“Safe Harbor Investment Covenants”

By Travis Johnson, Stock Gumshoe, October 24, 2008

Today’s ad that will receive the Gumshoe treatment is for Steve Christ (no relation, I assume) and his Wealth Advisory newsletter … and yes, like so many others these days, it is focused on words like “safety” and “guaranteed.” Exactly the tonic that the panicked investor demands.

Now, this particular newsletter will only run you $79 a year, so you can go ahead and subscribe if you feel like it — as with so many of these “introductory” newsletters I assume they also use it as the target of constant upgrade offers for their more expensive services, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t any good.

But if you just want to figure out what a “safe harbor investment covenant” is, well, you’re in the right place — just read on, it won’t cost you anything.

First, let’s see how they “sell” this idea …

“I made an average of 28.2% profits without investing in a single stock… and by taking advantage of
tax-free investments that provide guaranteed return of principal.

“URGENT: In the next few moments, you’ll learn why it’s critical you use this tool – starting today – to safeguard your wealth from its two greatest threats: another market crash…and excessive taxation by the U.S. Government.”

It sounds pretty good, no? It gets better, just you wait …

“This powerful – but often overlooked – investment vehicle not only allows you to grow your wealth, but it also allows you to…

“Keep your money out of the U.S. Government’s hands by taking advantage of tax-free investments…
Earn both a steady stream of income AND a high rate of return…

“Rest easy with the knowledge that, in many cases, you’ll be taking advantage of investments where the principal is 100% guaranteed.”

So I know you’re asking, “where do I sign?” Give me a moment here, I’m just getting started!

Tongue firmly in cheek, one assumes, Steve tells us about the one “catch” …

” … in order to take advantage of this powerful investment vehicle, you must be willing to stay away from potentially dangerous investments like stocks or mutual funds.”

Hmph.

And he makes the point over and over that Warren Buffett, Bill Gross, and Wilbur Ross are all invested in these “covenants” — and if all those smart, rich guys do it, it must be good … no?

Lots of quotes from newspapers, too, to give this newsletter a little touch of their gravitas …

“The Wall Street Journal reported that ‘large investors are snapping up these investments.’

“‘Investing in (Safe Harbor Investment Covenants) is a no-brainer,’ according to the Washington Post.

“Forbes said that Safe Harbor Investment Covenants are ‘the non-volatile safe haven where investors can get a stable and reasonable return with little risk.’

“The Minneapolis Star-Tribune called Safe Harbor Investment Covenants ‘dependable and tax-free to boot,’ while the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel summed it up this way: ‘Amid the stock market’s turbulence… an island of calm.'”

So what are we dealing with here?

You guessed it: Municipal Bonds.

Sounds a little less sexy than “safe harbor investment coventants,” doesn’t it?

Municipal bonds are a way for you to lend money to state and local governments, or to projects that are underwritten by those governments. They come in all different stripes, types, and sizes, and there are indeed plenty of very well-respected investment honchos who have been shouting about munis at the top of their lungs over the last few months.

I’m not particularly an expert in muni bonds, and have never invested in them myself, but I have looked into them from time to time. I even wrote about them early this year, when a different newsletter teased them as offering a “Virtual Florida Retirement” … so this is what I can tell you:

Municipal bonds are tax free at the federal level, and in some states that state’s bonds are also not taxed. This means that, all else being equal, a municipal bond should have a slightly lower interest rate than a treasury bond, to compensate for that tax-advantaged status.

Of course, all things are not equal — and while it’s extremely rare for municipalities to default on their bonds, it’s also undeniably true that in a “flight to safety” trade as we’ve seen in recent months, the “absolutely safe” investment of treasury bonds is more valuable to investors than the “probably safe” municipal bond. So if you agree that municipal bonds are irrationally cheap these days, that’s why.

Steve Christ peppers his ad with lots of references to financial panic, including talk of bank closures, bankruptcies, and other crises — and while all those things may continue to come, do note that municipalities do not exist in a vacuum … if the country sees terrible times, so will many of our towns and cities. If the past holds true they’ll probably still pay their debts, but when someone talks about financial armageddon we shouldn’t necessarily allow them to convince us that city governments will avoid the bloodbath.

And there is at least one good example these days for the “probably safe” qualification — Jefferson County, Alabama, home to Birmingham, is sinking in debt thanks in part to some really bad deals with JP Morgan on a big bond issuance (and associated derivatives) that they used to pay for their new sewer system, and their debt is getting downgraded, and it’s possible they’ll go into bankruptcy.

