Move over, munis. Corporates also smashed a record in 1992.

Preliminary figures from Securities Data Co. show new issues nearly equaled the combined total for the two previous years. Straight domestic debt excluding mortgage-and asset-backed issues topped $301 billion this year, according to the Newark, N.J.-based financial information services firm.

By comparison, issuers raised $307 billion in 1990 and 1991 combined, Securities Data said. This year's total buried last year's new-issue record, which a source at Securities Data said was $200.5 billion.

Merrill Lynch & Co. won the underwriting race with $71.8 billion for a 24% market share.

"Merrill Lynch has always excelled in the debt arena, and expectedly took the crown in 1992," Securities Data said in a release.

In my view it was a very successful year and we're happy with it, " James B. Quigley, managing director of Merrill Lynch's debt syndicate desk, said yesterday.

He attributed the firm's success in recent years, in large part, to "a very high continuity of key personnel." He credits senior managing director Mitchell V. Edson with fostering that continuity, starting in 1985 or 1986.

Quigley also cited positive perceptions of Merrill by both clients and institutional customers and "the breadth of [Merrill's] capability to distribute securities." A broader distribution helps to ensure future liquidity, he said.

"We have a really keen appreciation for the effort it took to get us where we are today," he said.

Goldman, Sachs & Co. finished second with $50.4 billion for a 16.8% market share and Lehman Brothers was third with $43 billion for a 14.3% share. The firms finished in the same order in 1991.

Securities Data said corporate issuance eased a bit from the third to fourth quarters of 1992, as corporate America pondered implications of President-elect Bill Clinton's new economic policies.

"While 1993 probably won't match activity of 1992, issuance should remain robust as interest rates are expected to climb slowly at best," Securities Data said in its release.

Asked to explain the upsurge in new issues, "the obvious thing is lower interest rates," said Richard S. Barnett, director of corporate bond research at Yamaichi International America) Inc. Barnett also cited refinancings and added, "you had the banks re-entering the market. They were closed out for a while. "

Barnett expects continued brisk issuance next year, barring a spike in rates.

"People want to lock in these low rates," he said.

Junk Lives

Junk bonds returned with a vengeance in 1992, posting a record and almost a 300% increase over the previous year.

Securities Data's preliminary figures show $38 billion raised in 1992, smashing the $31 billion record set in 1986 and far outdistancing last year's $1 0 billion of new junk issues.

"This security's return can be traced directly to the drop in interest rates as investors became more willing to assume much greater risks to preserve their yields," Securities Data's release says.

"I would agree with both those reasons," Ronald V. Speaker, a portfolio manager at Janus Capital Corp., said yesterday. Speaker added that some 80% of 1992's new deals have been refinancings of hi her cost debt.

"The overall credit quality of the majority of these issues has increased due to refinancings [of higher cost debt] and IPOs," he said. The firms use proceeds from those initial public offerings to retire debt, he said.

"But going forward, the quality of new deals will decline because the easy work's been done," Speaker said.

Also in its release, Securities Data added, "Confidence in the junk bond has also increased, due largely to the fact that a greater number of banks are willing to underwrite the security these days, whereas [Drexel Burnham Lambert Inc.] was more or less the sole purveyor in the mid '80s."

The $38 billion of junk debt was part of the overall $301 billion of straight debt, the Securities Data source said.

Mortgage-backed debt also showed significant growth in 1992, as issuance blossomed to $373 billion, a 50% increase over the 1991 total of $250 billion.

"Volume again was tied to the Fed's interest rate cuts and resultant efforts by home owners to refinance at more attractive rates," Securities Data said.

Asset-backed issuance picked up during the fourth quarter to end at $50.7 billion, narrowly eclipsing the $50.1 billion raised in 199 1, the release says.

Market and Rating News

In secondary activity yesterday, high-grade trading remained lifeless. High-yield bonds ended unchanged to slightly better in barely perceptible activity.

"I think [trading] is pretty much over for the year," one high-yield trader said.

Marriott Corp. yesterday said it is talking with a number of bondholders regarding their concerns over the company's planned special dividend. The discussions may lead to refinements that could make the transaction more appealing to bondholders, while still advancing the company's plans, said Robert T. Souers, a Marriott spokesman. The company gives no assurances of the talk's success and plans to proceed with the special dividend as scheduled, he said.

In rating activity, Duff & Phelps Credit Rating Co. has cut Sears Roebuck and Co.'s senior unsecured debt to A from A-plus and lowered Discover Credit Corp.'s medium-term notes to A from A-plus.

The agency also lowered Sears' preferred stock to A-minus from A.

The commercial paper ratings of Sears, Sears Roebuck Acceptance, and Discover Credit remain at Duff 1, but all the debt has been added the agency's Rating Watch for a possible downgrade. The downgrade affects about $9 billion of debt.

"Our downgrades reflect the further increases of Sears' Allstate Insurance losses from Hurricane Andrew to $2.5 billion pretax. As a result, we believe that Allstate will need a capital infusion," Duff & Phelps said in its release. "The sources of these funds will come, we believe, from Sears, either prior to Allstate's planned initial public offering of common shares, or a pledge by Sears to inject the required funds from its proceeds from the IPO."

Either way, Sears would have less dollars available for debt reduction than earlier thought, Duff & Phelps' release says.

Moody's Investors Service has confirmed the debt ratings of Thomson S.A. and its guaranteed subsidiaries, Thomson-Brandt International B.V. and Thomson Commercial Paper (U.S.) Inc.

Moody's Investors Services has confirmed the debt ratings of Thomson S.A. and its guaranteed subsidiaries, Thomson-Brandt International B.V. and Thomson Commercial Paper (U.S.) Inc.

"The review was triggered by the announcement that Thomson's board has authorized the sale of Thomson Electromenager, the company's home appliances business to a Franco-Italian consortium," a Moody's release says.

The confirmed ratings are:

* Thomson S.A.'s senior debt rated A1.

* Thomson-Brandt International senior debt guaranteed by Thomson S.A. rated A1 and the Prime-1 short-term rating for commercial paper guaranteed by Thomson S.A.

* Thomson Commercial Paper Prime-1 short-term rating for commercial paper guaranteed by Thomson S.A.

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