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Lower-Rated Tax-Exempt Bonds Outperform as Buyers Seek Yield: Muni Credit

Bloomberg - Dec. 22, 2010 - By Brendan A. McGrail

Tax-exempt municipal bonds rated four levels above speculative grade are outperforming top-ranked securities this month as investors seeking higher yields drove the premium to the lowest level in almost a year.

The so-called spread between 30-year A- rated bonds and the same maturity of AAA securities last week narrowed to 100 basis points, or 1 percentage point, the smallest margin since Jan. 29, according to Bloomberg Fair Market Value indexes. It widened to 102 basis points yesterday.

Individual investors have begun focusing on riskier debt such as bonds issued by the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey to increase potential income, said Neil Klein, senior managing director at New York-based Carret Asset Management.

“Yield is the driving factor,” said Klein, who oversees $900 million in fixed-income assets. “There’s a significant amount of demand for those lower credits, because they’re hitting that tipping point where they’re attractive enough for the retail buyer.”

High-yield municipals this year have returned about 7 percent for investors, compared with a 2.2 percent gain for investment-grade bonds, according to Standard & Poor’s/Investortools Indexes, which track price changes and investment income. That contrasts with the trend of the last 11 years, when high-yields had annualized returns of 4.9 percent while investment grade debt gained 5.23 percent.

Port Authority, Illinois

The Port Authority this month sold securities backed by rental payments from retail concessions and airlines at New York’s JFK International Airport. The special project bonds were rated BBB- by S&P and Baa3 by Moody’s Investors Service, both the lowest investment grade, and BB by Fitch Ratings, two levels below that. Securities due in 26 years yielded about 181 basis points above top-rated obligations at sale before demand helped shrink the spread to 106 basis points on Dec. 20, according to a Bloomberg Valuation index.

The premium on Illinois Railsplitter notes maturing in 18 years, which are rated A- by S&P and BBB+ by Fitch, fell to 194 basis points yesterday from 227 on Dec. 1. The bonds, backed by payments from a 1998 tobacco lawsuit, have also traded every day this month.

At the same time, the spread on a 10-year top-rated revenue bond from Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority widened to 59 basis points above 10-year AAA debt yesterday from 4 basis points below the benchmark on Nov. 30.

For the complete article.
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