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The Coming Boom in Municipal Bonds

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- However the "fiscal cliff" nonsense ends, it's likely to mean a hike in the tax on investment income.

How high is the question.

A CBS Moneywatch story in November figured capital gains rates could go to 20%, from the current 14%. This seems to be the Obama Administration's latest proposal to avert the cliff, and even if it's accepted that is an increase of over 30%.

What happens if you go "cliff-diving?" Rick Ferri calls what would then happen a "tax mountain" with rates as high as 43% on some dividends, for folks earning over a quarter-million dollars a year.

But there is a bit of fine print in even Ferri's dire warning. "Tax-exempt interest from municipal bonds is excluded."

It's one of those things that make you go hmmm.

While there have been some high-profile municipal defaults in recent years -- Stockton and Bakersfield, Calif., and Birmingham, Ala., are three that come to mind right away -- the fact is that, as BHJ Advisors noted in August,

The default rate of municipalities is much lower over every time period than the default rate of corporations. In fact, over the past 10 years, the default rate for AAA-rated corporate bonds is actually greater than the rate for Baa rated municipal bonds.

Municipal bond issuance has jumped in 2012 but that is mainly in relation to a slack 2011, which was also a peak for defaults, notes The Bond Buyer. Bill Gross of Pimco is snapping them up by the armload, writes Forbes.

If you're interested, there is something you ought to know. The tax treatment of a municipal bond differs depending on where you live, and whether your state imposes an income tax. Currently eight states have no state income taxes, Wikipedia notes, and another seven have flat rates, the same for all income levels.

Thus, the best way to invest in munis is to stick close to home, where you can actually see the results of your investment and where you can avoid the maximum in taxes.

I live in Atlanta, Ga., where I like to ride my bicycle. Municipalbonds.com tracks bond sales, and my city recently issued some bonds that run until 2039 to build a bike trail around the city known as the Beltline. It's got a 5% coupon, and it's presently trading near par value. Part of the trail has even been built.

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