State Street fights to put uncertainty behind it
A Boston stalwart fights its way through a crisis that’s putting even its steady strategy to the test
Ronald Logue had a nagging suspicion the financial climate was getting dangerous. But he didn’t know where the risks were looming, or how close they would come to his company.
Logue, the chief executive of State Street Corp., a financial services giant in Boston that handles investments around the world, said he first started to worry in 2007, while traveling abroad on business. He feared that markets were becoming so complex and intertwined that the next hedge fund meltdown or foreign currency crisis could threaten the financial system, and ultimately State Street.
He was right about the mounting risks. But they weren’t brewing in some far-flung corner of the world; rather, they were lurking in the US debt markets and right inside the halls of State Street’s downtown offices. By early this year, State Street said it was facing $9 billion in potential losses on seemingly safe debt investments, and shareholders reacted violently, cutting its stock price in half in a single day last January.
“I think the market stepped back and said, ‘Oh my God, even State Street?’ ” Logue said in a recent Globe interview.
Logue has spent the past six months trying to convince investors that a company known as a careful steward of other people’s money had not lost its way. He has repeatedly made the case that State Street stuck to safe kinds of investments. The debt instruments in question were backed by basic consumer loans – for autos and homes, for example. The only real risk with the securities was if, inexplicably, the trading markets were to freeze up.
Which is exactly what happened. When the global credit markets melted down last year, State Street had no way to value those assets and so was forced to acknowledge the potential multibillion-dollar losses. It was something no one could have predicted, Logue said. Still, Wall Street analysts were laying the blame at his feet.
“If there were just 50 percent illiquidity in the marketplace, we would have handled this fine,” Logue said.
On Tuesday, Logue and State Street completed a portion of a tumultuous journey back from those dark days. The company received permission from the US Treasury to repay the government the $2 billion it was forced to accept last October, in the first wave of the bank bailout launched by the Bush administration to prop up the tottering financial system.
Logue had pledged from the beginning to get out of the federal program as soon as possible. At last month’s annual shareholder meeting, he said the company had gone a long way toward completing that effort, by raising $2.8 billion in stock and debt to repay the government. And last week, he declared victory of sorts, saying State Street had “assisted the federal government’s efforts in stabilizing the financial markets.”
It has been a longer road than Logue could have imagined to this place.
How did centuries-old State Street – which made its name as “a stodgy old record keeper,” as Logue says – become ensnared in the subprime mortgage debacle that brought down far racier investment houses? State Street makes its money managing $1.4 trillion for pension funds and other large investors, and handling accounting and record keeping for $12 trillion in mutual fund and hedge fund assets. Since Logue took over as chief executive in 2004, he has pressed the company to grow, including using its vast pools of cash to invest more aggressively.
“You could question whether they went overboard on growing the investment portfolio, and with greater risk,” said Gerard Cassidy, a longtime State Street watcher and banking analyst for RBC Capital Markets in Portland, Maine. Senior management of the bank bears responsibility for that, he said: “They accepted that risk and now they’re paying the penalty for it.”
Logue’s strategy made money for the shareholders, and for himself, as he reaped one of the biggest paychecks in banking. Indeed, even in 2008, while Wall Street titans were crumbling, State Street posted a record $1.8 billion profit. But that success was overshadowed by the uncertainty around the troubled investments.
Nearly half of that looming liability emerged from a surprising place: a small side business that produced just $59 million in revenue last year, a tiny sliver of the company’s $10.7 billion in total revenues. That business was providing mutual fund clients, particularly money market funds, with a way to make a little extra on cash. State Street issued short-term debt for those clients to buy, which financed the purchase of what it deemed to be safe, longer-term debt, such as mortgage loans, car loans, and student loans. These pools of investments, called conduits, never had problems until the debt markets froze, making the underlying assets difficult to sell or even price.
“Two years ago, no one had a clue what a conduit was,” Logue said, weary of having to discuss the issue. While the business was started long before Logue became CEO, it was on his watch that the risks came to far outweigh the modest rewards. Assets in the conduits had grown to $29 billion by early 2008, without any red flags being raised.
“They’re not buying anything different than they were buying in 1992,” Logue said. “What happened is the markets changed dramatically.”
Meanwhile, a similar problem developed in State Street’s investment portfolio, where it had about $5.3 billion in unrealized losses on securities at the end of last year. According to one director during this period, the investment risks the company had accumulated were something of a surprise. “We were aware of it – but not how much risk and the extent of it,” this person said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.
But there were warning signs along the way. An early signal came in a presentation by company executives to analysts in November 2004, reproduced in a regulatory filing. An item on the PowerPoint slides told investors of the shifting strategy: “Beginning to reposition investment securities to enhance yield while controlling risk.” That was a cue that the company was taking on more risk, said a former State Street financial executive, who asked not to be named so he would not anger the company. By February 2008, the company disclosed it had $6.2 billion of assets backed by subprime mortgages. Bear Stearns Cos. would fail the next month.
By then, not only was Logue worried about the investments, but so was State Street’s board. In April 2008, Logue hired Maureen J. Miskovic, a member of State Street’s board and a polished British veteran of several Wall Street firms, to be chief risk officer. She was also made a member of the company’s operating committee, or group of senior executives. Logue dispatched Miskovic to make sure there were no other hidden time bombs buried in the business.
Last month, Logue acted to end the negative questions dogging State Street. After months of insisting the conduits would not prove a permanent problem, the company moved the securities onto its balance sheet, effectively taking a $3.7 billion hit even though the assets continue to pay interest. In so doing, State Street said, it would put the uncertainty behind it, but still earn money on the investments.
It was one of several moves that have gone Logue’s way since mid-May. State Street raised $2.8 billion in new capital, and its stock recovered from the January bloodletting, buoyed by news that the company was sound enough to repay the government. Shares closed at $47.56 on Friday.
On the morning of May 20, 36 floors above the city, Logue faced shareholders at the company’s annual meeting with a remarkably bullish tone. He boasted that State Street was now one of the “most well-capitalized banks in the country.” He talked about finding opportunity in the aftermath of the financial earthquake.
And he allowed himself to show just a glimmer of the frustration he has felt these many months. Times have been tough, he said, but, “We never lost a penny through all of this.”
Beth Healy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.