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Waddell & Reed Financial, Inc. (NYSE:WDR)

Q4 2013 Earnings Call

February 4, 2014 10:00 a.m. ET

Executives

Nicole Russell - Vice President, Investor Relations

Henry Herrmann - Chief Executive Officer and Chairman of the Board

Michael Avery - President, Portfolio Manager

Thomas Butch - Executive Vice President, Chief Marketing Officer

Daniel Connealy - Senior Vice President, Chief Financial Officer

Philip Sanders - Chief Investment Officer

Michael Strohm - Senior Vice President, Chief Operations Officer

Brent Bloss - Senior Vice President-Finance, Treasurer

Analysts

Cynthia Mayer - Bank of America Merrill Lynch

William Katz - Citigroup

Michael Kim - Sandler O'Neill

Mac Sykes - Gabelli & Co.

Craig Siegenthaler - Credit Suisse

Robert Lee - Keefe, Bruyette & Woods

Marc Irizarry - Goldman Sachs

Operator

Good morning. My name is Jasmine, and I'll be your conference operator today. At this time, I'd like to welcome everyone to the fourth quarter 2013 earnings conference call. [Operator Instructions] I'd now like to turn the conference over to Mr. Hank Herrmann, Chief Executive Officer of Waddell & Reed. You may begin.

Henry Herrmann

Thank you, Jasmine. Good morning. With me today are Mike Avery, President; Tom Butch, our Chief Marketing Officer; Dan Connealy, our Chief Financial Officer; Mike Strohm, our Chief Operating Officer; Phil Sanders, our Chief Investment Officer; and Brent Bloss, our Treasurer and incoming CFO; and Nicole Russell, our VP of Investor Relations. Nicole, would you read the forward-looking statements, please?

Nicole Russell

During this call, some of our comments and responses will include forward-looking statements. 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 filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission. We assume no duty to update any forward-looking statements. Materials relevant to today's call, including a copy of today's press release as well as supplemental schedules, have been posted on our website at waddell.com under the Corporate tab.

Henry Herrmann

Thank you, Nicole. Good morning again, everyone. We made significant progress in 2013. Our success was evident in all distribution channels as reflected in our financial results. Net income of $253 million for the year rose 31%. Earnings per diluted share of $2.96 grew at a similar rate. Operating revenues rose by $197 million to a record of $1.4 billion.

Solid top line growth combined with careful, continued expense control, led to a 230 basis point expansion in our operating margin to 28.1%. Our capital position remains solid. Cash and investments reached $689 million at year-end, increasing $185 million. With the strength of our capital position, we were able to return $168 million to our stockholders through a combination of dividends and share buyback.

In November, we increased our 2014 dividend by 21%. Assets under management reached $127 billion on December 31. We saw positive flows each quarter while the industry and many of our peers struggled with outflows. Annual net inflows were $8.5 billion equating to an organic growth rate of 8.8% versus 1.1% for the industry, placing us at the top of our peer group. Sales for the year also marked a record at $30 billion.

Focusing on the quarter's results. Net income of $78.8 million rose 15% compared with the previous quarter and 50% compared with the fourth quarter of 2012. Earnings per diluted share of $0.92 improved at a similar rate. You will note in our press release that the current quarter included $9.3 million in investment and other income which consisted primarily of gains from investment portfolios. These gains led to a cash saving of $3.3 million by offsetting prior year's capital losses.

Operating revenues rose for the eighth consecutive quarter reaching a new high of $375 million. Our operating margin rose to 30.2%. Sales during the quarter $9.3 billion, rising 37% sequentially and 71% compared to the same quarter last year. Net flows of $4 billion were at near record levels exceeding all quarterly flows except for the $4.8 billion in the first quarter of 2008, and resulted in an organic growth rate of 14%. Flows were well diversified across asset classes with roughly 40% of flows into hybrid products, 30% into equities, and 30% into fixed income.