Add that to the recent panics when it briefly looked like California and Massachusetts might have trouble refinancing their short term debt (they didn’t, in the end), and it’s easy to see why investors are worried about almost everything, even the good old muni, the old bastion of safety and tax-free income, beloved of retirees around the country.

As I hope I’ve made clear, I’m no bond expert — but if you look back 20 years at the good muni bonds, they’ve almost always traded at lower interest rates than treasury bonds. My guess would be that someday they will again trade at lower rates, if only because it seems like federal taxes are more likely to go up than down in the coming decades.

So what’s an individual to do? Well, probably most muni bonds are already held by individuals, and you can certainly go out and find bonds for your own state (or even city) in hopes of some extra tax advantage. It’s hard to build a diversified portfolio of bonds all on your lonesome, however, unless you’ve got buckets of money — and unless you’re close to retirement, you’re probably not thinking about having a large portion of your portfolio in muni bonds. Most of the big brokers, discount or otherwise, will sell muni bonds direct to investors, usually in $1,000 increments, and this area is probably well understood by most individual investment advisers and brokers, too, if you happen to choose that route.

There are a few ways to go the fund route with muni bonds — some of the big fund families offer municipal bond funds, and some of them even offer state-specific variations for the larger states that have a lot of retirees and where the tax advantage applies. Vanguard, for example, offers state-specific funds for California, Florida, New York, New Jersey, Ohio, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania, and most of the big families have similar offerings. Most of them have probably averaged returns of 4-6% a year over the last ten years, though returns have been lower lately because bond values have fallen (remember, the value of a traded bond goes down if the interest rates demanded by investors go up).

And there are also many, many closed end funds that invest primarily or exclusively in municipal bonds — and that may be the best bet now if you’re looking to take advantage of what you believe is a temporary mispricing of these bonds. That’s because most closed end funds are also trading at an unusually large discount to their net asset value right now, so if these investments come firmly back into favor they have the potential to snap back even stronger, since that discount should shrink.

Most of the close-end funds that will probably look most appealing at first glance are leveraged funds, which means they borrow money to increase their potential returns. These usually have covenants that require them to maintain certain capital levels in order to keep paying dividends, so I’d pay attention to that if you’re interested in these funds — most of them that have relatively low leverage, like 10-25% or so, but if they’re leveraged at all, and in particular if they’re more heavily leveraged than that, it might be time to get a bit nervous.

Probably the easiest place to search for these kinds of funds is at the Closed End Fund Association website — the bond search is here, and you can make selections under “classifications” to choose what kind of bond funds you’re looking for, and whether you want a leveraged or unleveraged fund.

When you’re looking at bonds or bond funds, it is of course important to think a little bit about what you’re buying, or what’s in the portfolio. You’ll see high yield bonds in the municipal sector just as you’ll see high yield bonds in the corporate sector, and for the same reason: Some bonds are riskier than others. From what little I know, it seems that the “general obligation” bonds of states and cities are the least risky, since they’re just backed by the tax-collecting ability of that government and are generally in front of the line. Other bonds for long-lived infrastructure projects are often considered safe, too, though they may depend on income from those projects to pay back the interest, and it was bonds like this for a sewer project that appear to have caused such a crisis in Birmingham. States can “lend” their tax free status to other projects, too, in order to encourage development — like sports stadiums, etc., so those are not exactly the same as bonds that are backed by the full taxing ability of the state, city, or county government.

Most muni bonds are rated by one of the ratings agencies, using their own scale (meaning that even lower grade muni bonds may well be stronger than A-rated corporate bonds, for example). Most of them are rated awfully high, since the default risk is perceived to be very low, though it’s probably even more important now than ever to look at ratings with some skepticism. You could easily imagine, for example, that there are municipal bonds backing the extension of city services to subdivisions that are now filled with empty, foreclosed homes.

You can also find guarantees in this sector, including insured bonds (even though they’re backed by the bond insurers that everyone’s a bit afraid of, their problems generally came from the insured CDOs, not the insured munis), or municipal bonds that have been pre-refunded and that are backed by treasury bonds, but trade at significantly higher yields than treasuries.

