote my March 6th letter highlighting the risks of bond market investing when treasury securities all yielded less than 1%. It was a watershed moment and one I believed would be a reference point for years to come.

We have been following the bellwether treasury note and bonds as they continue to lose value as interest rates move higher. The ten-year note, 1.50% of 2/15/30, traded this past week below par at 98-22, down from 111-19 on March 9, 2020 or 11.5% lower (all prices from Bloomberg). The thirty-year bond, the 2.375% of 11/15/49 traded at a discount of 97-11+ versus 140-17 on March 9, for a 30.7% loss.

From a trading perspective, original buyers of these treasuries have watched their portfolio values surge and then come back to earth. A forty-point gain in the long bond is now wiped out. This is the nature of buying into a late-stage bull market. How high is high? Will you know it when you see it? Will you act or freeze?

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Be Prepared

February 24th, 2021 by Kurt L. Smith

The past week has been a tragedy down here in Texas. One crisis morphed into another leaving dozens dead and tens of billions in destruction. Simply terrible and preventable.

As a Texas native, ridiculously cold weather for a ridiculously long (for us) time is not a once in a century experience. Every decade or so it happens. But Texans are not all native Texans now (or ever). Texas has been growing by transplants forever and their expectations eventually collide with a horrible reality.

A gardener prepares his garden in the winter. A homeowner prepares her pipes before they freeze. An investor prepares for the downturn as the market moves higher. There is time for celebration but there is also time for work, the preparation what comes next.

Last month we focused on the ten-year Treasury note and long bond. Friday, February 19th, those sold at new low prices (high yields). The long Treasury bonds has now lost 35 points in value from March 9, 2020 at 140.17+ to 105.05+ Friday (all prices from Bloomberg). One of the recently sold ten-year Treasury notes, the .625% of August 15, 2030, has now lost more in price that it ever promised to pay investors in interest over its ten-year life, trading at 93.6875.

These treasuries are, of course, the favorite investment for the Federal Reserve Bank. Their appetite for all treasury securities has grown on their balance sheet from about $2.5 trillion a year ago to $4.8 trillion now (per Bloomberg). All the while, their price continues to fall.

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Bonds (Don’t) Move

January 20th, 2021 by Kurt L. Smith

Everyone can agree bond yields are low. Another way of saying that is, everyone can agree bond prices are high. But unlike the unhinged high prices of stocks, bonds are tethered to a maturity. The assumption of course being that the bond will be paid at time of maturity.

This risk of being paid (or not) is usually compared against what many consider to be the risk-free rate of US Treasury securities. Thus, Treasuries represent a non-credit risk option as they are assumed to be paid; the government will simply print more money to redeem them. All other (US) bonds do not have this feature of printing additional money; therefore, they are considered spread products.

As you know I recommended selling your bond products (mutual funds primarily), marking March 6th as the high-water mark for bonds. To say that March was a volatile month borders on understatement, but we witnessed US Treasury notes and bonds trade at their all-time highs in March.

The ten-year, Treasury note receives the most attention in the marketplace. For most of 2020 the note yielded less than 1%, again, a low yield in anyone’s book (and a high price). But recently the yield has moved over 1% leading to, well, the focus of this letter.

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Never Sell Anything

December 16th, 2020 by Kurt L. Smith

Years ago, and I mean many years ago, it became apparent that bond portfolio managers rarely sold bonds in their portfolio. Sure, active managers might sell something to keep their active manager label active, but rarely did a bond manager sell bonds in the portfolio to meaningfully move the needle on their holdings. If a manager did not like the market, she could enter a derivatives trade to place her bet instead.

Another reason for the never sell mentality in bonds was the fact that more money usually came in the door. When bonds perform well, investors tend to stick with it or even add funds. Combine all this with the other fact that bonds do mature, and bond portfolio managers are usually in the position of deciding where to invest cash rather than the prospect of selling bonds to raise more cash.

This has been the case for decades, though there may have been some managers slow in the 1980’s and early 1990’s to warm up to the fact that we were in what would become a multi-decade bond bull market. While the rise in the bond market has not been straight up, I would argue, from a portfolio management standpoint, it might as well have been. Bond portfolio managers have largely been reluctant to sell even prior to the large swoon in the financial crisis of 2007. If anything, the recovery since has largely reinforced the idea of never sell anything.

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Portfolio Construction

November 18th, 2020 by Kurt L. Smith

With the crescendo of all US Treasury yields to trading below 1% in early March marking the high-water mark for bond prices, the need to revisit how portfolios are constructed has emerged. Is the traditional 60% stocks/40% bond model dead?

This may indeed be a worthwhile question to explore but it is the underlying assumption or the underlying narrative of a stock/bond mix that warrants examination. For decades scholars of portfolio management theory ran studies after studies showing how a mix of assets, even as simple as stocks and bonds, can lower the risk and improve returns of non-diversified portfolios.

