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N.J. Turnpike Bonds Aided by Most Demand in 4 Years: Muni Credit

March 20 (Bloomberg) -- New Jersey Turnpike Authority’s biggest tax-exempt borrowing since 2000 benefited from the lowest relative borrowing costs in almost four years for municipal securities rated below AAA.

The agency oversees the 148-mile (238-kilometer) highway and the 173-mile Garden State Parkway, which handle about 1.6 million vehicles daily combined. It issued $1.4 billion of debt today with an A+ rank from Standard & Poor’s, four steps below the top. The yield spread investors demand on similarly graded munis is the narrowest since May 2009, data compiled by Bloomberg show.

The bonds will help finance a $3 billion road-widening project that will double traffic capacity in central New Jersey while adding lanes for traffic bound for the Jersey Shore. Governor Chris Christie, a Republican seeking re-election in November, is counting on beach-bound tourism to propel the “Jersey Comeback” he says is boosting the economy of the 11th-most-populous state.

“New Jersey Turnpike has benefited from the tightening in all areas of the muni bond market,” said Matt Dalton, who helps manage $1.5 billion of munis at Belle Haven Investments Inc. in White Plains, New York. “There’s been a lot of focus on single-A. It’s where a lot of buyers have gone to find that little bit of extra yield.”

Below Average

Even after yields on 20-year general obligations rose last week to an 11-month high of 4 percent, the interest rate remains below the average of 5.89 percent since 1961 after setting a generational low in December, Bond Buyer data shows.

Investors looking to boost returns have been buying lower-rated munis such as obligations of the New Jersey Turnpike agency and Illinois, graded two steps weaker by S&P at A-.

The New Jersey sale offered higher relative yields than other debt sold in the state with better credit, while also providing the security of an essential service, said Robert Amodeo, who manages $30 billion of munis at Western Asset Management in New York. The turnpike is the main roadway in the state, connecting New York City and Philadelphia.

“It’s a primary north-south artery in a state with really no comparative high-speed competition,” Amodeo said.

Traffic Turn

Traffic on the Turnpike has fallen since the 18-month recession that began in 2007. After peaking at 252 million vehicles in 2006, it dropped to about 225 million last year, according to bond documents.

Yet investors can take comfort in toll increases in 2008 and 2012 that helped increase revenue to $992 million last year from $533 million six years earlier. Turnpike officials expect revenue to rise further in the next decade as the economy improves and ridership grows.

The extra yield investors demand to buy A- munis due in 10 years compared with benchmark debt fell to 0.8 percentage point last week, the narrowest spread since May 2009, Bloomberg data show.

In the $1.4 billion deal, bonds maturing in 10 years priced with a 2.57 percent yield, or about 0.53 percentage point above benchmark munis, according to Bloomberg data. In an October 2009 offer, debt of a similar maturity yielded about 1 percentage point above the benchmark.

Outflow Time

While A- bonds have rallied, the $3.7 trillion municipal market is seeing mutual-fund outflows as investors sell or avoid buying to make April 15 tax payments, said Daniel Solender, who helps manage $19.5 billion of munis at Lord Abbett & Co. in Jersey City, New Jersey.

Investors withdrew assets from the funds the past two weeks, Lipper US Fund Flows data show. That may require the authority to add yield above a single-A muni index to complete the sale, Solender, Amodeo and Dalton said.

The authority must make yearly payments to the state to help finance road and bridge work outside of the Turnpike system. It will pay $324 million annually this year and in the next two years and $162 million in 2016, according to bond documents.

Officials don’t anticipate more toll increases are needed to help finance its 10-year, $7 billion capital program.

Based on financial projections in the authority’s plan, which goes out to 2020, the system “will have enough revenue at current toll rates to cover operating costs and debt service and meet all of our other obligations,” a spokesman, Tom Feeney, said in an e-mail.

This was the largest tax-exempt borrowing for the authority since 2000, according to Feeney and Bloomberg data. Its last sale above $1 billion was a taxable deal in 2010 using Build America Bonds.

To contact the reporters on this story: Michelle Kaske in New York at mkaske@bloomberg.net; Terrence Dopp in Trenton at tdopp@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Stephen Merelman at smerelman@bloomberg.net

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