The public finance opportunity

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If you’re a certain age, it’s likely that you’ve never given a second thought to buying a municipal bond or the process of bond buying, even if you’ve intuited, rightly, that’s it’s an intentionally opaque business.

Yet there could be a big opportunity for startups, and for people looking for places to invest, and for cities with crumbling infrastructures, in disrupting the status quo — if only more Americans start playing attention.

First, there’s a strong case for buying bonds. Late last year, the Trump administration capped at $10,000 the amount that taxpayers can deduct in property tax and local and state income tax. Most people with hefty tax bills are benefiting in other ways from that same new tax bill, but this aspect of it isn’t so great for them, and municipal bonds can help. The reason: interest income paid on muni bonds is exempt from federal tax. (Bonds issued within one’s state can also be free of state tax.)

What about people without hefty tax bills? For one thing, bonds are a very safe investment. They’re not sexy, it’s true ( they typically deliver interest in the single digits), but they also feature low default rates. Whether debts from states, cities, or counties, they’re typically government guaranteed and paid back in full at the end of their term. In fact, muni bond default rates have been as low as below .03 percent over the last decade. What’s also compelling — perhaps even more so — is that bonds can give residents an opportunity to help out the community where they live. For example, Oakland, Ca. voters in 2016 overwhelmingly approved a $600 million bond to fix old city streets and build affordable housing.

You might be wondering at this point where the new opportunity lies and what role tech can play. Let’s start with the moolah, which there happens to be a lot of sloshing around the municipal bond market. Last year, Morningstar Direct reported $34 billion in net inflows to municipal bond funds and exchange-traded funds, and there’s a lot of action happening outside these kinds of products, which package up a bunch of bonds to create a diversified portfolio for investors.

Like any financial services disruptor, the idea here is to offer what the big financial institutions are offering but to do it at less cost.

There’s also room to create many more bonds than are currently available. As the New York Times reported earlier this year, fewer municipal bonds have been hitting the market ever since the financial crisis of 2008. More, the Trump administration’s new tax law revision eliminated something called “advance refunding issues,” which the Times describes as a type of municipal bond financing that accounts for around 15 percent of the market. Where there’s constrained supply, there’s demand.

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