As a general proposition, an investor who has carved out a sum of cash (say, $200,000) that they have relative certainty that they will not need for an extended length of time and do not want to risk, would give careful consideration to putting the money into a municipal bond. Buying a long-term municipal bond that is triple tax-free produces interest that can be especially valuable for those in higher income brackets. So long as the investor purchases only high grade municipal bonds insured by Berkshire Hathaway, the biggest risk to a municipal bond purchase is that interest rates rise and the value of the bond declines. Most municipal bond purchasers get comfortable with interest rate risk by accepting the notion that if rates rise, they will just hold the bonds to maturity. While purchasers today may get comfortable with the notion, they also need to recognize that municipal bonds ordinarily trade according to 10 year bonds rates. With those rates running around 2.40% and Bloomberg’s 10 year municipal bond index running at 2.20%, municipal purchasers in high tax states like New York, Massachusetts, Illinois or California are unlikely to find high quality 10 year munis yielding over 2% to maturity.
This same investor now has the option of putting the money in a 5 year CD. While the CD does not have the same tax benefit (interest is taxable local and federally in the year of accrual), the rates are slightly higher (the best 5 year CD rate is now 2.30%) and capital invested in a CD is not at risk up to FDIC limits. Most importantly, the interest rate risk is simply much lower than that inherent in buying municipals with 10 year interest rates at such low levels.
This chart demonstrates the spread between the 10 year Treasury rate and the best available 5 year CD rates over the last five years. With the rates crossing for first time in a year, and for the first time since higher rates became a real prospect in the US's immediate future, CDs look attractive.
There are at least three reasons why the interest rate risk in the intermediate term CD may always be lower which are especially relevant in the current environment with the prospect of higher rates. They are as follows:
1. A five year CD has a five year interest rate risk. If you apply the same notion that the works case scenario is that you hold to maturity if rates rise, a five year CD is always going to have a much shorter time horizon to getting your principal back than a 10 year municipal bond.
2. Most CDs allow breakage and a return of your principal with certain penalties. The penalties for breaking a 5 year CD among the major issuers of online CDs range from 6 months to 15 months of interest. If, for example, the US were to return to normalized interest rates in 2015 or 2016, you can pay the penalty and get your principal back. The municipal bond doesn’t have breakage provisions and you would be faced with a huge loss of principal if you were to need to sell. Tip: Always check the breakage penalty before you buy a CD.
3. Some online CDs allow for the penalty-free breakage of a CD upon the death of a holder at the request of the heirs, beneficiaries or executor (you may wish to ask before opening an account). If you were to die holding a municipal bond at your death, the executor or executrix of your estate may need to liquidate the bond and the value will depend on interest rates on that day and the liquidity of the bonds. Again, if interest rates were to return to their pre-2008 levels, your estate will recover significantly less than the price you paid for the municipal bonds.
Even if you don’t plan to need your money, life throws curves. Municipal bonds bear interest rate risk. With municipal rates at very low levels, you may be better off handling the interest rate risk by buying a 5 year CD.