We are pleased by the level of sales and flows across such a wide span of products. At present we have 6 strategies with assets under management in excess of $5 billion, and another 14 in excess of $1 billion. Our unique distribution model continues to separate us from our peers allowing us to outperform across various markets. During the fourth quarter each channel made significant contribution to our consolidated results.

Our wholesale channel with its ability to capture to assets by leveraging the vast distribution capacity of third party advisors, saw quarterly sales volume exceed $6 billion for the first time, rising 18% sequentially and 71% compared to the same period last year. Net flows of $2.8 billion represent an organic growth rate of 19%. In the Advisors channel, our financial planning efforts have continued to provide our clients with numerous advice based options including both transaction and fee-based models. Advisor productivity is at an all time high. The growing importance of our fee-based model is resulting in a more predictable stream of revenues. Considering the 10 plus year life of assets within the Advisors channel, this benefit is becoming increasingly important to cash flows.

During the quarter our institutional channel realized the funding of two long awaited mandates totaled nearly $1 billion, which helped to spur our record quarterly sales of $1.9 billion. AUMs also set a new high. While we don’t expect to repeat this level of business in the fourth quarter of 2014 -- first quarter of 2014, excuse me -- the pipeline remains encouraging.

2014 is off to a strong start with flows across the complex solidly positive. Preliminary figures for January show daily average inflows in our retail channel exceeding fourth quarter levels.

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 the line of Cynthia Mayer from Bank of America.

Cynthia Mayer - Bank of America Merrill Lynch

Maybe given the volatility in the market, can you talk a little about what, if any, products you are incenting wholesalers to sell? And what in particular would be selling in a market like this? And then secondly, maybe if you could talk just a little about how asset strategy is positioned given the markets and particularly relating to emerging markets and gold. Thanks.

Thomas Butch

Hi, Cynthia, it is Tom, and I will take part one of the question. The products that are selling in the first quarter mirror almost precisely those that were selling well in the fourth. In order those would be asset strategy, high income, science and technology, mid-cap growth and balance. Each of those had very strong fourth quarters, each of those have had even stronger Januaries on a daily run rate basis. We stratify funds in terms of the compensation to wholesalers based on myriad factors, so it's difficult to say which funds are the ones that we are most promoting because we stratify these points based on a number of factors.

There are three levels within each of those levels. There are a couple of funds that pay a little more than the rest. And so I don’t think there is anything in there that is substantially differentiated from prior years. The compensation structure affords our wholesalers the opportunity to take to market a broad span of things. So I don’t think that the compensation is such that the differentiation materially moves them to or away from any particular product.

Michael Avery

Cynthia, this is Mike. The way we are currently exposed in asset strategy, as of today we have right about 72% of AUMs in equities, 16% is in cash, about 4% is in private placement high yield, and our exposure to gold, on a gross basis it's about 6%. We have hedged two-thirds of that so our net exposure is 2% of the fund. Just to give you some perspective on your broader question. This time last year we began telling our shareholders that we were going to reduce our equity exposure into a rising market. This time last year we had right at 85% of the fund in equities and 3% in cash, a position that we came to again over the course of the past year.

Depending upon how you count emerging markets, I don’t really consider China an emerging market anymore, particularly how we are invested in it. But China as our company is listed in Hong Kong, is about 15% of the fund with the bulk of that focused on companies that cater to the upper income spectrum of the Chinese population. Outside of that we have no emerging market exposure in that sense [ph].

Operator

Your next question comes from the line of Bill Katz from Citigroup.

William Katz - Citigroup

Just for some perspective, how are sales flowing relative to a year ago? Just from a seasonal perspective?

Daniel Connealy

I don’t have that readily at my fingertips, Bill, this is Dan. I think they are a little bit stronger than they were. We will look at that as we answer other questions and get the answer to you.

Thomas Butch

Another way of looking at maybe, Bill, is if you look at the average Q4 sales relative to January. As Hank mentioned in his opening remarks, on a gross basis in the two retail channels fourth quarter obviously was very strong, and January to date is stronger still.

