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Waddell & Reed Financial Inc. (NYSE:WDR)

Q4 2008 Earnings Call

January 27, 2009 10:00 am ET

Executives

Henry J. Herrmann – Chief Executive Officer

Thomas W. Butch – Senior Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer

Daniel P. Connealy – Senior Vice President and Chief Financial Officer

Michael L. Avery – Senior Vice President and Chief Investment Officer

Nicole McIntosh – Director of Investment Relations

Analysts

Jeffrey Hopson – Stifel Nicolaus

Robert Lee – Keefe, Bruyette & Woods

William Katz – Buckingham Research

Michael Kim – Sandler, O'Neill & Partners, LLP

Marc Irizarry – Goldman Sachs

Cynthia Mayer – Bank of America-Merrill Lynch

Craig Siegenthaler – Credit Suisse

Operator

Good morning ladies and gentlemen and thank you or standing by. Welcome to the Waddell & Reed third quarter earning conference call. (Operator Instructions). As a reminder this call is being recorded, today, Tuesday, January 27, 2009. I would now like to turn the conference over to Hank Herrman, Chief Executive Officer of Waddell & Reed. Please go ahead, sir.

Hank Herrmann

Thank you, Amanda. Good morning. With me today are Tom Butch, our Chief Marketing Officer, Dan Connealy, our Chief Financial Officer, Mike Avery, our Chief Investment Officer and Nicole McIntosh, our Director of Investment Relations.

Nicole would you read the forward looking statements please?

Nicole McIntosh

During this call some of our comments and commentaries will including forward-looking statements which we believe, excuse me, while we believe these statements to be reasonable based on information that is currently available to us actual results could materially differ from those expressed or implied due to a number of factors including but not limited to those referenced in our public filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

We assume no duty to update any forward-looking statements. Material relevant to today’s call including a copy of today’s press release as well as supplements and schedules have been posted on our website at Waddell.com under the corporate tab.

Hank Herrmann

Thank you, Nicole. Good morning again everyone. Today we reported the financial and operating results of our company for the final quarter of 2008. These figures included a number of charges principally stemming from the current market turmoil; assets under management declined by 21% during the quarter, and 32% from the June 30th peak. Since a substantial portion of our revenue is earned from asset-based fees the precipitous drop in asset levels materially affected revenues making necessary for us to take appropriate steps to manage costs and protect the profitability of our franchise.

In late November we undertook the largest headcount reduction program in our company’s 70 plus year history by offering employees a voluntary separation package resulting in a 14% decline in headcount. We also discontinued several small projects that were no longer a priority in the current environment. Combined, these resulted in a $16.5 million charge.

Separately incentive compensation was reviewed and year end bonuses were reduced by $7.9 million. The steep drop in assets under management resulted in a review of our deferred acquisition costs in the level of good will carried at ACF. Combined, adjustments here resulted in an impairment charge of $13.7 million.

Finally, $2.1 million in miscellaneous special charges were taking for settlement of litigations. All totaled the special charges reduced our net income by $18 million or 22 per diluted share. Excluding these charges our core earnings would have been $17.4 million or 21 per diluted share.

Let me now turn to operating results of the company. Obviously distribution was challenged during the quarter as clients remained cautious as the global financial crisis worsened. Sales in our Advisors channel were $705 million, a 19% decline compared to the previous quarter and a 30% decline compared to last year’s fourth quarter. Although redemption activity increased our rate of redemptions at 12.2%, it remained far below that experienced by others in our industry.

Fourth quarter sales volume in our wholesale channel was very respectable at $1.9 billion, but dropped by about half compared to both the previous quarter and last year's comparable quarter. Redemption activity increased significantly as clients moved to preserve capital, thus putting an end to the channel's 23 consecutive quarters of inflows. Lastly the institutional channel produced net inflows of $80 million on lower sequential sales and still modest redemptions.

While the fourth quarter was indeed a trying time we can point to many positives both as we look back and look forward. For the full year 2008 we have recorded gross sales in both our Advisors and wholesale channels and net sales across our business of $7.8 billion. We had positive net flows in all three of our channels. In wholesale, which was strongly positive and in both Advisors and in institutional where we turned positive after a number of years of out flows.

