Muni Bond Market Is Left Behind In Move To Electronic Trading

Municipal bonds are being left behind as other fixed-income sectors move to electronic trading.

Only about 11% of muni bond trading volume was executed electronically in May, a share that hasn’t moved in the past three years, according to an estimate last month from Coalition Greenwich, a financial services industry analytics firm.

By contrast, investment-grade corporate bond e-trading has more than doubled since May 2018 to 41% and more than tripled for high-yield bonds to 28%. Two-thirds of the US Treasury market traded electronically in May 2022.

In large part, the structure of the $4 trillion muni market has hampered the adoption of e-bond trading, according to Kevin McPartland, head of research for market structure and technology at Coalition Greenwich and the report’s author.

The over-the-counter market has about 950,000 separate securities issued by tens of thousands of state and local government entities, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. “Buy-and-hold” individual investors hold a big chunk of bonds, but in small sizes, with many never trading after they’re issued. 

The decentralized nature of the market also means that regional bond dealers often handle an outsized share of trading in certain states.

“The market has such a long tail of participants that unlike in treasuries or corporate bonds, where the big names drive most of the volume, that’s less so the case in munis,” McPartland said in an interview.

Electronic trading platforms typically post bonds for sale and help buyers sort them to identify potential purchases. Quantitative trading firms and institutional investors, using algorithms based on decades of trading data, can hook up to the platforms and respond to thousands of auctions. 

Two of the biggest platforms, Tradeweb Markets Inc. and MarketAxess Holdings Inc., each reported about $8 billion of muni trading volume in June. Together, that represents about 5.2% of the muni market’s $307 billion June trading volume. Coalition Greenwich also estimated volumes handled by ICE and Bloomberg LP, which don’t publicly report volumes.

Bloomberg LP, the parent company of Bloomberg News, competes with MarketAxess, Tradeweb and ICE to offer fixed-income trading services.

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