Municipal bonds, which are issued by states and local communities, are a popular choice for those who are looking for a fixed income investment in a taxable account. The reason for this is that the income generated by muni bonds is tax exempt, which boosts their effective yield as compared to taxable bonds.
Beyond being a boon to investors, this tax break is a great help to the communities that issue the bonds, as they can pay a lower interest rate and still be competitive with higher rate bonds that don’t share this tax advantage. But this all comes at a price… According to the Joint Committee on Taxation, the federal government will lose out on over $200B in tax revenue due to the muni bond tax exemption between 2010-2014.
Given the above, it’s perhaps not surprising that lawmakers are talking about reforming the tax treatment of municipal bonds. Of course, according to Jason Zweig, this has been talked about over 100 times since 1918, and it’s never happened. But with all the recent interest in reducing the deficit, it seems that more people are talking about it than in the past.
Aside from taking away a well-loved tax shelter from investors, the taxation of municipal bonds would essentially equate to the federal government taking money away from local communities, as those communities would have to start paying higher interest rates to make their bonds attractive enough to draw investors.
Given the rough shape that many states are currently in, it’s hard to imagine Congress acting to make things worse, but you never know. One possibility is that, if the tax exemption was taken away, the feds would provide subsidies to local communities to help offset the added cost, but at a rate lower than the tax exemption.
Who knows… As I noted above, this has been debated multiple times in the past and has never gone anywhere but, given the current economic climate, it’s probably worth keeping an eye on these discussions.