I have discussed before that for my asset allocation, I had chosen to have muni bonds in taxable accounts instead of taxable bonds in tax-deferred accounts. In fact, I purchased some NXZ at the beginning of the year. I got out of them last Tuesday, after the big panic. Although I managed a small profit, the selling price was below Friday’s close. I wasn’t too happy about the move at first, but my prudence may still be rewarded.
The motivation was of course the imminent downgrade of the bond insures Ambac and MBIA, which has been all over the news. To be fair, the muni insurance business is profitable, serves a useful purpose and will never be allowed to fold. However, some has suggested a figure of 200 billion! is needed to bail out the bond insurers. That may be too steep a price even for the billionaires who are circling around the (soon to be) carcasses. In all likelihood the 200 billion figure stems from the write-downs from CDS’s (Bill Gross doesn’t appear to be that far off), and you can bet that the bond insurers are clutching to their muni business like a lifeline. Barclays is now saying that if the bond insurers’ rating are cut too deeply, banks faces additional 143 billion in write-downs. A hundred billion here, a hundred billion there, and pretty soon, we’re talking real money!
Judging by the price action of those closed end funds, muni investors are nonplussed about all this ruckus. However, a little prudence may not be a bad thing. It’s not unreasonable to assume that while Ambac and MBIA are drinking from the CDS cool-aid, some of that good fun got spilled over to the muni insurance side, and the default risks got under priced in some issures. At the least one would expect the balance sheets of municipalities hard hit by the housing crisis not look as sound. So while as the muni insurance business as a whole will never go away, it’s not clear that all the muni bonds will keep their existing ratings in a re-shuffle.
I could pour over the latest quarterly reports of those muni funds to see what may be affected, but given the size of my investment that hardly worth the effort. I’ll keep the cash and jump back in after this brouhaha is over.