How T Rowe Price made lemonade out of lemons
Historically, the ‘little guy’, the individual investor, has received the short end of the stick when it comes to Wall Street. From painfully overpaid CEOs to costly trading mistakes and disappointing earnings, individual investors have rarely been properly compensated for actions that have caused them to lose money. While we have recently witnessed an uptick in regulatory activity and success in prosecuting these cases, one would be hard-pressed to argue that the proceeds of these fines will quickly make their way into the accounts of investors.
So when I read earlier this week that Baltimore-based T Rowe Price, one of the largest mutual fund companies with assets under management of $764.6 bn in the US, was going to – wait for it – deposit $194 mn in the accounts of its clients to compensate them for a clerical error made in connection with Dell’s management buyout in 2013, I nearly fell off my chair.
You heard it right: one of Wall Street’s largest fund managers not only admitted its mistake but was also doing its best to make amends. Talk about turning lemons into lemonade!
While the payment will result in a one-time charge to earnings in the second quarter of 2016, only time will tell whether this shareholder-friendly action turns out to be the smartest investment the firm has ever made. By doing the right thing in returning capital to those investors who were directly negatively affected by the clerical error, T Rowe Price is in effect saying that its investors – both large and small – are important.
It has also put its peers on notice, almost challenging them to raise their game when it comes to disclosure and accountability. For shareholders of T Rowe Price’s publicly traded shares, while a hit to earnings is never good, it removes any uncertainty as it pertains to potential future exposure. And with more than $1.9 bn of cash on-hand, it’s clear this action isn’t going to put T Rowe Price out of business.
As William Stromberg notes in a press release, ‘T Rowe Price has a long history of putting our clients’ interests first, and that is what we are doing here. By compensating our clients based on the court’s May 31, 2016 ruling, clients will come out ahead compared with how they would have fared had they taken the merger consideration.’
While I doubt Baltimore is going to plan a parade downtown or give Stromberg a key to the city, as an investor relations professional for more than 20 years, I’m tossing some virtual confetti in the air as I write this. I wish more companies – regardless of industry or market cap – spent less time trying to game the system and line their pockets and more time acting in the best interests of shareholders.
As William Katz, a banking analyst from Citigroup, notes in the Wall Street Journal in reaction to T Rowe’s actions: ‘It does affect the brand a little bit, but that is offset by the notion that [it is] making good by [its] clients.’
Who would have thought something as tart as lemons (adversity), when combined with a little sugar (taking responsibility) and water (the elixir of life), would result in a satisfying refreshment (positive outcome)? I’ll toast to that!
Jeffrey Goldberger is managing partner at consultancy KCSA Strategic Communications