Inquiring minds are reading Rich Stunned by Recession Sell Munis for First Time by Bloomberg columnist Joe Mysak.

For the first time in decades, the rich showed no confidence in state and local governments during a recession.

This astonishing tale is told in the new edition of the Internal Revenue Service’s Statistics of Income Bulletin, which shows that in 2008, the latest year for which preliminary data is available, the richest taxpayers collected $7 billion less in tax-free interest than they did in 2007, an unprecedented drop of 15 percent.

The IRS had no explanation for the drop. A spokesman said there was no technical reason behind the decline, such as a change in tax treatment. So all we have are the numbers to tell the story.

Municipal bonds, as an asset class, were screaming “buy me” in 2008. There should have been an increase in tax-exempt interest earned.

Some investors did buy — just not those at the very top. The total number of individuals reporting tax-exempt interest grew in 2008, to 6.4 million from 6.29 million the year before.

How do we explain that drop in the amount of tax-exempt interest reported? It’s most likely a combination of reasons, all, again, inspired by fear: Some investors sold munis and bought CDs and Treasuries, and some shifted to shorter tax- exempt maturities, which pay less.

I can’t wait until next March, when the next installment of The Rich and Their Municipal Bonds comes out.

Take Some Chips Off The Table

I do not like Munis here. For starters, I think there will be a number of counties in Florida that go bankrupt. Harrisburg, Pennsylvania (the state capitol) is likely to go bankrupt as is Detroit, Michigan.

Yes, everyone is aware of those.

However, when liquidity is flowing everywhere, as it has been since March 2009, nothing seems to matter. Indeed, it is easy to be complacent because nothing matters. The correct way of thinking about this is: nothing matters “now”.

Add in a few cities going bankrupt in California, and in a liquidity crisis I can practically guarantee it will matter. Although there may be some good bets out there, munis seem to be richly priced which means there are better opportunities ahead.

Liquidity is a coward. 2008 in the face of Bernanke’s heroic efforts should be proof enough. Should panic strike again, far better prices lay ahead.

What applies to munis also applies to junk bonds, corporate bonds, and the stock market as well. Whatever you are holding, take some chips off the table.

Mike “Mish” Shedlock
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