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Originally published Saturday, August 23, 2014 at 8:00 PM

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Closed-end muni funds open you up to risk

Columnist answers readers’ questions on muni bond funds and managing a portfolio.

Syndicated columnist



Q: How about municipal bond funds rather than individual bonds?

I have money in a closed-end muni fund (MAV) that’s paying over 7 percent. The interest income comes in at the end of the month, every month.

I know that can’t go on forever, and I would imagine when interest rates go up I will need to make an adjustment. But 7 percent and no tax ain’t bad! That works for my math.

A: Seven percent is an inspiring yield, but you should also be considering how much risk you are taking to get that yield. Here are three major risks that you may not have put into your income equation:

If your fund holds long-term bonds and interest rates rise, how much will the value of your fund decline?

If your fund uses debt leverage to boost return, how will an increase in short-term interest rates affect the income and value of your fund?

If your fund invests in lower-quality municipal bonds and the economy slows, the value of these bonds could fall.

To get a 7 percent yield, it is very likely that all three forms of risk are present in this closed-end fund.

Here is what will happen if interest rates rise.

First, the value of the bonds held will decline. Worse, since a portion of the portfolio was purchased with borrowed money, the loss will be magnified. Second, the interest cost of the borrowed money will likely rise, reducing the net distributable income from the fund, a good reason for the premium to disappear. If something like this happens, it would not be the first time.

Q: Presently we are invested in what you would call a portfolio. One of the reasons my financial planner gives for investing in certain funds is that they perform well in different markets when the Dow and Nasdaq may be down, allowing the portfolio to at least make some money that year.

My question, though, is what if you don’t care about a down year or two? What if you are more concerned about the long-term end result?

A: I don’t know your financial planner, so I don’t know what the thinking is. But planners try to put together a combination of asset classes, each represented by a mutual fund, that will work to “smooth your ride.”

Suppose, for example, your portfolio had a fund that doubled in a year, making a $100,000 investment grow to $200,000.

But in the next year, the same fund lost half its value, taking your portfolio back down to $100,000. The “average” return was 25 percent (100 percent gain less 50 percent loss divided by 2), but your actual return was zero.

Now imagine a less-volatile portfolio where some of the moves cancel out the others. It rises 20 percent in a good year, but declines 10 percent the next. So your $100,000 rises to $120,000 and then falls to $108,000. The net result is that your more stable portfolio, with lower returns, ends the period with, yes, an actual return. More money.

Questions: scott@scottburns.comCopyright 2014, Universal Press Syndicate

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