Investors look to the municipal market for both quality and diversification. They were rewarded in 2020, when the municipal market proved resilient despite a challenging economic environment. Investment-grade municipals quickly rebounded from the spring’s extreme volatility to deliver solid returns for the year on the back of declining interest rates and stable credit fundamentals. The strength of municipal credit quality surprised many, including forecasters who envisioned doom and gloom earlier in the year. April’s $2.2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act was instrumental in stabilizing the economy for much of the year, proving essential in supporting many areas of municipal finance, including state and local governments, transportation, education, and health care.
The lame-duck session of Congress followed this in December with a long-awaited boost to the CARES Act: the $900 billion Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act (CRRSA). While the bill doesn’t provide direct aid to state and local governments, it will provide over $100 billion in aid to various municipal sectors.
One of the biggest beneficiaries of the new bill is the education sector. Elementary and secondary schools will receive $54 billion in aid, and higher education institutions will receive $20 billion. Elementary and secondary education is usually the largest expense item in state budgets, with states covering 47% of K–12 education costs on average. The significant education aid can therefore be viewed as back-door aid to states, since they’ll have the ability to cut school funding, yet school budgets could still be made whole through federal aid.
Other sectors benefiting from the bill include:
- $14 billion for mass transit agencies, distributed based on each provider’s operating expenses. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority of New York alone is expected to receive $4 billion.
- $10 billion for highways, distributed via state-level departments of transportation and certain local transportation industries. US toll roads benefit from very strong liquidity levels, but vehicle miles traveled were still down approximately 11% in October 2020 compared with the prior year, according to Federal Reserve Economic Data.
- $3 billion for hospitals. COVID-19 hospitalizations are near-record levels, and hospitals expected greater support from this stimulus package. While the $3 billion in aid was lower than expected, hospitals and other health care providers received a total of $175 billion from various federal stimulus packages throughout 2020.
- $2 billion for airports. Airport traffic was down 71% in the third quarter of 2020 compared with the prior year. Volumes are expected to remain depressed through the first half of 2021 before rebounding in the second half of the year due to vaccinations. The $2 billion in aid from this package, combined with the $10 billion in aid that airports received through the CARES Act, is expected to support most airport authorities into 2022.