Thursday, May 31, 2012

Doty, Bloomberg Visual Guide to Municipal Bonds

A month-old article on the CNBC website—and by the way one worth reading, "Seven Ways to Spot the Next Big Thing" by Thomas Goetz, listed “demand deep design” as number six. The author wrote: “Too often in technology, design is applied like a veneer after the hard work is done. That approach ignores how essential design is in our lives. Our lives are beset by clutter, not just of physical goods but of ideas and options and instructions—and design, at its best, lets us prioritize. Think of a supremely honed technology: the book. It elegantly organizes information, delivering it in a compact form, easily scanned asynchronously or in one sitting. The ebook is a worthy attempt to reverse-engineer these qualities—a process that has taken decades and chewed up millions in capital. But still, despite the ingenuity and functionality of the Kindle and the Nook, they don’t entirely capture the charms of the original technology. Good design is hard.”

Whatever your take on ebooks, technology is slowly replacing ink with pixels. I have no doubt that sometime in the not too distant future digital reading devices will reach a level of deep design.

In the meantime the Bloomberg “visual guide” series demonstrates that even established technologies can fall victim to veneer design. Robert Doty’s Bloomberg Visual Guide to Municipal Bonds (Wiley/Bloomberg, 2012) is more difficult to read because of the book’s design. And that’s too bad because there is a lot of good information here for the would-be investor in munis.

Start with the matter of issuer concentration in the municipal market. The top five states—California, New York, Texas, Illinois, and Florida—account for almost 46% of the market. California alone has $585.7 billion outstanding, more than the bottom thirty states and territories combined (if my math is correct).

Despite Meredith Whitney’s doomsday scenario for 2011, municipal securities issued primarily for essential governmental purposes have a minuscule default rate of less than 0.1%. An investor is subjected to greater risk with securities issued for other purposes—for instance, those intended to fund infrastructure for real estate developments or securities payable from revenues of start-up or rapidly-expanding projects. Securities with significant private participation are also on the “warranting special care” list. (p. 80)

Doty’s book is for the most part a series of questions and answers. Some examples:
What is EMMA? Quick answer: Electronic Municipal Market Access, a
 helpful resource.
What are special tax and assessment securities?
How do I know when ratings of my securities change?
When should I consider mutual funds and ETFs?
Does my receipt of Social Security affect tax-exemption of my
 municipal securities?

Investors contemplating entering the muni market will most likely have all their questions—and many they didn’t think to ask, or didn’t know enough to ask—answered in this book. It’s a thorough, reliable guide.

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