William Katz - Citigroup

Okay, that's helpful. Tom, while I have you, can you give us an update on where you stand in terms of fee-based sales in the quarter and then what percentage of the assets they are for the Advisor channel?

Thomas Butch

Yes, I have that. The fee-based were in the quarter 43% of Advisor U&D revenue and that’s up from 40% in the first quarter, 40% in the second and 42% in the third. So over the course of the year 3 percentage point increase and they are about 30% of the assets in the Advisors channel at this point.

William Katz - Citigroup

Okay, and then maybe Dan, one for you. I think, given my memory is incorrect, but it looks like the comp came in a little bit lower than maybe what you had guided to for the fourth quarter. First, was there anything to do with sort of the PM turnover and the high yield tune [ph] that affected that? And how are you thinking about that number into the beginning of the year?

Daniel Connealy

Well, Bill, I think that, as I recall we kind of fell right into our guidance. And as far as portfolio turnover, it had minimal effect on our bonuses.

William Katz - Citigroup

Okay. And just one last one for Hank, can you just update for the [indiscernible] looking into the new year?

Henry Herrmann

I will let Brent take the future outlook for comp in the next quarter.

Brent Bloss

Yes, Bill, we are looking at, what we have budgeted for the year for compensation going into '14 is about a 9% increase over 2013. Of that 9% increase, 4% points of that 9% increase relate to headcount growth that we can dial up and down. So that gives you an idea of what we are looking at as we budget going into 2014.

William Katz - Citigroup

Okay, that's helpful. And then, Hank, just one quick one for you, and thanks for taking all my questions. As you look forward this year, and obviously 2014 is off to a bit of a rocky start here, but how are you thinking about capital allocation for this year? Obviously, you continue to build it up on the balance sheet through dividends, but any thoughts of any kind of shift in policy as you look out to '14?

Henry Herrmann

Bill, no, we continue to expect to offset the restricted share gains with share repurchases. And if significant negative price actions were to occur, it would be more than that. We raised the dividend, as you know, in November and the board will continue to look periodically at the cash build up that you point to. And I think it's appropriate we might have a special dividend but at the present time I haven't even discussed it with them. So it will be a while before we figure that one out. But it's clear that we are generating a lot of cash and the board is aware of that.

Operator

Your next question comes from the line of Michael Kim from Sandler O'Neill.

Michael Kim - Sandler O'Neill

First, now that you are starting to see or have seen more sustained demand for some of your more focused strategies like science and tech and mid-cap growth, just wondering if you think that might suggest retail investors continue to have more conviction around sort of re-risking their portfolios and asset allocation trends more broadly.

Henry Herrmann

Yes, it's Hank. We have clearly seen the rotation to more risky if you will, equity strategies, really starting in September. And the pace has continued to pickup as we have come all the way through January. So I would say in the wholesale channel, there is clear evidence of a growing preference for equities. In our Advisors channel, which generally speaking has less aggressive client base, we haven't seen a material change yet although it's getting a little bit of a mix shift. So I don’t think it's a great rotation but pretty clearly there is an orientation towards equities that we haven't seen for a while. The other point I would make, you didn’t directly ask but I would elaborate on because it's relevant I think, is that within the fixed income arena there is a continued preference for longer duration, more risky high yields and less interest in what I would call core fixed income.

Thomas Butch

If I would just add one thing to that it is this, Mike, that if you were to survey the guidance and the outlooks of the major distributors through whom the Ivy Funds are distributed per Hank's point, the consensus guidance that they are providing their advisors is equity based and on the fixed income side high-income base. So there is that support mechanism which informs advisor activity, which informs investor sentiment.

Henry Herrmann

I think I should have mentioned and may be Tom will champion this, if not speak up. But talking to a number of our relationships in the wholesale channel, the observation from them is that there is a growing preference toward actively managed and less enthusiasm for ETFs. Not to say ETFs have rolled over or anything like that but there is definitely shift toward active management.

Michael Kim - Sandler O'Neill

Got it, that's helpful. And then maybe just to follow up on the distribution front, I think you talked more recently about touching a broader set of advisors following the closed end fund offering that you did last year. So, just wondering to what extent you may have started to see signs of any follow through maybe in terms of the number of advisors writing tickets or anything to that extent.

