Municipal Bonds Can Default

I’ve written about buying municipal and state bonds in the past but I’ve never actually done it. When reviewing Maryland bonds, the rates just didn’t seem high enough for me (I’d looked at investing directly with the state through one of their partners and at buying bonds out in the market) so I never did it.

While I never thought about municipal bonds defaulting, I knew that it was a possibility. Certificates of deposit are backed by FDIC insurance. Treasury bonds are backed by the Federal government. If the Feds defaulted, I’d have bigger problems than losing what little I invested in those two vehicles. With municipal bonds, backed by states and counties, the default risk is very real.

Just last week, commissioners in Jefferson County in Alabama voted 4-1 to default on $3.14 billion in municipal bonds. The bonds were to fund a sewer renovation and commissions had approved a plan, back in September, that would avoid this that included $1.1 billion in concessions and a sewer rate increase of up to 8.2% over the first three years. Creditors wouldn’t agree to those concessions, the county legislature couldn’t pass a bill, and so now it appears the county will default.

While this particular default made headlines because of its size, the article goes on to discuss other defaults. Jefferson County is just the 11th this year and beat the previous record set by Orange County, California in 1994. In that default, there were $2.2 billion in debt outstanding.


Buying Municipal or State Bonds

Last week I was volunteering at Meals on Wheels when one of the other volunteers, Cheryl, asked me about buying state bonds. Until last week, I hadn’t really given it much research because the idea of buying individual bonds was never tremendously appealing. There is a big barrier to entry when you’re buying individual bonds and it’s with the minimum purchase amounts. In Maryland, if you buy the bonds from the state through a broker, your minimum buy is for $5,000 and your purchase must be in increments of $5,000. However, you can buy them in smaller increments on the secondary market so I thought I’d give it a look for this Foundation series post on buying municipal and state bonds.

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