Economics

MUNIS – SALT IN THE WOUND FOR HIGH TAX STATES

By Caleb Gibbons, CFA, FRM,– Originally at IBankCoin.

tRump’s GOP tax plan is not sitting well with the high tax, blue leaning states of California (11.4% rate for State and Local Taxes, aka SALT), Connecticut (11.4% SALT), New York (12.6%) and New Jersey (12.3%). These four states account for 22% of the US population and 23% of US GDP. I frankly expected a higher percentage GDP wise, with so much of the vast contiguous states dedicated to energy production (1000 gallons a second in demand) and animal husbandry (9 ounces a day per capita).

WerbeFabrik / Pixabay

With the proposed changes to the US tax code, removing the deduction of SALT payments from ones Federal tax bill going forward, the effective tax rate for the wealthy will be increasing significantly on passage of the bill in close to its current form. This will greatly enhance the attractiveness of municipal debt and has resulted in a stonking rally in muni bonds this week. Early innings with respect to the rally, unless the federal deduction for SALT survives in the final drafting. Rolling back SALT deductions offsets approx. 1/3 of the $1.3tln “hole in the bucket” left by the proposed GOP corporate and individual tax cuts (largely paid for by the 3% resultant GDP growth). The rally moves in muni credit will likely be muted on the heels of the ongoing Puerto Rico default/debacle, hence there is time to put in the work and do the analysis required to come up with a rational investment decision.

https://ibankcoin.com/firehorsecaper/2016/04/10/puerto-rico-the-spoils-of-war/#sthash.uTYSeX6D.dpbs

The initial read of Trump’s tax reform plans appeared to be hemlock for muni debt, driven largely by lower absolute tax rates, with the highest 39.6% (solo income >$418.4k, joint filer >$470.7k) bracket moving to 33%. With key tweaks to the tax reform plan on the deductions side, as many as 25.5% of taxpayers could see their taxes increase from current levels under the currently tabled tax reform plan. It appears the 39.6% bracket will likely be kept for those earning above 7 figures.

As an aside, NJ, post election, is expected to re-institute the millionaire tax for resident making > $1mm (2% effective surcharge on income > 1mm). In addition to the egregious existing taxes NJ levies, for no good reason other than winning geographic roulette in being commutable to NYC, one should expect a portion of NJ’s millionaires (7% of the population on net worth metric, much lower % on income) to pull up stake, taking a page out of Tepper (formerly #1 NJ taxpayer, now in Florida) playbook. With nine states credit watch negative, including NJ, a betting man would place odds on more downgrades than upgrades going forward.

For muni bond investors in the 4 high tax states profiled, there are a bevy of state specific funds that cater you your investment needs, if purchasing bespoke muni bonds is beyond your ken. The advent of on-line trading platforms is improving the state of play, but the bid/offer spreads on muni bonds is high, both outright and compared to taxable peers.

https://www.marketaxess.com/trading/municipal-bonds.php

Two funds with comparable scale and liquidity are BlackRock Muni Holdings New Jersey Quality Fund, Inc. ,MUJ  and Nuveen New Jersey Quality Municipal Income Fund, NXJ. The big daddy is a Vanguard offering, 4x bigger at $2bln +; Vanguard NJ Long-Term Tax-Exempt Inv., VNJTX, yielding 3.46% (Federal and NJ tax exempt) which may seem paltry, until you calculate the taxable equivalent basis (TEB). Speaking to investment income, a NJ taxpayer in the top tax bracket in all categories pays 39.6% in Federal tax, 8.97% in direct NJ State Tax and Obamacare 3.8% tax on investment income (muni bonds are exempt). Adding up this stack gets you to 52.4% in taxes, coincidentally the same as the Province of Ontario in Canada (ditto on distress, save the pension funding shortfall issue).  Vanguard, and other veritable institutional investors have online calculators for TEB for those not mathematically inclined.

In my rudimentary NJ example, the VNJTX yield is 3.46% and the denominator is 0.476, resulting in a taxable equiv. yield of 7.27%. A quick perusal of global fixed income markets will find many gobsmacked to realize how high a 7% taxable yield is in the current environment.

US state pensions remain woefully underfunded in aggregate (70% funding rate, > $1 tln unfunded) and the public pension gravy train keeps on chugging, at least for now. Even for a $18 trillion dollar US economy, so many debt tallies in the trillion plus club should give the non-billionaire adults in the room cause for pause, if not reflection. Student loan debt; $1.3 tln, auto loans $1.2 tln and credit card debt (“revolving”, at least in theory) $1.1 tln. Those reticent to buy NJ domiciled muni debt and or NJ dedicated funds can of course give NJ a wide berth from an investment perspective. The rub is that your tax exempt muni yield will be only federal tax exempt, not state tax exempt. Following on my previous NJ example, your TEB (aka, your taxable basis “bogey”) becomes 6.11% instead of 7.27%.

The same analysis should be done for potential muni investors in “the big 4”, NNCC, as you are spoiled for choice in terms of muni debt and/or state specific funds (mutual, closed-end and ETF forms) to choose from.

When things get really interesting, “cross over” buyers, those that can not use the US tax exemption, find it compelling to buy US muni credit versus other investment options available in their home market. I’m a holder of BlackRock Taxable Municipal Bond Trust, BBN in my IRA (the underlying bonds are taxable hence distributions, currently yield 6.75% is taxable in non tax sheltered accounts). Pension obligation bonds, issued by states attempting to improve their pension funding % (in lieu of also paring benefits, which other countries do on a near 50/50 basis, until fully “funded” from an actuarial perspective) are also taxable.

With equities “off the leash”and vol compressed due to medicated markets, munis have a valid place in the asset allocation for US taxable investors (likely a multiple of gold and/or crypto). The US municipal bond tax exemption is one of the few near-free lunches on offer in global investable fixed income markets.

Keen to address any questions, as I know this space well. Follow me on twitter @firehorsecaper. Good to be back.