Net sales in our Ivey funds have been reported in industry publications to have ranked among the top three or four among all fund families. Though our momentum obviously was interrupted in the fourth quarter, the factors underpinning it remain intact.

We have a very sticky asset base and a growing sales force in our Advisors' business. We have embedded relationships with key distributors in the wholesale business, and we have a steady flow of business and opportunity in our institutional business and importantly we have the product breadth and performance demanded in all three channels.

Our investment results remain quite strongly relatively as 70% of funds and 79% of assets beat their Lipper peers over the last 12 months. The long-term record is outstanding with 84% of funds and 88% of assets beating the Lipper peer average on a three-year period and 91% of funds and 92% of assets beating the Lipper peers on a five-year basis.

I, like you, am quite frustrated with the current market environment. Unfortunately until we see policy certainty markets are likely to remain volatile. I am hopeful that the bottom has been put in, but at the same time as of yet I have no sound basis to suggest any meaningful improvement in capital markets. Sentiment, cash, and valuation are all very positive. But the sparks, like the fire, remains elusive. We are managing our business with one eye on our expenses and the other on sustaining the very solid franchise that exists.

We have seen difficult markets numerous times in the past and have always persevered by putting our client first. The same approach now will get us to better days in the future. Operator, at this time I would like to open the call for questions.

Question-and-Answer Session

Operator

(Operator Instructions). Your first question comes from Jeff Hopson – Stifel Nicolaus.

Jeffrey Hopson – Stifel Nicolaus

Hello, good morning, a couple of questions here. Can you give us any sense on how some of the expense reduction efforts will effect the expense base going forward and then maybe Tom Butch can give us an update on his thoughts as far as wire house consolidation and the impact on distribution.

Daniel P. Connealy

This is Dan Connealy. I'll take the expense. In the – looking at the first quarter of ’09 the indirect underwriting and distribution charges should be somewhere between $31 and $33 million. That’s an area where we will have savings. The total compensation for the quarter should be somewhere between $26 and $29 million to give you an idea where those savings might be shaking out. And the tax rate we predict for next year will be about 37.5%.

Jeffrey Hopson – Stifel Nicolaus

Okay, great. Thanks.

Thomas W. Butch

Hi, Jeff, it’s Tom. I would say that it’s very early in the process of consolidation and we’re very watchful and mindful of what’s going on. We’re very much in close contact with all of our wire house partners, but for at least the moment it’s business as usual.

I think regardless of how it unfolds we’re confident that our relationships place us in good stead. We finished the year among the top five mutual fund distributors at four of the five major wire houses and we're in the top ten at the other. So our span of contacts, our penetration is such that however it unfolds, we're confident it will be significant going forward.

Jeffrey Hopson – Stifel Nicolaus

Any thoughts on kind of the current sales environment, other than subdued?

Thomas W. Butch

You took the word right out of my mouth. I would say it is subdued. The trend that we're seeing, relative to Q4 in both of our channels, that is Advisors and wholesale, is that there's not a substantial change in sales momentum, but in both channels, redemption pressure has abated considerably.

Henry J. Herrmann

Jeff, this is Hank. I was just looking at the net flow numbers so far through January, which pretty much gets me to guess rate of the day before, and we're in a mildly outflow position in the Advisors channel, a mildly positive position in the wholesale channel, and a pretty good, I'd say inflow position in the institutional channel. And so, relative to what we experienced in the fourth quarter wrapped into one simple little statement, it's a lot better, but it's still subdued, I guess is a fair word.

Operator

Your next question comes from Robert Lee – Keefe, Bruyette & Woods.

Robert Lee – Keefe, Bruyette & Woods

A couple of quick questions, first, maybe following up with Hank on your comments on flows, and particularly institutional channel, can you give us a little bit more color? Are you starting to see more RFP activity institutions, given your track record and what's going on in the alternative space, are you starting to see some impact there? And maybe update us on how [Picktay], the [Picktay] relationship is going, given what's been happening with the dollar, I guess, for the last six months?