Thomas Butch

The number of new accounts over the second part of the year was a bit strong. On the closed end piece you do gain access to people whom otherwise you might not, but a lot of those advisors are very closed end based and so follow-through may or may not be as relevant. I think the more relevant point perhaps in terms of broadening the advisor base is something we have talked about on the last several calls, has been a more focused effort against the independent broker-dealer world and the follow-through on that is that we are continuing to build that out. And so we really have two discreet efforts within the wholesale channel, one against the national firms and one against the independent firms. And so by the end of this year we will have built that out, whether fully or not, certainly at a level that is competitive. And that I think is probably the more important focus relative to broadening distribution to a greater span of advisors.

Michael Kim - Sandler O'Neill

Okay. And then, finally, just on the institutional channel. Any signs of meaningful shifts in allocation trends, particularly as it seems like a number of pension plans are getting closer to being fully funded. And then any sense or color on RFP activity or the pipeline both here in the U.S. as well as overseas?

Thomas Butch

Pipeline is good. I would say it's substantially consistent over the last couple of quarters of the year. Activity in the first quarter is good. In terms of particular emphasis, our breadth of what we take to market has not changed nor has substantially the appetite for the strategies which tend right now to focus around core equity, large-cap growth and mid-cap growth. If there is one thing we would point to, it's a little of offshore interest in high quality, actively managed U.S. equity.

Operator

Your next question comes from the line of Mac Sykes with Gabelli & Company.

Mac Sykes - Gabelli & Co.

Just to get on the back of that institutional question. We have seen some fee rate compression, albeit small, but could you provide some color on the new business that's coming in versus the existing run rate that you have in channel? And is this a function of either the product mix or maybe the relationships that you have now that may be affecting this expected yield?

Thomas Butch

I didn’t get the whole question, I apologize. If it dealt with the composition of the institutional business and the recent wins and whether they are different, again, the business has shifted substantially over the last many years from what we would call the traditional defined benefit part of the business to much more sub-advised and the large one we had in Q4 was a sub-advised win in our mid-cap growth strategy. And, again, as I said in response to the prior question, there is not a material mix shift in terms of activity or interest. Strategies that have been working are those which we continue to take to market. Was there another part to your question I might have missed?

Mac Sykes - Gabelli & Co.

No, that was good. Just one follow-up in terms of international expansion. We haven't talked about this in a couple of quarters, but any updates there on maybe expanding in Europe? We have heard a lot of companies talk about the opportunities there if the market turns around. Just curious if you had any updates on this.

Thomas Butch

The only update I would give on that is, as I said in the prior answer, we are seeing meaningful offshore interest in high quality U.S. equity strategies. On the institutional side we have a couple of our funds on a more retail basis, in a use of structure our asset strategy and high-income funds. The asset strategy fund is getting some flow, the high-income funs is still really in its early stages. We don’t have feet on the ground offshore and therefore we look for strategic opportunities to take those to distributors where they might be successful. I would say that’s still very nascent.

Operator

Your next question comes from the line of Craig Siegenthaler with Credit Suisse.

Craig Siegenthaler - Credit Suisse

First, just to hit on the operating margin here. You know you really successfully drove it from kind of the low 20s to just over 30% now four years later. How sustainable is the margin here and especially as you look forward into 2014 with several seasonal items that tend to pick up on the expense side, and also given that markets are down here in January, maybe just some thoughts on the forward margin run rate.

Brent Bloss

Hi, Craig, this is Brent. I think if you look at where our asset levels ended at year-end and you assume zero market and above average organic growth rate for us, given where we budgeted expenses, we believe we can still make incremental progress in our margins. So some of those expenses in G&A and as I talked about comp, are flexible, and that we can dial them up and down as we react to the market. So we still feel like we can make some improvement in that margin over time. There is factors that come into play with sales activity as well as market action that play into that.

