A flood of money pouring in? Check: Muni bond funds added about $2 billion in the week ended Feb. 17, according to Refinitiv Lipper US Fund Flows data, building upon a $2.6 billion inflow in the prior period that was the fourth-largest on record. Scarce supply? You bet: Some analysts estimate that states and cities in 2021 will bring to market the smallest amount of tax-exempt bonds in 21 years. Fiscal stimulus supporting its case? Indeed: The prospect of $350 billion in aid to state and local governments should help stave off any widespread credit stress.
Perhaps most remarkably, though, muni investors appear to have fully embraced the “HODL” mentality of the crypto crowd. In typical times, February’s sharp selloff in U.S. Treasuries, which has sent the benchmark 10-year yield up almost 30 basis points to 1.35% (for a monthly loss of almost 2%), would have reverberated by now across the market for state and local bonds. Instead, tax-exempt yields have been borderline immovable; they only finally started to budge toward the end of last week.
By that time, municipal bonds became arguably the most expensive asset class anywhere. As Bloomberg News’s Danielle Moran noted, yields had fallen so low on top-rated tax-free debt that even after accounting for the exemption from federal taxes, it still made more sense for investors to purchase Treasuries instead. It’s certainly fair to argue that Bitcoin isn’t worth more than $50,000, or that shares of Tesla Inc. shouldn’t be trading at more than 1,000 times earnings. But it’s at least possible to make the case that they should. It’s not every day that a corner of the bond market rallies to such an extent that it’s objectively a bad deal.
The Federal Reserve Bank of New York on Wednesday released its quarterly report on household debt and credit for the final three months of 2020, with its strategists and statisticians deciding to dig deeper into mortgage originations, the types of homebuyers during the Covid-19 pandemic and to what extent Americans are taking out cash against their home equity. While much of what they found confirms many of the narratives about the housing market, it’s the sheer magnitude of the move that’s breathtaking and puts into context where the economy stands almost one year after the coronavirus crisis began in the U.S.
At the highest level, mortgage originations reached almost $1.2 trillion in the final three months of 2020, the highest quarterly volume in the history of the New York Fed’s data, which begins in 2000. Americans refinanced more mortgage debt last year than any time since 2003, while mortgages taken out to purchase a home surged to the highest since 2006. First-time buyers took on more debt than at any time in history, while mortgages for repeat buyers and those looking for a second home or an investment property reached the highest in more than a decade.
Meanwhile, home prices soared across the U.S., with the S&P CoreLogic Case-Shiller index jumping 9.5% in November, the most since 2014 (December’s figures will be released next week). This surge led to “a notable increase in cashout refinance volumes, which spiked in the fourth quarter of 2020 and show no sign of abating,” the New York Fed researchers said in a blog post. Collectively, homeowners withdrew $182 billion in home equity in 2020, or an average of about $27,000 for each household. Even those who chose not to take out extra cash saved an average of $200 a month on their mortgage payments.