Private Foundations and Municipal Bonds: An Imperfect Fit

by: Kyle Anderson
September 22, 2023
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Private foundations face unique operational challenges, particularly in portfolio management. This article delves into the reasons why municipal bonds, despite offering tax-exempt interest, typically are not a good fit for private foundations.

The Tax Advantage of Municipal Bond Income: Municipal bonds, commonly known as "munis," represent debt securities issued by state and local governments to fund public projects. Among their key benefits is the tax-exempt status of the interest income they generate. However, the extent of this tax advantage depends on the investor's tax bracket.

For individuals subject to federal income tax, investing in municipal bonds can lead to substantial savings. In 2022, the highest individual tax bracket stood at 37%, with an additional 3.8% net investment income tax for high earners. This meant that individuals in the top bracket could potentially save as much as 40.8% in taxes on their municipal bond interest income, making these bonds highly attractive.

Private foundations, too, enjoy a tax advantage: when they receive interest income from municipal bonds it is exempt from the excise tax on net investment income. However, the excise tax rate for private foundations is significantly lower, just 1.39%, which pales in comparison to the rates levied on high-income taxpayers. Consequently, the tax advantage for private foundations is considerably less pronounced.

Understanding Effective Yield: To grasp why the tax advantage of municipal bonds primarily benefits taxpayers subject to high tax rates, we need to delve into the concept of effective yield. Effective yield takes into account the after-tax return on an investment, factoring in the impact of taxes on interest income.

For high-income individuals, the effective yield of taxable bonds significantly decreases due to tax liabilities. Consider this example: an individual in the top tax bracket (37% federal income tax plus an additional 3.8% for the net investment income tax, totaling 40.8%) holding a $10,000 taxable bond that yields 10% in interest income, resulting in $1,000 in annual interest. After paying $408 in federal income tax, they're left with $592 in after-tax income, resulting in an effective yield of 5.92%. In contrast, if the same bond were tax-exempt, the effective yield would remain at 10%. This stark difference highlights the substantial tax impact.

Private foundations, with their considerably lower excise tax rate of 1.39%, derive a far less substantial advantage from tax-exempt income. With the same $1,000 interest income from a taxable bond, they owe just $13.90 in excise tax, leaving them with $986.10 in after-tax income, resulting in an effective yield of 9.861%. Comparing this to the 10% yield of a tax-exempt bond, it's clear that the excise tax's impact is somewhat negligible for private foundations.

Why Municipal Are Generally Not Ideal for Private Foundations: Despite the tax advantage, municipal bonds might not be the best choice for private foundations for several reasons:

1. Lower Effective Yield: As explained, private foundations enjoy relatively high effective yields on taxable bonds due to their low excise tax rate. This diminishes the tax advantage of municipal bonds, making taxable bonds a potentially more attractive option.

2. Competitive Market: Municipal bonds are in high demand across various markets, including individuals, mutual funds, and institutional investors. This competition can drive up municipal bond prices, leading to lower yields for private foundations compared to taxable bonds with similar credit risk.

3. Limited Diversification: Overreliance on municipal bonds can hinder a private foundation's portfolio diversification. Diversification is vital for risk management, and private foundations should consider a balanced mix of assets to achieve their financial and philanthropic goals.

In conclusion, while private foundations do enjoy a tax advantage in receiving municipal bond income, it's essential to recognize that their tax landscape differs significantly from that of regular taxable individuals. With their low excise tax rate, private foundations generally find that taxable bonds are a more financially prudent choice. In most cases, opting for taxable bonds offers better effective yields, credit quality, and flexibility in managing duration and interest rate risk.

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