Henry Herrmann

So if I heard you right, I think you are trying to figure out what the operating margin is going to be in the first quarter?

Craig Siegenthaler - Credit Suisse

Not just the first quarter, but on a go-forward run rate basis.

Henry Herrmann

Well, I think Brent's response on a go-forward run rate basis is appropriate. I think I was just going to remind you about a couple of things that usually come to play in the first quarter like fewer days and bonuses for advisors and bonuses for portfolio managers and stuff.

Brent Bloss

Yes. The taxes, the employment taxes reset in the first quarter which has an impact on the margin as well as like Hank mentioned, the couple of less days and the management fees in the first quarter. So the margin will be depressed a little bit based on our forecast in the first quarter as we get started off with less days.

Craig Siegenthaler - Credit Suisse

Brent, very helpful there and thank you, Hank. One follow-up question just on the bond business. We can tell how flows trended in December through the mutual fund channel which we all track. But I am wondering if you have seen any changes on the separate account side for any kind of outflows from Bryan Krug's fund. And maybe you can give us an update on feedback from retail gatekeepers for Bill Nelson, now that he's managing both pods [ph] there?

Thomas Butch

I will take the second and third part to that to begin with, this is Tom, and maybe a number of us might pine on the first part. As you point out, Bryan left on November 20th and Bill Nelson who is long tenured here and who had run two other mutual funds utilizing the same credit analyst team that Bill used, took on the Ivy Fund as his third such management responsibility. And in the period for the balance of 2013 where he took over the funds, the daily run rate was effectively unchanged, on a gross basis it was down a tiny bit and on a net basis it was actually up. And so the reaction in the market place was sort of a non-reaction. Not I would say that in 2014 so far both that run rate is elevated from that 2013 rates and Bryan and he separately has managed to a similar level. The reaction in the marketplace from advisors has been, obviously, therefore very patient and very accepting of the change. Bill has been very active in making himself available to gatekeepers, to our wholesalers and to advisors and the reaction has overall been very good. Relative to fixed income demand generally, was that your other question?

Craig Siegenthaler - Credit Suisse

No, it actually wasn't. But you covered my questions just really around Bryan there.

Operator

Your next question comes from the line of Robert Lee with KBW.

Robert Lee - Keefe, Bruyette & Woods

Real quick question on--

Henry Herrmann

Hey, Rob, just a little bit louder, a little tough hearing you.

Robert Lee - Keefe, Bruyette & Woods

Okay, I was just going to ask a question on the distribution margin -- is that better?

Henry Herrmann

Get a closer or whatever, we can hear you but.

Robert Lee - Keefe, Bruyette & Woods

All right, we will give another shot.

Henry Herrmann

There you go, that’s good.

Robert Lee - Keefe, Bruyette & Woods

Okay, on the distribution margin, just in the wholesale channel where you have had really strong asset growth and sales, although there the distribution margin if I am calculating it correctly, has been a little bit more static. Am I correct in assuming that’s just because of the big pickup in gross sales volumes is kind of, at least in the near-term not letting the operating -- the improved scale in that channel flow through?

Brent Bloss

Yes, I think you are right. I mean the fixed cost obviously in that channel we have been able to manage very consistently. And I think just the scale we have reached with the assets in that channel and holding the fixed cost in check have helped us over time. So I think you are looking at that right.

Robert Lee - Keefe, Bruyette & Woods

Okay, and then, also, I guess conversely in the advisors channel where you have seen the margin turn positive for the last, I guess, five quarters, which I think way back when it's probably a little bit better than you would have expected. Is there anything in that channel whether it's starting to face a period of maybe heightened reinvestments or any thoughts of maybe putting a little bit -- while you don't want to grow the advisor force for the sake of growing the advisor force, any thoughts there that maybe there is a new cycle of some investment taking place in the advisor channel?

Thomas Butch

I think maybe two questions, if I heard them correctly. One is sort of a sales force growth related question and they are interrelated obviously, the other is go-forward distribution margin. You want to take the go-forward distribution margin?

