Return to:Previous Page
Morningstar.com's Interactive Classroom

Course 210
Municipal Bond Insurance

Introduction

Owners of municipal bonds can purchase insurance on them. Although municipal bonds are considered safe, some investors sleep better at night knowing that their investments are protected against loss. As a wise investor, you should know about municipal bond insurance and its pros and cons. By knowing the advantages of insuring, you should be able to choose whether you want your own insurance or not.

Why Insure Municipal Bonds?</FONT></P> <P><FONT face=Verdana>A municipal bond is an obligation of debt issued by states and city and local governments to raise money for the public funding of projects and services such as schools and housing. Municipal bond insurance is an insurance policy on the bond and is underwritten by a private insurance company.</FONT></P> <P><FONT face=Verdana>Insurance provides investors with the security that no matter what happens to the finances of the government that issues the bond, the bond's interest and principal payments will be made.</FONT></P> <P><FONT face=Verdana>Like other bonds, municipal bonds have certain risks associated with them. A bond's primary risk is that it could default. If a bond defaults, it means the government that issued the bond does not have the funds to make timely payments of interest and principal.</FONT></P> <P><FONT face=Verdana>Municipal bonds also count on the projects they finance to bring in expected revenues. The governments that issue municipal bonds often rely on these revenues to pay back the bonds they issue. Municipal bonds therefore also run the risk that these projects will fail to produce the revenue needed to pay off the bonds. Insurance provides investors with the security that no matter what happens to the finances of the government that issues the bond, the bond's interest and principal payments will be made.</FONT></P> <P><FONT face=Verdana>Bonds with low default risk are given high credit ratings, which influence the market prices of the bonds. A bond that is insured will have a higher credit rating than a non-insured bond. Insured bonds receive the highest credit rating possible: AAA. The higher credit rating enables the bond issuer to pay a lower interest rate on the bonds when they are sold. There are four major agencies that provide bond credit ratings. These agencies are the following:</FONT></P> <UL> <LI><FONT face=Verdana>Moody's Investors Service</FONT></LI> <LI><FONT face=Verdana>Standard &amp; Poor's Corporation</FONT></LI> <LI><FONT face=Verdana>Fitch IBCA, Inc.</FONT><FONT face=Verdana>&nbsp;</FONT></LI> <LI><FONT face=Verdana>Duff &amp; Phelps Credit Rating Co.</FONT></LI></UL> <P><FONT face=Verdana>Insuring a municipal bond also increases the bond's marketability. The insurance helps smaller issuers who are unknown or do not issue bonds frequently to be taken seriously by investors.</FONT></P> <P><FONT face=Verdana></FONT></P> <P><FONT face=Verdana>[subsection What Does Municipal Bond Insurance Cover?

Municipal bond insurance companies guarantee that the interest and principal of a municipal bond will be paid on time if the bond issuer is unable to do so. In the event of a default, the insurance company makes the payments to ensure that investors receive their principal and interest earnings promptly. This guarantee generally lasts for the entire life of the bond and cannot be canceled by the insurer. An exception to this rule is in the case of unit investment trusts. With unit investment trusts, the bonds can be insured either for their lives or for the life of the trust only. Insurance companies usually insure only municipal bonds with credit ratings of BBB or higher. Policies can also be taken out on municipal bond funds.

When a municipal bond is first issued, it may come with a condition called a sinking fund requirement. To pay off its bond debts, a municipal bond issuer may be required to make regular cash payments to a sinking fund trustee. This condition requires the bond issuer to pay off a certain amount of the bond debt each year by making payments to the fund's trustee. Municipal bond insurance also covers sinking fund payments, making sure the fund is kept up to date and that no payments are missed.

What Does Municipal Bond Insurance Cover?

Municipal bond insurance companies guarantee that the interest and principal of a municipal bond will be paid on time if the bond issuer is unable to do so. In the event of a default, the insurance company makes the payments to ensure that investors receive their principal and interest earnings promptly. This guarantee generally lasts for the entire life of the bond and cannot be canceled by the insurer. An exception to this rule is in the case of unit investment trusts. With unit investment trusts, the bonds can be insured either for their lives or for the life of the trust only. Insurance companies usually insure only municipal bonds with credit ratings of BBB or higher. Policies can also be taken out on municipal bond funds.