Henry J. Herrmann

So, [Picktay], first. We've got another meaningful allocation in the new year, and flows remain solid in the fourth quarter, and I think an important part of that – well, it's two-fold. One, the performance of that large Cap growth strategy has been good and we continue to be pleased in the sense we told them what we do, and then we prove to them what we do. So, that's always helpful.

And I'd say the relationship there remains very solid and the feedback we get is that a large number of their clients are – and this goes all the way back to the beginning of the relationship. A large number of their clients think that the dollar had gotten extremely undervalued and their taking advantage of that.

So, the dollars helped.

The other part of the question is what's going on with the defined benefit business and we, subsequent to the end of the quarter, we won two mandates. One in large Cap growth and one in asset strategy, and there have been no – well, I should be careful about that. There have been small outflows as a result of one of our senior portfolio managers in the defined benefit area taking voluntary separation, but I expect that's just going to be a one-time shot.

There has not been a real dramatic pick up yet in surges. I think we've got 12 or 14 on the early to intermediate stage on our list, but I'm thinking that right now folks are spending a lot of time trying to figure out what to do with their hedge fund and private equity commitments. I think we will rotate to a more simple environment in the future, and I think a couple of our products will benefit from that in large Cap and asset strategy a part of that.

Robert Lee – Keefe, Bruyette & Woods

And maybe a follow up for Tom, I know one of your goals the last couple of years has been to, I guess I'll use the term, kind of upgrade the sales force, the Advisor force, where possible. With what's going on in some of the larger broker/dealers, reading the other day that – I forget if it's Merrill or Morgan, where they laid off a couple of hundred kind of trainees, if you will.

Do you see an opportunity here to actually somehow accelerate the growth of your initiatives there and pick up some people who have already been trained at a wire house and haven't yet built a book?

Thomas W. Butch

We do. Obviously, there's a historical or historic disruption taking place in the broker/dealer world. And as you well know, prior to our implementing the Pershing system last year, which we're still in the process of perfecting, we really didn't have the capacity to bring those kinds of producers into our system, because we grew up principally as a transfer agent centric operation, which is largely paper-based. And people coming from wire houses are used to a different operating and product and platform infrastructure.

With that now complete, or substantially complete, we are very actively out in the market trying to source those very candidates. We have on the Pershing platform at this point, about two dozen people, half of whom who have come from outside, half of whom who've had joined from the Waddell & Reed side. More importantly and more apropos of your question, we've seen a significant pick up in activity as this year has started. We have 20-ish offers outstanding, and I think we're very comfortable that we're going to see good results as the year goes on.

Operator

Your next question comes from William Katz – Buckingham Research.

William Katz – Buckingham Research

Actually, I have one clarification and two questions. Dan, could you repeat your guidance on the indirect expenses. I didn't quite hear you.

Daniel P. Connealy

Indirect U&D should probably in the range between $31 and $33 million for the first quarter, and I said the total comp would be between $26 and $29. And I didn't mention that G&A would probably be in the $13 million range.

William Katz – Buckingham Research

So, that's underwriting and distribution, that's both the Advisor and the third party?

Daniel P. Connealy.

That's right.

William Katz – Buckingham Research

Thank you. Hank, two questions. The first one is just in terms of the target margin; I think at the end of the last quarter, you had highlighted a potential target of about 20%. If you strip out all the noise, this quarter is about 16%. Given the headcount reductions and the data that Dan just provided, is that still a reasonable target?

Henry J. Herrmann

I'm not sure that the 16 number is the right number, but put that aside for the moment. You can talk with Nicole about how you got there from here. However, the way we're structured right now, taking a look at our operating budget going forward and we're thinking in a flat-market environment, we'll make the 20. That's what we geared toward when we made the changes we did. However, it won't be evenly spread out, because we based it on the assumption of a flat market for the year, and so far, in January, it has not been flat.

So, a lot of the answer to your question is a function of market action unfortunately, but in terms of sizing our expenses on what I thought at the time was a reasonable forecast going forward, we would make the 20. I waffled a little bit on your question. It's a fair question. I still have that target. We'll look at environment and see what happens. If changes occur, we'll make changes.

