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Busy Bond Issuance as Five Companies Price Nearly $3 Billion

By Patrick McGee Companies with an eye on the debt markets often ease off from late August to Labor Day, but a fervor to lock in low rates added another $2.85 billion to the monthly tally Monday. Five companies sold high-grade bonds, pushing August issuance to $52 billion, according to data provider Dealogic. In August 2011, just $39.6 billion was priced. Monday's session was led by J.P. Morgan Chase & Co.'s (JPM) $1.1 billion issue of subordinate preferred notes. They were offered in $25 denominations and were priced to yield 5.5%. An early term sheet indicated the bank would sell $500 million at around 5.625%, but heavy demand enabled the deal size to more than double, even as its yield was cut. Ryan Newth, director of corporate syndicate at SunTrust Robinson Humphrey, noted the J.P. Morgan preferreds were directed toward the retail sector, where a swath of money is waiting for such deals because much of the outstanding volume was called back by banks, citing regulatory changes. "A lot of money [is] earmarked for that kind of paper, so a lot is getting recirculated into deals like this," Mr. Newth commented, estimating that nearly $7 billion of preferred debt has priced since July. Some of the larger preferred deals include General Electric Co. (GE) and BB&T Corp. (BBT), Dealogic shows. J.P. Morgan's preferred notes are rated BBB and BBB-minus by Standard & Poor's Ratings Services and Fitch Ratings, respectively, but Ba1--a "junk" grade--by Moody's Investors Service. The other four deals were also in the BBB-range, enabling high-grade investors to pick up some yield. Paper company Domtar Corp. (UFS) and insurer Unum Group (UNM) each sold $250 million worth of 30-year bonds, at yields of 5.79% and 6.281%, respectively, while American International Group Inc. (AIG) priced $250 million of three-year bonds yielding 2.407%. Mr. Newth called the two 30-year deals "a good sign" that could pave the way for others who might have questioned whether the market was deep enough to support long-dated paper. Lastly, Laboratory Corp. of America Holdings (LH) sold $1 billion in a two-part deal. It featured a 2.244% yield on five-year bonds and 3.764% on 10-year bonds. In the meantime, sentiment continued to strengthen in the secondary market, as the cost of protecting against corporate bond defaults sank to its lowest level in 4 ½ months. Markit's CDX North America Investment-Grade Index improved to 99 basis points, meaning the annual cost to insure $10 million of bonds from default would average $99,000. The last time it was under 100 basis points was May 4. A basis point is one-hundredth of a percentage point. This suggests investors are increasingly comfortable with the state of corporate finance, despite the fact that rising Treasury rates are forcing losses on bondholders this month. The Barclays U.S. corporate bond index produced a negative return of 1.41% as of Friday. Write to Patrick McGee at Subscribe to WSJ:

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