With the advent of computers in investing and something as relatively simple as a pie chart, investors could “see” how they were invested. When stocks swooned in 2000 and 2007, yes, diversification worked as advertised…just look at the results!

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The Market Doesn’t Care

October 20th, 2020 by Kurt L. Smith

Voting is in full swing across our nation and I am sure you will be voting as well if you haven’t already. While we all care about our election, the market does not.

In a world filled with varying narratives, not to mention conflicting narratives, narratives do not move markets. News, breaking or not, also does not move markets. Yet markets move, even in ways that may convince you that something, or someone (or several someone’s) may be responsible.

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We Are All Traders Now

September 23rd, 2020 by Kurt L. Smith

Over the past couple of months, we have witnessed what it is like to be winners. Investors of stocks and bonds have watched their portfolios move higher with interest rates at or near historic lows, bond prices are unbelievable high. And the effects of high bond prices have reverberated across asset classes.

I pick on bonds because they are “fixed income”. There is only so much income a bond generates (it’s coupon amount) and for only so long (it’s maturity). So, when interest rates are near zero, the price of the bond is approximately, or near, the sum of all of its cash flows (coupons plus maturity or par amount).

A 1% ten year noncallable bond that sold at 100, would be priced at 110 if interest rates moved to 0%. At .50%, the bond would be priced at approximately 105, still a nice 5% gain from no-or-low interest rates to even lower rates.

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Time Marches On

August 7th, 2020 by Kurt L. Smith

Unfortunately, there is no finish line for investing. If there was, we could now declare stocks a winner, bonds a winner, gold a winner, real estate…well, you get the idea. But there is tomorrow to deal with, not to mention next year and years from now.

Investing is a longer period endeavor. Bond investors know this as every bond you buy reminds you with a maturity date. What will happen over the next year, or two, five or ten or more years? Bond investors confront this reality with every purchase.

Wherever you want to draw the line, financial assets have been winners. Year-to-date, last year or two, last five…they, for the most part, have been good times for you as an investor of financial assets.

All of that is in the past; investing is about the future. If investing were a race, it would be an endless one as time marches on. Decisions made can be worthwhile as well as decisions not made. Second-guessing can be debilitating and is to be avoided. That is why it is important to make sound decisions.

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Protect Yourself

July 15th, 2020 by Kurt L. Smith

In my opinion, markets perform like markets. Narratives may try to explain them, but the narrative is a lie. The market did not go up because of ‘X’ or ‘Y’, the market just went up.

For the past several years I have been writing about the end of something, specifically the end of asset (stock, bonds, gold) prices rising trend. This was the case at the beginning of the year, as well, before we learned to spell corona.

Six plus months into this lousy year, just where are we? Let’s start with bonds because it is easier, or should be, to recognize a top or the top in bond prices when the price of a bond is just about the sum of all cash flows to be received throughout the life of the bond because the yield isn’t worth noting as a discount.

Look at this month’s bond sale from Tarrant County College District, Texas (below). Are those yields just not ridiculous? Would you entrust your money to a governmental entity for any length of time at those low (no) yields?

As discussed in my March 6th letter, earlier this year, whether you buy these yields or not is irrelevant. What is relevant is these are the yields that are used to price mutual funds and other portfolios of bonds. These low (no) yields, along with their treasury and corporate counterparts mean tens of trillions of dollars of fixed income portfolios are priced so fully as to negate future upside.

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Our World Has Changed

June 17th, 2020 by Kurt L. Smith

Most of us come to realize that change is inevitable and adapting to change is a part of life. Sometimes change is like aging in front of a mirror:  it isn’t until you look back several years that you realize, yes, I have changed…I mean aged.

This, of course, is not what I am talking about. Today we have a sea change (literally), as well as one massive change after another. The world has changed and adapting to it will be key to our survival.

My focus here is on the bond market, which just happens to be the primary tool of our monetary authorities: The Federal Reserve and the central banks of the world.  Fiscal authorities are also joining the bond rush as governments issue bonds to finance their response to our changed world.

The fundamental change that happened in the bond market occurred in early March and was the subject of my April letter. US Treasury securities traded at yields of 0.70% and lower across all maturities from a few days out to the longest thirty-year maturity per Bloomberg. This extremely low (or no) yield means longer term bond prices were at their highest prices ever as the price of the bond includes, effectively, almost all of the income you would receive in the days, years or even decades to come for the bond.

But it is not just treasury bonds. Other bonds such as mortgages, corporates and municipals also benefitted by the high bond prices as the yield spread on those bonds in early March were at or near historical lows. Historically low spreads, together with the low (no) yields of the treasury base means bond prices on almost all bonds were their highest prices ever.

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NEWS FEED

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