(Dow Jones) Companies announced plans to sell at least $6 billion of bonds on Monday, tapping investors' seemingly insatiable demand for new corporate debt to stock up on relatively cheap cash before the end of the year.
Ford Motor Credit, the finance arm of Ford Motor Co. (F); American Axle (AXL), an auto parts manufacturer; and air-conditioner-systems maker Goodman Global Inc. (GGL) were among the speculative-grade borrowers that came to the market with risky junk bonds on Monday.
BlackRock Inc. (BLK), the world's biggest asset manager, was expected to sell $2.5 billion in investment-grade corporate bonds, its first such deal in over two years. And late in the day, Georgia Gulf Corporation announced plans to sell $500 million of bonds.
Martin Fridson, chief executive of Fridson Investment Advisors, said signs of economic recovery have given many more companies the confidence to come to market to take advantage of high investor interest and low borrowing costs.
"The door is open to a wider universe of issuers than it was," Fridson said.
Indeed, portfolio managers this year have already snapped up more than $132 billion of dollar-denominated bonds from companies with credit ratings below investment grade, according to data provider Dealogic.
That's still shy of the record $143.5 billion in 2006, but is nearly three times the $47.7 billion worth of bonds sold in all of 2008.
The market for investment-grade debt has also been strong, setting a record with more than $1 trillion sold this year.
Average spreads or risk premiums on junk bonds--the extra return that riskier sub-investment-grade bonds must offer over risk-free Treasurys--narrowed to 7.24 percentage points Friday, according to Merrill Lynch's U.S. High Yield Master II index. A year ago, risk premiums were more than 20 percentage points, a record.
Risk premiums on investment-grade corporate bonds, meanwhile, are at 2.15 percentage points over Treasurys, the lowest level in 12 months, according to Merrill Lynch.
"With rates as low as they are, it makes sense to get it [fund raising] done now," said John Hawley, senior investment-grade portfolio manager at Aviva Investors in Des Moines, Iowa.
Fridson said about 21% of new junk bonds in November were sold by triple-C-rated companies--the riskiest issuers on the junk-bond ladder--compared with about 11.5% in October and 10.5% in September.
American Axle, for instance, probably wouldn't have been able to come to market at the beginning of the year, Fridson said. The company signed an agreement with its banks to amend the terms of its term loan and revolving credit facilities in September, ending a long round of talks to keep it out of bankruptcy court.
Ford Motor Credit's $750 million in 10-year bonds, expected to sell late Monday, marks the fourth time that the triple-C rated finance arm has tapped the junk bond market in 2009. It has raised $3.85 billion earlier this year, according to Dealogic.
Investors' ravenous appetite for corporate debt is also allowing some private-equity firms to take cash out of companies they bought at the height of the credit crisis last year. Goodman Global, for example, said Monday it planned to sell a $320 million bond that would back a dividend payment to Hellman & Friedman LLC, the private-equity firm that bought it last February for $2.65 billion, including debt. A spokesman for Hellman & Friedman declined to comment.
McJunkin Red Man, meanwhile, plans to sell its first junk bond. The industrial pipe-fittings supplier will sell $1 billion of bonds to refinance $575 million in debt issued for its leveraged buyout by Goldman Sachs Capital Partners in 2007, as well as a $450 million loan to pay a dividend to its owners in May 2008.
And more companies are expected to take advantage of conditions before buyers turn their attention to 2010.
"New issuance will make a final push, with potentially eight strong business days in which to wrap up 2009 issuance," said Lindsey Spink, investment-grade trader at AXA Investment Managers in Greenwich, Conn.
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