Municipal bond exchange-traded funds (ETFs) provide investors with diversified access to the municipal bond market. Municipal bonds, or munis, are debt instruments issued by states, municipalities, or counties for the purpose of financing public capital expenditures, such as the construction of highways, bridges, and schools. For investors, munis generally offer tax-free interest income.

While many of these bonds are rated “investment grade” by ratings agencies, indicating a relatively low degree of credit risk, they are not risk-free. The perceived risk of munis was heightened last year amid the COVID-19 pandemic, which placed enormous financial strain on state and municipal budgets. The Federal Reserve took measures early in the pandemic in order to help calm the municipal bond market. Now, demand for munis is soaring as investors are on the hunt for yield and tax advantages, which is pushing down borrowing costs for state and local governments to near-record lows. A municipal bond ETF can help to reduce risk through holding debt issued by a broad range of states, municipal governments, or agencies.

Municipal bonds dramatically underperformed the broader market over the past year.
The municipal bond ETFs with the best one-year trailing total return are FMHI, HYMB, and HYD.
The top holdings of each of these ETFs are bonds issued by the Buckeye Ohio Tobacco Settlement Financing Authority.

There are 42 distinct municipal bond ETFs that trade in the U.S., excluding inverse and leveraged ETFs as well as funds with less than $50 million in assets under management (AUM). Municipal bonds, as measured by the Bloomberg Barclays Municipal Bond Index, have underperformed the broader market with a total return of 2.5% over the past 12 months compared to the S&P 500’s total return of 34.0%, as of Aug. 10, 2021. The best-performing municipal bond ETF for Q4 2021, based on performance over the past year, is the First Trust Municipal High Income ETF (FMHI). We examine the top three best municipal bond ETFs below. All numbers are as of Aug. 10, 2021.

Performance over One-Year: 11.9%
Expense Ratio: 0.55%
Annual Dividend Yield: 2.93%
Three-Month Average Daily Volume: 41,388
Assets Under Management: $286.4 million
Inception Date: Nov. 1, 2017
Issuer: First Trust

FMHI is an actively managed ETF that seeks to provide investors with income as well as long-term capital appreciation. The fund invests 80% or more of its net assets in municipal debt securities that make interest payments that are exempt from regular federal income taxes. It invests in municipal bonds with a range of maturities but its largest exposure is in bonds with between 15 and 20 years remaining to maturity. The state whose bonds receive the largest exposure in the fund is Colorado.

FMHI’s top three holdings include bonds issued by the following entities: the Buckeye Ohio Tobacco Settlement Financing Authority; the Canyon Pines Metropolitan District in Colorado; and the Sawyers Landing Community Development District in Florida.

Performance over One-Year: 9.7%
Expense Ratio: 0.35%
Annual Dividend Yield: 3.27%
Three-Month Average Daily Volume: 186,531
Assets Under Management: $1.8 billion
Inception Date: April 13, 2011
Issuer: State Street

HYMB tracks the Bloomberg Barclays Municipal Yield Index, which is a market value-weighted index that gauges the performance of high-yield municipal bonds issued by U.S. states, the District of Columbia, U.S. territories, and local government agencies. High-yield bonds, also referred to as “junk” bonds, pay higher interest rates than investment-grade debt due to lower credit ratings. But they are riskier investments with a much higher chance of default.

HYMB invests in a range of high-yield municipal bonds with an average maturity of 14.97 years. Its top three holdings are bonds issued by the Buckeye Ohio Tobacco Settlement Financing Authority, and two different sets of bonds issued by the Puerto Rico Sales Tax Financing Corp.

Performance over One-Year: 8.9%
Expense Ratio: 0.35%
Annual Dividend Yield: 3.62%
Three-Month Average Daily Volume: 530,098
Assets Under Management: $4.0 billion
Inception Date: Feb. 4, 2009
Issuer: VanEck

HYD tracks the Bloomberg Barclays Municipal Custom High Yield Composite Index, which is designed to gauge the performance of the high-yield, long-term, tax-exempt bond market. The ETF provides exposure to high-yielding municipal bonds whose income is generally exempt from federal taxes. The fund mainly targets bonds rated below investment grade but it also invests 25% of its portfolio in BBB investment-grade bonds in order to enhance liquidity.

HYD covers a wide range of municipal sectors and securities that have historically low rates of default. The state that receives the largest allocation is California, followed by Illinois and New York. The fund’s top three holdings include bonds issued by the Buckeye Ohio Tobacco Settlement Financing Authority, the Puerto Rico Sales Tax Financing Corp., and the Florida Development Finance Corp.

The comments, opinions, and analyses expressed herein are for informational purposes only and should not be considered individual investment advice or recommendations to invest in any security or to adopt any investment strategy. While we believe the information provided herein is reliable, we do not warrant its accuracy or completeness. The views and strategies described in our content may not be suitable for all investors. Because market and economic conditions are subject to rapid change, all comments, opinions, and analyses contained within our content are rendered as of the date of the posting and may change without notice. The material is not intended as a complete analysis of every material fact regarding any country, region, market, industry, investment, or strategy.

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