Recently, I’ve been taking another look at investing in California municipal bonds. Even if you don’t live in California, the yields can be quite attractive. But is it a good idea?
Right now, the Vanguard California Intermediate-Term Tax-Exempt Fund (VCAIX) has a yield of 3.49% with an average maturity of 7 years. In addition, since the interest from this fund is exempt from both federal and California state income taxes, the equivalent taxable yield is actually much higher. You can use a tax-equivalent yield calculator to find out how it works out for your tax brackets.
If you are in the 33% federal tax bracket and 9.3% CA bracket, that 3.49% would be the same as a taxable bond yielding 5.74%. Even for an out-of-state investor, the federal tax exemption alone gets you to 5.21%, which is higher than many mortgage interest rates.
If you are in the 25% federal tax bracket and 9.3% CA bracket, that 3.49% would be the same as a taxable bond yielding 5.13%. For an out-of-state investor, the equivalent yield is 4.65%. As you can see, these yields are definitely more attractive for those in higher tax brackets.
- You’re nearly first in line. California’s constitution requires that state general-obligation bond payments take priority over other payments except for those that fund education. This means as a bondholder you’re ahead of other government employees, firefighters, and basically everyone else.
- Diversify. If you do invest, don’t make it all of your portfolio. There is still some risk. You can still hold other national muni funds, US. Treasury bonds, and investment-grade corporate bonds.
- Buy a bond fund. I would invest in a managed municipal fund and not in individual securities unless I was very experienced. You don’t want to have to navigate a minefield of call risk, GO bonds, bonds based on sales tax revenue vs. utility fees, and other tricky details.
Holding Period Concerns
It’s important to note the maturity and duration of the bonds you’re buying, because if you have to sell sooner than the average maturity, you’ll be greatly exposed to price volatility. For example, if California’s credit rating drops further, then the current market value of the bonds you buy will also drop. If you sell early, you’ll have to take a loss. However, if you are able to hold a bond until maturity, you’ll still get the fixed yield and the principal back, so it won’t affect you.
Also, if you sell early and the bond value has increased, you may be subject to capital gains taxes from which you are not exempt.
My Personal Opinions
I’ve been keeping track of all the ways the state of California has been trying to manage this budget shortfall, and it is clear they are ready to take some very drastic steps to cut expenses. In any event, I fail to see how the U.S. government would not bail out California if things got really bad. If private corporations can get bailed out, why not a state full of voters? I’m not alone, however, as these bonds have been rallying as of late.
I am thinking of investing in California municipal bonds for a very specific scenario: I would buy them instead of paying down my mortgage further, as the tax-equivalent interest rate from the bonds is actually higher than my (tax-deductible) mortgage interest rate. This way, I both come out ahead in terms of interest and I have good liquidity if I wish to access the money for some reason. I also don’t see myself as taking too much extra risk, as I would with a stock fund for example.