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Metris Hawks Risky Bonds on the Radio

Metris (MXT), a credit-card lender with a shaky regulatory history, is bypassing Wall Street and going straight to the consumer to raise money for its corporate coffers.

The nation's 10th-largest card company, which posted a net loss in each of the last two quarters and has seen its stock lose 80% of its value this year, is buying radio spots in more than a dozen cities and taking out full-page newspaper ads hawking a $150 million unsecured note offering.

But the Metris notes, which haven't been reviewed by any major credit-rating agencies, look like a decidedly high-risk venture. That's because they take a backseat in priority of payment to all other Metris bondholders -- and if the firm runs into financial trouble, it could unilaterally suspend the scheduled interest and principal payments.

Ads for the bonds, which are being sold in amounts as small as $1,000 and pay annual yields up to 10.25%, have been running on two New York City radio stations. The ads, which tout the high-yield return, direct investors to a Web site to find out more about the note offering.

The offering comes at a time when credit-rating agencies are taking a dim view of Metris' other corporate notes. Moody's Investors Service, for instance, rates Metris' other unsecured bonds as four notches below investment grade, or essentially midlevel junk bond status. And Moody's has put the firm, which specializes in lending to consumers with poor credit histories, on a "credit watch" for a possible further downgrade of its unsecured bonds.

A spokesman for Metris didn't return several phone calls.

Other companies recently have been selling small-denomination bonds directly to individual investors, as a way to diversify their avenues for raising capital. For instance, Bank of America (BAC), finance firm CIT Group (CIT) and GE Capital, the financing arm of General Electric (GE), have announced direct-to-investor corporate bond sales. But unlike Metris, those companies all carry an investment-grade credit rating on their corporate debt, and the bonds they are offering to retail investors all have been reviewed by at least one major credit rating agency. Also, the companies are relying on stockbrokers at major brokerage houses to sell the bonds, not mass-market advertising.

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