A very choppy stock market, along with potential future tax increases, have driven a significant amount of money into tax free bonds (also known as municipal bonds), either directly or indirectly, through tax free income closed end funds. When making a determination of which way to invest, it is helpful to know the advantages and disadvantages of the bonds versus the closed end funds, commonly referred to as CEFs.
Municipal bonds have always been a favorite of high income taxpayer, as they provide income that is tax free from Federal income taxes, and if the bond is issued from the state in which the taxpayer resides or from one of the territories of the US such as Puerto Rico, then the income is also exempt from state taxes. Munis are generally issued by states, counties, cities, and other governmental entities such as school districts, sewer districts, and departments of water and power.
1. You can pick and choose what governmental agency you want to loan money to. Maybe you want to stick with the bonds from the cities and counties near you that you are familiar with.
2. Bonds have a maturity date. This means that no matter how high interest rates go, and no matter how low the bonds drop in value, at maturity, the bonds are paid off at par.
3. What your bond is worth is what your bond is worth; in other words, the trading price of CEFs may be far higher or lower than the net asset value of the fund.
1. Higher minimum investment. Although munis are issued in $5,000 denominations, a round lot is generally considered by many firms to be $100,000.
2. Less diversification. Because of the higher minimum, investors can't own as many diverse bonds as they could with a CEF.
3. Interest payments only twice a year.
4. No professional management or monitoring.
5. Illiquidity. Munis are not traded on an exchange, and estimated prices given on brokerage statements can be way off from what brokers will actually offer you if you want to sell (speaking from personal experience).
Municipal Bond Closed End Funds
1. No minimum investment. You could technically buy one share.
2. Monthly income.
3. With the monthly income, you receive you capital back faster, and you can do quicker compounding of your income.
4. Very liquid; traded on major exchanges.
1. You pay a management fee and other administrative fees.
2. Some CEFs use leverage. You should beware that this increases the risks to the investor.
3. Some CEFs may be trading at a premium to net asset value. You want to look for those trading at a discount.
4. No maturity date (other than a few target funds). If rates go up and continue to rise during your lifetime, you may never get your principal back.
As you can see, there are benefits to both municipal bonds and municipal bond closed end funds. Just make sure that you are familiar with the risks and costs of each.