Brent Bloss

Right. On the distribution margin going forward, Hank said in the past a modest positive to slightly negative. And I think we stick with that guidance going forward. We did see some improvement in the fourth quarter in that margin principally because of the increase in our fee-based assets which we discussed earlier, is we are obviously giving some help from our fixed costs in that channel as well, keeping those fairly steady. But as we move into 2014, you will see some additional cost probably enter into that channel related to some IT infrastructure improvements. So although we think it will be modestly positive, I wouldn’t expect it to be at the level that you saw in the first quarter -- or the fourth quarter, I mean.

Thomas Butch

Just sort of as a adjunct to that, you asked a little bit although perhaps not directly about the advisor count. And one thing that’s worth pointing out is that it was suppressed a little bit artificially in Q4 by the fact that we had 47 of our district of advisors who were in a dual role as district manager and advisor, go wholly to the district manager role which going forward is a non-producing role. So they were removed from the advisor count and so the advisor count which sequentially looked down was really, absent that factor, up very modestly. And rationale for having full time second line leaders is, one, recruiting and nurturing and building productive advisors. So there will great managerial heft attaching to that mission going forward. You're right that it won't devolve back into any circumstance of just hiring a whole lot of people, but this gives us more focus on hiring the right people and developing them successfully into financial advisors.

Robert Lee - Keefe, Bruyette & Woods

Great, I appreciate it. And one last thing if I may. Dan, this is your last earnings call? Is that correct?

Daniel Connealy

That’s correct.

Robert Lee - Keefe, Bruyette & Woods

Well, just want to wish you good luck and congratulations on the retirement and your next phase.

Daniel Connealy

Well, thank you. I believe I would leave you in good hands.

Operator

(Operator Instructions) Your next question comes from the line of Marc Irizarry from Goldman Sachs.

Marc Irizarry - Goldman Sachs

Just wanted to dig in on asset strategy and the market share gains that you are seeing there. I think 2013 was clearly an up-market capture year and I guess the question is, if maybe based on conversations with the channel or what you are seeing, is the up-market capture that you sought from Ivy asset strategy, is that helping either -- are you seeing any sort of uptick in demand from the channel or from investors just given maybe a little more bias toward recent performance?

Thomas Butch

I will let Mike talk about it. He spends a great deal of time with investors, we spend a lot of time with the gatekeepers and advisors. I would say that, yes, the demand is moving -- the uptick in demand is visible.

Michael Avery

Yes, Marc, this is Mike. I would say that we have continued to see interest in asset strategy for a long time. We did a noticeable pickup in flows into the fund, I would say late September, early October. And even though we were lagging the primary benchmark that investors used, the S&P 500, what I believe that reflects is the effort that we all made in terms of educating the shareholder as to where we were at the market cycle, how we were addressing that change at the market cycle. And even though we underperformed the S&P what I think people took solace in is that the reminder that this is a fund that’s going to try to participate in up markets and try to minimize downside in down markets. And flows picked up fairly substantially beginning again about early October. So we, as Tom pointed out, we have a lot of wholesalers and they do a great job communicating. Our team spend a lot of time either directly in the field or in calls with clients. And I think it reflects that people are looking for direction, the place to go, and it continues -- the funnel continues to attract a lot of interest.

Marc Irizarry - Goldman Sachs

Okay. And then maybe, Hank or Dan, or Brent, if you can give us some perspective on how you are thinking about share repurchases at current levels and maybe the preference for special dividends versus stock repurchase in '14?

Daniel Connealy

Well, I think we kind of mentioned on the phone, Hank mentioned that we will be buying back enough stock to not have any dilution. That’s our general goal for it. And when markets get down a bit we look for opportunities to buy a little more. Special dividends are really in the hands of the board and they will from time to time, at every meeting, consider that.

Operator

And there are no further audio questions at this time.

Henry Herrmann

Well, thank you very much for joining in the call. We appreciate the questions and your support and we look forward to talking to you in couple of months. Take care.

Operator

Thank you. This concludes today's conference call. You may now disconnect.

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