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Course 208
General Obligation Bonds

Introduction

There are two types of municipal bonds--revenue bonds and general obligation (GO) bonds. The difference between the two types is the kind of collateral used to secure their payments of interest and principal. General obligation bonds offer investors a relatively safe investment vehicle while providing states and local governments with funds for community improvement.

What Are General Obligation Bonds?

General obligation bonds are debt instruments issued by states and local governments to raise funds for public works. What makes general obligation bonds (or GO bonds for short) unique is that they are backed by the full faith and credit of the issuing municipality. This means that the municipality commits its full resources to paying bondholders, including general taxation and the ability to raise more funds through credit. The ability to back up bond payments with tax funds is what makes GO bonds distinct from revenue bonds, which are repaid using the revenue generated by the specific project the bonds are issued to fund (fees from a public parking garage, for example).

GO bonds give municipalities a tool to raise funds for projects that will not provide direct sources of revenue--roads and bridges, parks and equipment, and the like. As a result, GO bonds are typically used to fund projects that will serve the entire community; revenue bonds, on the other hand, are used to fund projects that will serve specific populations, who provide revenue to repay the debt through user fees and use taxes.

General Obligation Bond Payments

The principal reason municipal general obligation bonds are such low-risk investments is that they are backed by the full faith and credit of the municipalities that issue them. This means that municipalities can apply funds raised from various kinds of taxes; the default risk of GO bonds is low, since the municipality has the option of raising taxes to meet its obligations.

Most cities, towns, and villages typically rely on various kinds of ad valorem taxes to pay GO bond interest.

States and local municipalities that levy income or sales taxes may apply the revenue they generate to pay principal and interest on GO bonds. Various kinds of fees, such as license fees, can be used as well. Most cities, towns, and villages, however, typically rely on various kinds of ad valorem taxes--taxes based on the value of private and business holdings within the municipality. Property and real estate taxes are the most common types of ad valorem taxes available to municipalities. For example, if a town creates a bond issue to fund a new school building, it may increase the property tax rate in order to ensure that it will have sufficient income to meet its obligations to bondholders.

It is also possible for municipalities to repay bondholders by borrowing more money. When interest rates fall, municipalities may call a bond issue--i.e., repay the principal before the bonds mature. The municipality may then re-fund the debt by making a new bond issue at a lower rate of interest, saving itself some money in the process.

Advantages and Disadvantages of General Obligation Bonds

General obligation bonds are prized for their relative safety as investments. Because the credit of a municipality stands behind them, GOs typically have high bond ratings, higher than revenue bonds tend to. The reason is the municipality's power of taxation: a city or town always has the option of raising tax rates or levying new taxes in order to meet its obligation to bondholders. As a result, it is rare for a municipality to default on its GO bonds. GO bonds typically rate with U.S. Treasury securities and high-grade corporate bonds for investor confidence. With revenue bonds, by contrast, if the project the bonds fund does not raise sufficient revenue, there is at least the possibility that the municipality may default on the bond issue.

As with other examples of low-risk investments, the tradeoff for safety is lower returns. GO bonds typically pay lower interest than revenue bonds, precisely because the credit behind them makes the possibility of default so remote. However, many GO bonds offer federal-income-tax-free returns, which can make up for lower interest rates, especially for investors in higher tax brackets. For example, if you were in a 28% tax bracket, a 4% yield from a tax-free municipal issue would be equivalent to a 5.56% yield from a taxable bond issue. Keep in mind that general obligation bonds and other municipal securities may indeed be subject to state and local taxes, as well as the federal alternative minimum tax.

Buying General Obligation Bonds

General obligation bonds, like most municipal bonds, are typically sold in denominations of $5,000. While it is sometimes possible to buy directly from the municipality that issues them, most GO bonds are purchased on the secondary market. If you buy through secondary dealers such as brokers, you may be required to make a minimum purchase of from $10,000 to $25,000 or more.

For those who want the benefits of GO bonds without the high purchase prices, there are several opportunities to buy into pools of GO bonds. A number of mutual fund companies offer shares in managed open-end or closed-end municipal security funds. Another alternative is a unit investment trust, an unmanaged pool of GO bonds. These pooled funds give investors a chance to participate in a diversified portfolio of municipal bonds without the need to lay out thousands of dollars initially. A typical minimum purchase for these pooled investments is $1,000.

Community Resources Financed by General Obligation Bonds

That school, streetlight, or public park in your neighborhood was probably built with the help of a general obligation bond issue. Sold to raise funds for works that benefit the entire community, GO bonds are backed by the full faith and credit of the municipality, which allows the state or local government to raise taxes to ensure that the bonds are paid. While other investments may pay higher interest rates, GO bonds offer the advantage of solid security, and many offer tax-free returns as well. Investors can participate in diversified portfolios of GO bonds with a relatively small investment by buying shares in mutual funds and unit investment trusts based on these securities.

Quiz 208
There is only one correct answer to each question.

1 What is the principal difference between general obligation bonds and revenue bonds?
a. General obligation bonds pay principal, but not interest.
b. The two are backed by different kinds of collateral.
c. General obligation bonds are issued by cities; revenue bonds are issued by villages
2 Which of the following would not likely be funded with general obligation bonds?
a. A pay parking ramp
b. Street improvements
c. New playground equipment
3 Which of the following is not a type of tax that municipalities use to pay general obligation bondholders?
a. User fees
b. Sales tax
c. Property tax
4 Why are general obligation bonds are a safe investment?
a. They pay such high rates of interest.
b. They are backed by the revenue of public works projects.
c. Municipalities can raise taxes to avoid default.
5 Which of the following is not a way to make a $1,000 investment in general obligation bonds?
a. Brokers
b. Open-end funds
c. Closed-end funds
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