William Katz – Buckingham Research

And then the second question is on capital management, and I was encouraged to see you had some buy-back in the quarter when much of the other industry has probably shut down in that aspect, but I was sort of wondering if you walk through the dividend policy a little bit. Obviously, earnings are quite depressed right now and you get a little bounce from some of the expense initiatives, but your payout ratio seems awfully high for the environment here. I was just sort of wondering how you're thinking about capital on a go-forward basis.

Henry J. Herrmann

Well, I don't know if the payout ratio thought is applicable to a business like ours where capital outlays are pretty modest. So, you need to of course to keep that in mind. The second thing you need to keep in mind is that we have a pretty significant cash position, and based on our forecasting budget at this point in time, we will have free cash flow above our dividend by a fairly reasonable amount.

And so at the moment, my advice to the Board would be that we would be maintaining the dividend. The Board ultimately, of course, you know makes the decision, not myself.

I should have responded on the share repurchase, since you were kind enough not to ask it, I'll say anyway. We did buy a modest amount of shares in the fourth quarter, but our purchases for the year exceeded the guidelines I had given to folks when the opportunity arose to buy it cheaper. At the present time, no change in plan in terms of the share repurchase going forward. We will buy back at least a number of shares to manage [research] share guidance.

Operator

Your next question comes from Michael Kim – Sandler O'Neill.

Michael Kim – Sandler O'Neill

Just a couple of questions. First, just given the level of market losses investors continue to kind of endure, are you starting to see perhaps a shift in the way people are thinking about retirement portfolios, either from an asset allocation standpoint or in terms of maybe absolute contribution levels?

And then how are you looking to capitalize on any longer term changes? Are you more focused perhaps maybe on product innovation or expanding distribution or maybe some other initiative.

Thomas W. Butch

It's Tom. Yes we're see some level of shift, and I'm starting to hear an echo so I hope that's not playing through the system, we've seen some level of shift in terms of the appetite for fixed income both in our Advisor channel and in the wholesale channel, where this year particularly as it has started there has been a much stronger appetite for that asset class and it's a larger percentage of our sales year-to-date.

And in the Advisors channel, last year we saw an increase of about five-ish percentage points of sales going to fixed income. As important as you know our variable annuity sales have been growing very rapidly and I think for our Advisors and out in the industry that has been a central product for retirement. So I think we are a financial planning centric organization and both fixed income and insurance related solutions, particularly the living benefits have been central to what we've been thinking about.

Was there another dimension to your question that I'm not getting to?

Michael Kim – Sandler O'Neill

On just going forward are you thinking about product innovation versus just continuing to expand distribution in order to capitalize on some of these shifting dynamics?

Thomas W. Butch

Yes, we're looking at a couple of things relative to income guarantees and their potential portability outside the insurance universe, but we're not at a place where we're close to accomplishing that at this point.

Michael Kim – Sandler O'Neill

And then just finally, it looks like the Advisors core fund continues to enjoy some pretty strong relative performance really across all time periods. Are you doing anything differently in terms of thinking about leveraging that performance or is it just really a matter of kind of the broader markets turning more favorable before we start to see flows start to accelerate?

Thomas W. Butch

If I may, I'll answer that question a couple of ways. In the Advisors channel as you well know, we are really focused on asset allocation and having investors invested appropriate to their time horizon, risk tolerance and objectives of their investment and so improvement or sustained good performance in products, may not materially move the needle toward a specific product, because normally it's purchased in the Advisors channel in the context of asset allocation.

Core fund for example, would be utilized very widely as a core equity holding, so normally you don't see huge product swings or huge flow swings to products based on performance in the Advisors channel and as you may or may not know, the Advisors funds are sold only in the Advisors channel.

To the extent that performance is leverageable, we would take it out into the market with its Ivey counterpart and that fund, though not in a massive sense, is in positive flow year-to-date in that channel.

