SEC Commissioner Elisse Walter spoke at the SIFMA Municipal Bond Summit yesterday, and her message came across loud and clear. She said that despite enormous advances in technology, decentralized muniland trading is still too hard to understand from the outside. She said that although 75% of municipal bonds are held by retail investors through direct ownership, money market funds, mutual funds and closed end funds, retail investors are still “afforded second class treatment.”
Walter led a two-year effort to assess the hurdles that retail investors face in the municipal bond market. The SEC held three field hearings on the municipal market over the last two years, and Walter said one thing that struck her were the retail investors who said that they couldn’t get pricing for their municipal bonds. Walter seems dedicated to fixing that problem. Transparent bond pricing – the bedrock of a stable and fair market – has been unavailable to investors for decades in muniland.
Walter’s statements echoed the findings of the SEC muni report (summarized by the law firm Bingham):
The report finds that “the secondary market for municipal securities is relatively opaque.” Pre-trade bid and ask quotes are not readily available. Market participants have sought greater insight into the value of municipal securities as they rely less on rating agencies or on bond insurance and other credit enhancements. The Report finds that lack of price transparency inhibits retail customers in assessing the fairness of prices offered by dealers. Further, the lack of price transparency undermines the ability of dealers to meet fair pricing obligations.
This is the core problem of the muni market. In summary, the report says that retail investors can’t get price quotes, and they don’t know if the prices that they are offered by dealers are fair.