Is this the best price?

Dear Mr. Berko: My broker and friend has advised me to buy $50,000 of a 5.75 percent California Tobacco Settlement bond with a current tax-free yield of 7.4 percent. This bond comes due in 2047, and I would have to pay $39,000, or $780 per one thousand face value. They are rated Baa3, which is just above junk status, but he says a large number of tax-free bond funds own large positions in these bonds. This money is coming from a 3.5 percent CD that comes due next week.

JG in Punta Gorda, Fla.

Dear JG: The Golden State (California?) Tobacco Securitization 5.75 percent bonds trade at $68 and have a current yield of 8.4 percent. Similar bonds issued by Illinois, New Jersey and Ohio trade at similar prices with similar yields. While this good broker and friend may be giving you good advice, I'm not sure he or his firm is giving you a good price. I can purchase those 5.75 percent California Tobacco bonds all day (except on holidays, Saturdays and Sundays) for 68 cents on the dollar.

A website I access to verify municipal bond prices and trades is http://investinginbonds.com, and you can use it, too. Just input the bond's CUSIP number, and all sorts of useful data you might want will pop up. I checked that site today and saw numerous buy and sell transactions ranging from 67 cents for larger purchases of $25,000 or more to 71 cents on the dollar for smaller purchases. So with a $50,000 face-value purchase, I believe this bond can be bought for 68 cents on the dollar, or $34,000. I wonder if your good broker and friend who wants to sell you this bond for 78 cents on the dollar is aware that his price ($39,000) may be a tad exorbitant. Please ask him: ''Is this really the best price you can get for me?''

These are risky bonds because they are backed by a 1998 master settlement agreement (MSA) with Altria (Philip Morris), Reynolds and Lorillard rather than the issuing states. The bonds originally sold at 100 cents on the dollar a dozen years ago and have crashed in price because MSA payments haven't met expectations. Payments are pegged to cigarette consumption, which has fallen 32 percent since 1998, from 22 billion packs to 15 billion packs in 2010. However, this volume decline, as most smokers know, has been largely offset by some very aggressive price increases.

But the bond's high 13 percent taxable equivalent yields mitigate the risks, and I'm more comfortable owning a tobacco bond with a Baa3 (junk) rating than a taxable corporate with a 13 percent yield. Though candor compels me to tell you, even though Moody's and Standard and Poor's downgraded these bonds last November to Baa3 (top-of-the-line junk), I'm always suspicious of Moody's and S and P's ratings. These are the same crooks who ascribed AAA ratings to the mortgage-backed bonds issued by Goldman, Merrill Lynch, Lehman, Bank of America, Bear Stearns, etc., which then collapsed months later.

That notwithstanding, quite a few tax-free mutual funds have large positions in the tobacco bonds. Oppenheimer's Rochester Municipal Bond Fund owns more than a billion dollars of tobacco bonds. And Pimco's Total Return Fund owns 25 percent of the Buckeye Ohio 5.88 percent issue due in 2047, which currently trades at 68 cents on the dollar, yielding a swell 8.7 percent.

Please address your financial to Malcolm Berko, P.O. Box 8303, Largo, FL 33775 or e-mail him at mjberko@yahoo.com. To find out more about Malcolm Berko and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com. COPYRIGHT 2011 CREATORS.COM

Published: Thu, Aug 25, 2011

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