Operator

Your next question comes from Mark Irizarry – Goldman Sachs

Mark Irizarry – Goldman Sachs

Could you just give us a little color on the Advisor headcount which was up sequentially? How are you thinking about that going forward and what sort of market back – how does the sort of market backdrop sort of play into that?

Thomas W. Butch

We're thinking that that's kind of within the targeted range of looking forward to 2009, plus minus a percentage point or two. Obviously there are good opportunities on what we call the classic side, the traditional business where we hire college graduates and career changers and unfortunately in one sense the market is giving us a lot of the latter. And there's a lot of talented people available to that so it very well may give us even a better opportunity relative to the quality of candidates we are seeing.

As I mentioned in response to Rob's prior questions we are also very actively working on recruiting seasoned and experienced Advisors from other broker/dealers and that would be a different part of our business that we call the Choice channel, which uses the Pershing operating architecture to accommodate existing people in the business.

I think I cited a number last year of a first year target, going back to June of last year of somewhere between 35 and 50 in that first 12 months span and we're seeing a lot of very quality candidates at this point.

Mark Irizarry – Goldman Sachs

And then just in the terms of the wholesale distribution channel, the redemption rates are obviously up pretty dramatically. When you think about the cost structure in that business right now and the need to hand hold more investors if we are seeing a sea change in asset and portfolio construction or asset allocation. How do you deal? Is there a way for you to sort of build that business through potentially an acquisition of some sort or is this something where you're going to see continued pressure on the cost side of the equation and maybe an increased need to put resources in at a time when assets are under pressure?

Henry Hermann

Well, I think that is a two-fold question. One part for Tom and one part for Hank, at the present time I'm not thinking all about acquisitions as a way to deal with expense burden coverage if that was your question. On the other hand a lot of the costs in the wholesale channel are variable and associated with production and so we'd certainly make small adjustments in the wholesale channel given the level of business contraction that's occurred. But we remain strongly committed to building it out over time.

Thomas W. Butch

I think it may be also responsive to your question that we're looking for creative ways to get more coverage and presence without necessarily expanding dramatically the number of wholesalers. For example, we've taken the top five people on our internal sales desk which historically has been a good source of putting people out in the field eventually and created a hybrid role to the independent channel which we're trying to cultivate a little more actively and these folks are spending part of their time on the sales desk and part of their time actually out in the field in territories which expands our coverage of the independent side of the business which is important to us without hiring in new people to put out into the field.

The long term aspiration on markets come back to more normalized circumstances would be to hopefully move those people out in the field at which time they would have had a lot of experiences out there already. And so that's one of the things that we're doing. We've also had very good success at penetrating some of the broker dealers using our desk as the principle mechanism for that. So I hope that's responsive to sort of the spirit of your question.

Mark Irizarry – Goldman Sachs

That’s great and then just on the sub-advisory side, the assets were down a lot there was there – could you just shed a little bit of color on the sub-advisory relationships and sort of what drove that, the sharper decline there?

Thomas W. Butch

It had principally to do with the Global Natural Resources Fund which is our largest sub-advise fund which was under significant redemption pressure in the latter part of the year.

Operator

(Operator Instructions). Your next question comes from Cynthia Mayer – Bank of America-Merrill Lynch.

Cynthia Mayer – Bank of America-Merrill Lynch

Hi, good morning. Apologize for the cold. I'm just wondering just to clarify on the operating margin target; you said it might be attainable on a full-year basis if equity markets are flat this year?

Daniel P. Connealy

I think that what we're striving for us to get to that 20% by the end of the year. So by the third or fourth quarter if in a flat market we won't start out there. But given sales, reasonable sales performance our assets should grow even in a flat market so we'd see ourselves getting to 20 later in the year but not starting out.

Cynthia Mayer – Bank of America-Merrill Lynch

In terms of – I notice that shareholder accounts and the number of shareholders dropped, looked like for the first time in eight quarters. Is there any significance to that other than market turmoil and do you see that trend continuing

Hank Hermann

Well, I think its market turmoil is the reason for it. You know, I would say my experience in the business is if the turmoil continues there’ll be some additional shrinkage. But I wouldn’t trend line the experience we had in the last quarter because it’s so unusual. But on the other hand if things stabilize it will go the other way, but there’s nothing fundamental at play here other than market.

