How To Pick A Muni Bond ETF

March 18, 2019

Muni bonds—as measured by the ICE BofAML Municipal Index—have already delivered higher returns this year than they did in the entire 2018 calendar year. It’s a pocket of the fixed-income market that has been benefiting from strong demand and limited supply, and many are calling for more growth ahead.

That demand could remain supported by new rules impacting state and local tax (SALT) deductions. Until last tax season, taxpayers could deduct local and state taxes—things like income and property taxes—in their federal income tax returns without limits. But new legislation under the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act now caps SALT deductions to $10,000.

This limitation may have you looking for other ways to manage your tax bill—and munis are well-known for delivering tax-exempt interest. It’s a fixed-income darling for tax-sensitive investors.

Broad Set Of Choices

There are 45 muni bond ETFs available today. To many, a minimum-asset threshold is one of the first metrics considered when choosing an ETF. In the muni space, there are at least eight ETFs that boast more than $1 billion each in total assets.

Some of the biggest funds include the iShares National Muni Bond ETF (MUB), which has $11.8 billion in assets under management; the Vanguard Tax-Exempt Bond ETF (VTEB), with $4.3 billion; the SPDR Nuveen Bloomberg Barclays Short Term Municipal Bond ETF (SHM), with $3.6 billion; the SPDR Nuveen Bloomberg Barclays Municipal Bond ETF (TFI), with $2.8 billion; and the VanEck Vectors High-Yield Municipal Index ETF (HYD), with $2.5 billion. Their year-to-date performance is below:

 

Chart courtesy of StockCharts.com

 

These are all big, popular, liquid choices for investors. They are all, also, passively managed. However, there are those who think the constraints of an index leave too much opportunity on the table.

Consider Maria Rahni, senior associate for product management at New York Life Investments, who argues that the inefficient and illiquid nature of the muni space is a prime playground for active managers and alpha seekers.

“When should investors consider actively managed ETFs? Typically, inefficient markets lend themselves well to active management—one such market is U.S. municipal bonds,” Rahni said in a recent blog. “Actively managed municipal bond ETFs combine the best features of ETFs and mutual funds into one solution: They offer investors access to professional management of an inefficient asset class within a cost-effective, liquid investment vehicle.”

Active Muni Products

If you agree with Rahni, your list of biggest ETFs to choose from looks a little different. They’d include funds such as the actively managed First Trust Managed Municipal ETF (FMB), with $609 million in assets; the PIMCO Intermediate Municipal Bond Active ETF (MUNI), with $276 million; and the iShares Short Maturity Municipal Bond ETF (MEAR), with $174 million. Their year-to-date performance is below:

 

Chart courtesy of StockCharts.com

 

Stacking Up The Leaders

If you were to compare the broad, biggest passive MUB to the broad, biggest active FMB, allocation differences are stark.

The comparison isn’t really apples to apples given that MUB is constrained by its investment-grade index and FMB is free to roam—and can even own some high-yield exposure. Still, both ETFs have duration of about 5.6-5.9 years, according to ETF.com data.  

Notable here is that MUB allocates heavily to California- and New York-issued debt, while FMB holds cash as its second-largest holding, and New York is nowhere in its top 10 allocations—differences that lead to different results.

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