Muni Bond Champion James Lebenthal Dies at 86

James Lebenthal, the U.S. municipal bond market's biggest champion and most eloquent spokesman, died following a heart attack at age 86, his daughter said on Friday.

Lebenthal became a force in the New York municipal bond market in the late 1970s, selling to retail investors for decades via radio and TV commercials.

"No one loved municipal bonds and their value as the tool for rebuilding America more than Dad," his daughter, Alexandra Lebenthal, said by email. "He was a Wall Street legend and his legacy will live on."

He advocated for the bonds in the 1980s and 1990s, when the industry was besieged by lawmakers and regulators who wanted to end their tax-exempt status.

"He was a giant of our industry," said Richard Ciccarone, head of Iowa-based Merritt Research Services. "He provided a lot of good will for the industry on telling people not just about the tax value but how munis were used to serve America."

Though his firm was focused on the Middle Atlantic region, “his presence was felt throughout America,” Ciccarone said in a telephone interview.

Lebenthal was one of the biggest cheerleaders of New York City debt as it was crawling out of its fiscal crisis in the 1970s.

"At a time when New York City was down on its luck ... he gave New York municipal bond investors a sense of community by linking public finance with infrastructure and improvement," Stephen Winterstein, chief municipal strategist at Wilmington, Delaware-based Wilmington Trust Investment Advisors, said by phone.

In old television and radio ads, he used lines such as "tax-free municipal bonds are my babies" and called himself "Built by Bonds Lebenthal."

He glorified munis as "the nuts and bolts that make New York great," showing images of the South Bronx rebuilding its once burned-out buildings using munis.

He was also a filmmaker and an adman, starring in short animated films about munis with titles such as "Lord Love a Turnpike."

James Lebenthal was the son of Louis and Sayra Lebenthal, who founded the Lebenthal company in 1925. He was succeeded by daughter Alexandra at the helm of the business in 1995.

The Lebenthals sold the company in 2001 to MONY Group, which was absorbed by Merrill Lynch in 2005. Alexandra and James Lebenthal bought the Lebenthal name back from Merrill in 2007 and Alexandra Lebenthal remains at the helm of the company.

(Reporting by Megan Davies, Hilary Russ and Jack Doran; Editing by James Dalgleish and Jonathan Oatis)