Barclays Global Investors plans to launch a family of municipal bond exchange-traded funds designed to behave more like munis themselves by liquidating at maturity.

Through its iShares brand, Barclays earlier this month filed registrations with the Securities and Exchange Commission for six ETFs, each with a target maturity between 2012 and 2017.

These funds would work the same way as other muni ETFs with one critical exception: whereas most ETFs continue indefinitely, these would unwind at their target maturity and return the cash to shareholders.

In this respect, the six ETFs would bear some resemblance to unit investment trusts, which typically hold a basket of bonds and repay shareholders as the debt matures.

Since the advent of the municipal ETF sector a little more than two years ago, four companies have launched 18 muni ETFs, with several more in the pipeline. The sector had about $4.8 billion in assets at the end of August, according to the Investment Company Institute.

These latest funds, which will complement iShares’ four existing muni ETFs, follow the general script of what an ETF does. The funds are publicly traded stocks that seek to replicate the performance of a benchmark index.

Each of the six will target an index maintained by Standard & Poor’s consisting of state and local government bonds exempt from federal taxes and the alternative-minimum tax, with $2 million par value or more and investment-grade ratings from at least one of the major rating agencies.

Standard & Poor’s provides a separate index for each maturity between 2012 and 2017.

Each ETF will try to mimic its target index by investing in a sampling of bonds representative of the index as a whole.

A pricing service determines the value of the fund’s assets every business day after the close of the market, and the shares presumably would trade in line with the value of their assets most of the time.

The ETFs will pay monthly dividends, but what distinguishes these ETFs from others is what happens when the fund reaches its target maturity date. Most other ETFs have to reshuffle their portfolios to keep up with their indexes as bonds mature or otherwise no longer resemble the broader indexes.

These funds will allow the bonds to mature and hold onto the cash. At the end of August in its maturity year, the fund will return the cash to ¬shareholders. In this way, buying a municipal bond ETF is similar to buying a municipal bond with a certain maturity.

The fund provides two features a municipal bond does not: diversity and the opportunity to trade on a stock exchange.

The funds will trade on the New York Stock Exchange, while municipal bonds trade through over-the-counter dealer networks and are notoriously illiquid. The new ETFs will be managed by Lee Sterne and Joel Silva.

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