When a municipal bond is first issued, it may come with a condition called a sinking fund requirement. To pay off its bond debts, a municipal bond issuer may be required to make regular cash payments to a sinking fund trustee. This condition requires the bond issuer to pay off a certain amount of the bond debt each year by making payments to the fund's trustee. Municipal bond insurance also covers sinking fund payments, making sure the fund is kept up to date and that no payments are missed.

How Municipal Bonds Are Insured?

Before a municipal bond is insured and sold, it is purchased by an underwriter firm (or financial guaranty company), insured, and then resold to investors. Underwriting is a risk assessment process by the insurance company. In the underwriting process, the insurer decides whether and on what basis it will issue a policy on a bond. Most insurance companies that insure municipal bonds are called "monoline" insurers. This means the insurance company insures only debt securities, eliminating the risks that come from insuring any other types of products or services. These insurance companies are closely scrutinized by the same credit rating agencies that rate the bonds.

Once a bond is insured, its performance is closely monitored by its insurer through a process called surveillance. During surveillance, the insurer examines the financial statements and reports of the bond issuer to make sure the issuer's credit will remain stable.

After the underwriting process, which takes about a month, the bond is given a new rating by a rating agency. It is also assigned an identification number called a CUSIP. The CUSIP number is used to identify the security when it is traded and settled.

Drawbacks of Insuring Municipal Bonds

Municipal bond issuers must pay an insurance premium to obtain insurance coverage for their bonds. Although investors do not pay these premiums directly, the fact that issuers and investment firms pay them means that these costs get transferred to investors. These costs are passed on in the form of lower interest rates on insured bonds. Issuers reduce their borrowing costs because insured bonds are rated AAA. Bonds rated AAA generally yield lower interest rates than lower-rated bonds. The higher the risk of a bond (the lower its credit rating), the more investors expect to be compensated for putting their money into the bond. For the insured municipal bond to be profitable for its issuer, the savings the issuer makes by offering lower interest rates must be larger than the premiums it pays to the insurer.

An insurance policy on a municipal bond also does not guarantee that a bond will reach a certain price in the marketplace. Insured bonds are still subject to changing interest rates, which affect bond prices inversely. A bond sold before it matures may be worth more or less than its par value.

Municipal Bond Insurers

The majority of municipal bonds are insured by several large financial guaranty agencies. The world's largest insurer of municipal bonds is the Municipal Bond Insurance Association. (MBIA). MBIA provides financial guarantee insurance, investment management services, and other municipal services to the public, private, and not-for-profit sectors.

Another one of the largest municipal bond insurers is the American Municipal Bond Assurance Corporation (AMBAC). AMBAC insures municipal and structured finance debts and is the successor of the oldest municipal bond insurance company, which wrote the first municipal bond insurance policy in 1971. AMBAC became a subsidiary of Citibank in 1985 and went public in 1991. In 1995, AMBAC and MBIA started an international joint venture called MBIA-AMBAC International.

Since 1984, the Financial Guaranty Insurance Company (FGIC) has insured more than 13,500 municipal bonds. The FGIC also provides public entities with services such as liquidity facilities and investment products.

Governments can also get their bonds insured by a wide variety of smaller financial guaranty agencies.

Should You Buy Insurance?

Insured municipal bonds have higher credit ratings than noninsured municipal bonds. They are one of the safest investments you can buy. If the bond issuer defaults, your principal and interest payments are guaranteed by the insurer. However, this security comes with a price: lower interest payments. The decision to buy an insured bond will ultimately come down to your risk tolerance. Is it worth it to you to lose a little return for that extra protection? If it is, then insured municipal bonds may be a good investment for you.

Quiz 210
There is only one correct answer to each question.

1 What does municipal bond insurance guarantee?
a. The payment of bond interest
b. The payment of sinking funds
c. Both of the above
2 What is the process of assessing the risk of a bond called?
a. Risk assessment
b. Risk tolerance
c. Underwriting
3 3. What term describes the risk that a government will be unable to repay the principal of a bond?
a. Price risk
b. Default risk
c. Revenue risk
4 Who pays for municipal bond insurance directly?
a. Bond investors
b. Bond issuers
c. Custodians
5 What company is the largest issuer of municipal bond insurance?
a. MBIA
b. AMBAC
c. FGIC
To take the quiz and win credits toward Morningstar Rewards go to
the quiz page.
Copyright 2006 Morningstar, Inc. All rights reserved.
Return to:Previous Page