Free for 90 days: Sign up now and get 90 days managed free after your first deposit. See offer details

Product News

Portfolios Now Include Municipal Bonds

We added a municipal bonds asset class to make your non-IRA portfolio even more tax efficient.

Articles by Dan Egan

By Dan Egan
Managing Director of Behavioral Finance & Investing, Betterment
Published: June 18, 2014 | Updated: May 10, 2018

New asset class with municipal bonds added to the Betterment taxable portfolio.

Muni bonds are expected to yield up to 1.0% more than the asset class they replace, after tax.

In our ongoing efforts to create the most tax-efficient portfolio possible for our customers, we have added a new asset class, represented by a tax-exempt national municipal bond fund, the S&P National AMT-Free Muni Bond ETF (MUB), for primary domestic bond exposure. It will replace the US High-Quality bond index fund (AGG) in taxable portfolios.

Dividends paid on this ETF are exempt from federal taxes. We will continue to use AGG, the core bond fund, in IRA accounts, where tax-free dividends do not provide the same advantage.

Improved after-tax returns with municipal bonds

Municipal bonds are expected to increase after-tax returns by more than 1.0% per year, as compared to the asset class they replace. Below, you can see the pre-tax yields of the two asset classes side-by-side. MUB is currently yielding significantly more than AGG even before taxes, but that could change. What won’t change is the advantage built into MUB once you factor in federal taxes. At the highest possible federal rates (single, income of $400k+), nearly half of AGG’s dividend is lost to taxes, while MUB’s yield is unchanged. Even assuming a more common tax bracket (earning roughly $100-200k), the advantage is clear.

Ticker Pre-tax yield After-tax yield (43.4%) After-tax yield (28%)
MUB 2.90% 2.90% 2.90%
AGG 2.20% 1.25% 1.58%

The only drawback for investors is that munis are often thought to carry greater default risk than US Federal government debt. The US has yet to default in modern history, and has the ability to literally print money, which state and local governments do not.

So while municipal defaults are not unheard of, they are actually quite rare as compared to corporate bonds, and relatively benign when they occur. This is because municipal bonds are often either insured privately, or have the backing of the state in the case of a default. It’s also worth noting that when a municipal bond defaults, it tends to mean you get $0.80 back, rather than $1—rather than lose all your principal. Most importantly, MUB comprises more than 2,000 muni bonds across 44 states—diversifying away any default risk for a particular issuer.

Due to these factors, municipal bonds tend to have relatively high credit ratings—comparable in quality and long-term performance to the US High-Quality Bond index.

A look inside the new portfolio

What do you need to do?

Nothing. Existing customers’ portfolios will automatically be transitioned to the new asset class over the coming months. We will replace AGG with MUB and reduce the weight of LQD and BNDX; we will also then increase the weight of MUB in the portfolio in order to maximize its tax-exemption benefit. Customers using our new Tax Loss Harvesting+ service will have MUB as the primary ticker for the asset class, and Barclay’s Municipal Managed Money (TFI) as the alternate.


Recommended Content

View All Resources
Redesigning How You Manage Your Finances at Betterment

Redesigning How You Manage Your Finances at Betterment

Our new design represents a synthesis of a large body of customer feedback. We hope it meets your expectations.

The Difference Between Vanguard and Betterment

The Difference Between Vanguard and Betterment

I’ve been asked a lot in the last few months in the transition from my old role at Vanguard to my new role as Chief Growth Officer at Betterment – what’s the difference between the two companies?

Introducing Smart Saver: A Low-Risk Account for Unused Cash

Introducing Smart Saver: A Low-Risk Account for Unused Cash

Providing a clearer answer for what to do with extra cash sitting in your checking and savings accounts: Smart Saver.

How would you like to get started?

Your first step toward a smarter investing future starts here.

Create a Betterment account

Go ahead and join the smart, modern way to invest.

See what we can do for you

Tell us a bit about yourself, and we'll show you the benefits of investing with us.

Get a free investing checkup

Help us get a sense of your investing approach and see how you could improve.

Transfer a 401(k) or an IRA

Move an existing retirement account into a Betterment IRA.

Download the mobile app

Enjoy the Betterment experience anywhere on the go.


Search our site

For more information and disclosures about the Betterment Resource Center, click here. | See our contributors.