Despite setbacks, Lucent trust is secure

Modified: January 18, 2013 at 1:37 am •  Published: January 20, 2013
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Dear Mr. Berko: We bought 25 shares of Lucent Technologies Capital Trust, a 7.75 percent cumulative convertible preferred trust, at $542 a share, which you recommended last August. You said that it was very speculative but that the 14 percent yield was worth it if I could “afford the risk.” The $13,550 investment represented 1.2 percent of our portfolio, and we were comfortable with the risk.

We found a new broker last October (he talks about running for Congress), and he didn't like Lucent Technologies. He said the interest payment was doubtful, so we sold it at $566, making a tidy $500 profit. With the proceeds, we bought 2,000 shares of Gabelli Utility Trust at $7.71, yielding 7.8 percent, and reinvested the dividends, which we couldn't do with Lucent. He said Gabelli was safer and had less risk. But it's down to $6.70, and we have a $2,400 loss. Lucent Technologies now trades at $881, and we're sorry we sold it to buy Gabelli Utility.

Why is Lucent Technologies doing so well when its parent company, Alcatel-Lucent, is doing so poorly, and why is Gabelli doing so poorly when its generous dividend seems so stable? My broker says Gabelli has no debt, zero leverage and no interest costs. What's wrong here?

TL, Cincinnati

Dear TL: Lucent Technologies (LUTHP-$881) was the mighty and prestigious research arm of American Telephone & Telegraph before the Justice Department dissolved the AT&T monopoly in the mid-1980s, thinking that increased competition would lower telephone rates.

Today's telephone costs are higher than ever, and the average family (excluding those millions with free government cell service) pays more than $120 a month for cellphone contracts. Alcatel-Lucent, now LUTHP's parent, is a French company with $20 billion in revenues that sells communications and network technology around the globe. Alcatel-Lucent (ALU-$1.66) has three problems: 1) It's a French company, which is not good. 2) Its earnings are not dependable, and therefore 3) some believe that its survival is in doubt.

However, ALU has been in business since 1898. It has faced hard times in the past 114 years, and its survival is not in doubt. So there's fair reason to believe the interest payments on LUTHP preferred are equally secure. Though your LUTHP position only represented 1.2 percent of your investible assets, it seems this clown needs to impress you with his knowledge about risk. That genius cost you a $7,500 profit.

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