Winning a Loser's Game: Three Decades of Active Municipal Risk Management

Will Rogers once said, “Good judgment comes from experience, and a lot of that comes from bad judgment.” I can appreciate both the humor and wisdom in this quote when I consider the investment lessons learned over my career. Any honest portfolio manager will admit that investing is a humbling business. At the same time, our investment experiences, both good and bad, should lead us to a greater understanding of and appreciation for – risk. Even market sectors perceived as low-risk, such as the municipal bond market, can offer valuable lessons and insights for those who study the market. Fixed income investors have always known, for example, that interest rate risk was a very real part of bond investing, as we have experienced most recently during the Fed’s policy normalization. But interest rate movements are just one of the many risks in the fixed income markets. I was fortunate to have gained an appreciation for the complexity and risks of the municipal bond market early in my career.

Municipal Complexity

I recall attending a large investment conference nearly three decades ago where the Director of Municipal Research from a major Wall Street firm stood before the audience – which included equity and fixed income analysts and portfolio managers – and proclaimed that the municipal market was, in fact, the most complex of all financial markets. He proceeded to outline the many risks inherent in the market. Not only was there interest rate risk, as in the Treasury market, and credit risk, similar to corporates, but municipal bonds also had optionality and cash flow uncertainty, much like the mortgage-backed sector. He warned of the liquidity risks municipal managers face given the potential for (perhaps irrational) shifts in sentiment among its dominant retail investor base and the difficulty dealers have in trying to effectively hedge municipal inventory. He also cited examples of the regulatory, legal and political risks that municipal investors must consider and highlighted the then-relatively recent $2.25B default of the Washington Public Power System (WPPSS, or “Whoops” to many) in 1983 and how it took five years to reach a final settlement. He ended his list of risks by reminding us that tax policy risk was also ever-present and how tax law changes could significantly alter the supply/demand balance of the entire municipal market (which the most recent round of tax reform proved to be true once again).

Municipal Management – A “Loser’s Game”

Around this same time, I happened upon a fascinating article that had an equally significant impact on my understanding of risk and how to manage it. The author, Charles Ellis, described the difference between a “winner’s game” and a “loser’s game” as it relates to investing and used tennis as the basis for the analysis. Professional tennis, for example, was a winner’s game, because the professional who hits the best shots generally wins. Amateur tennis was different, since the winner is often the player that makes the fewest mistakes. I realized that, like amateur tennis, municipal management, even for the professional manager, was primarily a loser’s game. Except for those rare occasions of significant market disruption – which happen maybe once or twice in a decade – when a more aggressive approach may be justified, the best way to win as a municipal manager is to minimize errors. Keeping the ball in play in the municipal market, therefore, meant controlling risk.