Cynthia Mayer – Bank of America-Merrill Lynch

And, Mike I was wondering if you could talk a little about how asset strategy is positioned at this point and whether you’re still very cautious?

Michael L. Avery

Well, thank you for asking the question, Cynthia. The fund is positioned very low.

Henry Hermann

Ask him for a little bit more

Cynthia Mayer – Bank of America-Merrill Lynch

Okay, I'm with that. How hedged are you?

Michael L. Avery

Extremely.

Cynthia Mayer – Bank of America-Merrill Lynch

Okay. And on variable annuities, are those in net inflows?

Michael L. Avery

The answer is yes. I’m citing a gross number and I apologize. They were certainly – we have, in the wholesale side of the business, are you talking specifically about contracts or are you talking about the funds underlying the contracts, I guess is the gradation. The simple –

Cynthia Mayer – Bank of America-Merrill Lynch

The funds, I guess. The AUM.

Michael L. Avery

Yes, the AUMs would be in, the fund AUMs would be in net redemptions, although only modestly.

Cynthia Mayer – Bank of America-Merrill Lynch

So a little less than the regular equity funds?

Michael L. Avery

Yes.

Cynthia Mayer – Bank of America-Merrill Lynch

And then, just to clarify on institutional, how much of the institutional sales were from [Picktay]?

Michael L. Avery

Gross is defined as institutional, golly, off the top of my head, I’m guessing someplace around 70%. Hold on a second, Nicole’s got it. I’m not sure how to interpret that if you think you’re confident of it as a percent. I’ll stick for the moment with my thought that that’s 70% of last year’s inflows into institutional was related to [Picktay].

Cynthia Mayer – Bank of America-Merrill Lynch

Last one on flows, it seemed like your fee-based asset allocation products sales dropped really fast. Any special thing behind that?

Henry Hermann

No, I don’t think there’s any significance to that other than the fact there’s already described in ad nauseum throughout this call and in our opening comments. I think it’ll still be a very important part of the sales mix going forward.

Operator

You next question comes from Craig Siegenthaler – Credit Suisse

Craig Siegenthaler – Credit Suisse

Question for Dan on the wholesale channel, when I look at net underwriting and distribution earnings from the wholesale channel, it's kind of trended between, let’s say, negative 13 and negative 20 million over the last few quarters. Well the last quarter AUM's been reset. Revenues reset, sales reset to kind of a lower level here. I’m wondering do think this segment can lose something, let’s say, and just on an underwriting distribution basis under 10 million per quarter, because when you look at the margin trends.

Henry Herrman

Well, one thing you should know about the fourth quarter is that –

Craig Siegenthaler – Credit Suisse

The charge is in there.

Henry Hermann

Revenue were higher by a couple million per, higher than normal CDSC collections. Those collections did not go to the bottom line. We took them against DAC. So if you’re trending out you would expect that to go down. But it didn’t help our margins last quarter.

Craig Siegenthaler – Credit Suisse

Yes, but I’m just looking now that AUM is down, just due to the market depreciation, net flows on top that you have a actual, a lower expectation of just net loss in the distribution channel.

Henry Hermann

Well, it’s going to really depend on the sales level. So, we’re not forecasting very, real high sales, so that shouldn’t put a big pressure on it, but we’re not looking for positive distribution in the wholesale channel any time soon.

Operator

At this time there are no further questions. At this time I would like to turn the conference over to Hank Herrmann for closing remarks.

Nicole McIntosh

Before Hank goes through his closing remark, I just wanted to add some clarity to the [Picktay]. For 2008, sales were 1.7 billion of the 2.3 billion that we experienced in the institutional channel.

Henry J. Hermann

So, other than that, I don’t know that we have any additional comments. We appreciate you calling in very much and we look forward to giving you a more cheerful update at the end of the first quarter. Thanks for your time. Take care.

Operator

This concludes today’s Waddell & Reed third quarter earnings conference call. You may now disconnect.

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