Viewpoints
With the wind at our back, we expect municipal credit to perform well in 2021

Timely insights from portfolio managers and industry experts on key financial, economic and political issues.

The views expressed in these posts are those of the authors and are current only through the date stated. These views are subject to change at any time based upon market or other conditions, and Eaton Vance disclaims any responsibility to update such views. These views may not be relied upon as investment advice and, because investment decisions for Eaton Vance are based on many factors, may not be relied upon as an indication of trading intent on behalf of any Eaton Vance strategy. The discussion herein is general in nature and is provided for informational purposes only. There is no guarantee as to its accuracy or completeness.

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      By Cynthia J. ClemsonCo-Director of Municipal Investments, Eaton Vance Management and Craig R. Brandon, CFACo-Director of Municipal Investments, Eaton Vance Management

      Boston - Municipals wrapped up a historic year, with broad-market muni indexes up more than 4% in 2020. Thanks to unprecedented fiscal and monetary measures, the market largely recovered from the pandemic-induced liquidity crisis that sent prices plummeting in the first quarter.

      Fiscal and monetary support

      U.S. lawmakers ended months of negotiations on a second COVID relief package with a $900 billion spending bill in late December. While this does not provide direct aid for state and local governments, many sectors of the muni market are receiving funding — including education, mass transit, highways and airports. And the Federal Reserve intends to keep short-term rates near zero through 2023, continuing its monthly buying program of $120 billion in Treasurys and mortgage-backed securities.

      Vaccine rollout and economy reopening

      We expect Treasury and municipal interest-rate volatility to persist as markets adapt to new information about the worldwide fight against the coronavirus, rate-policy announcements from global central banks and emerging economic data. We will closely monitor the vaccine rollout and how the U.S. economy reacts during the reopening process, with the anticipation that a vaccine-led recovery could fuel higher GDP growth later in 2021.

      Resilient and improving muni credit

      While surging COVID-19 cases and further shutdowns may weigh on economic and job growth in the near term, we nonetheless expect muni credit to remain resilient. After surviving 2020 with better-than-expected revenue and only a minor uptick in defaults and bankruptcies, municipal issuers should face an improving credit landscape this year if that revenue trend continues.

      Importance of credit oversight

      During this period of uncertainty, we think that seasoned professional credit oversight is of the utmost importance. Municipal credit has not been immune to the pressures that the coronavirus pandemic exerted on the economy, and many sectors continue to face specific challenges. We believe these effects will play out on an issuer-by-issuer basis, depending on a credit's strength prior to this period. Issuers with strong balance sheets and proactive management teams can be resilient despite the economic hardship.

      Wind at our back

      With the backdrop of strong retail demand, improving economic conditions and continued fiscal support from the U.S. government, we feel that we have the wind at our back as muni investors. We are cautiously optimistic on municipal bonds, particularly the high-yield segment of the market.

      Portfolio ballast

      In our view, municipals can provide valuable ballast in a diversified portfolio. With equity markets near all-time highs, muni bond exposure may help buoy portfolios if equity markets pull back and investor appetite shifts to so-called safe haven assets, like certificates of deposit and money-market funds. And for investors subject to high federal and state tax rates, munis can offer more yield compared with their taxable counterparts.

      Bottom line: We think that munis remain a valuable building block of a portfolio designed to help maximize after-tax income and return, but careful credit selection and positioning will remain critical.