In the end, I can really only tell you that I know Steve Christ is hiding his muni bond idea behind the name “Safe Harbor Investment Covenants,” and that many other investment pundits are clearly pushing these bonds as generally offering great low-risk returns. And I know that there are many different levels of risk in this market, just as in other bonds, but that historically they have almost always been very safe. “Historically” is clearly not much of a salve for folks these days, but if you’re interested in tax-advantaged yields they’ve rarely been available at such a discounted price.

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13 Comments on "“Safe Harbor Investment Covenants”"

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Carlo
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0
October 24, 2008 9:11 am

These guys are begging for our money.
They all offer 80% discounts every second day.
Ridicolous…

Jerry G
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Jerry G
October 24, 2008 9:22 am

If these newsletter editors took their own advice …..they would never be able to retire …..and buying all those “Turkeys” they recommend would result in a , “SOUP KITCHEN” Flat Broke Retirement LOL

robert zimmerman
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October 24, 2008 10:31 am

Excellent overview of the tax-free alternatives. Another good site for ETF is http://www.etfconnect.com

Buck
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Buck
October 24, 2008 3:08 pm
You’ve got to be kidding me? “Safe Harbor Investment Covanents” are really just “Municipal Bonds”??? This Steve Christ guy must have taken lessons from Karam Rahemwhatshisname of the 400 report on “how to just make it up as you go along” when he decided to re-name LEAP options to “dark equities” or re-name covered call writing to “surety income certificates”. I mean really… what the $%#& are these guy’s doing?!?! I hate sleazy marketers SO MUCH it just makes my blood boil!!!! They’re all a bunch of misleading clowns… the whole lot of them. I wish someone would sue the… Read more »
richard0826
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richard0826
October 25, 2008 3:35 am

Thanks but no safe harbor investment for this fella!

Jerry G
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Jerry G
October 25, 2008 4:06 pm
There is a way to make money in this bear Market …..Throw out all the HYPED Newsletter advice , Silk Road , Monkey Shine and all that other nonsense . Look for stocks hitting their 52 week lows, lousy financials ….and you will have some big WINNERS . Examples from “Jerry’s Road to Riches” …..would be the following SHORTS that should work for next week Whenever shorting ,,,,be sure to set buystop trailng orders to terminate the position if the stock rises sharply in value. Good Shorts would be PLD, AMG and SRZ…… NO CHARGE and no BS just good… Read more »
Investorperson
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Investorperson
October 25, 2008 6:53 pm

We need to get out of the market, take early retirement if possible and cash in what we can’t pull out, and put it in savings that are safe. A small return is better than no return but losses. Buying these sites is only helping them pull their money out of the stock market with a return, while suckers are feeding the stocks following their advice. Let’s get smart, and don’t order these fraud subscriptions, and they will go out of business with the other crooks!

NBKid
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NBKid
October 25, 2008 9:13 pm

The one thing going for MUNI’s from what i’ve heard will be if Obama gets elected, he is on the record of saying taxes will rise on interest income. With Muni’s being tax free, the superrich and super careful investor will be more proned to look at Muni’s for an investment, and they are expected to benefit from the above. Good luck. NBKID

farley 5
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farley 5
October 25, 2008 10:51 am

Dear Buck,

Chill out man! Without your Sleazy Marketers this site would not exist and we could not trade all of this investment advice. Also, our Fearless Leader would have nothing for his 5 Cray Supercomputers, wired in parallel, the Thinkolator, to do. Payroll is so boreing.

sara
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sara
October 29, 2008 12:20 pm

Stansberry Research was nabbed by the SEC several years ago for fraudulent and deceptive claims made to investors. The SEC complaint can be viewed here:
http://www.sec.gov/litigation/complaints/comp18090.htm.

Custer
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Custer
November 6, 2008 5:12 pm

Thank you, Sara. I’ve been suckered by Stansberry’s letters a number of times. “Buck” may be correct: they all may be fakers.

Custer
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Custer
November 6, 2008 5:17 pm

The big problem with Munis is you can’t sell them without taking a huge hit. Your broker makes money. And if you buy bonds wth good yields, they are probably callable at 101.

farley 5
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farley 5
November 6, 2008 5:56 pm

1. NEVER buy a Muni expecting to sell it. Hold to maturity.
2. Spreads on Munis are very skinny and brokers don’t make money.
3. Bids for Munis will be fine if the face is over $25K. Under that, they are hard to resell.
4. Use the CUSIP to check out the Callable price. Most are at Par – not 101.
5. There are a TON of munis out there that are pre-refunded but trade as if they were A rated.

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