As stock market breaks records, Legg Mason Inc.'s shares hit yearly high

FinanceBusinessStock MarketLegg Mason, Inc.T. Rowe PriceMorningstar Incorporated

Legg Mason Inc.'s stock, which has struggled to recover from the financial crisis, hit a new 52-week high last week.

It could be a harbinger of a turnaround at the Baltimore-based money manager. Or Legg shares simply may be riding the recent record-setting rally in the stock market.

Legg's stock closed Thursday at a yearly high of $32.13 per share — territory the stock hasn't traded in since July 2011. The stock retreated slightly Friday, closing down 18 cents at $31.95, but even so, its shares are up 24 percent this year.

Comparatively, the Standard & Poor's 500 index, a barometer of U.S. common stocks, is up 9.4 percent for the year.

Legg has a few things going for it, said Macrae Sykes, an analyst with Gabelli & Co. in Rye, N.Y.

One is last month's appointment of Joseph A. Sullivan as the company's permanent CEO, Sykes said. "That provides stability to the management team," he said.

Sullivan had held the position on an interim basis since October, when former chairman and CEO Mark Fetting resigned after being unable to stanch the outflow of money from Legg funds or boost the company's stock, which had fallen more than 60 percent during his tenure.

Legg also reported last week that it had $661 billion in assets under management at the end of February, up $6.1 billion from the month before. The stock market surge contributed to much of that gain, but the figures indicate that Legg's equity fund flows have stabilized, Sykes said.

He predicts Legg's stock could be trading above $40 a share next year.

But Greggory Warren, a senior stock analyst with Morningstar Inc., said Legg's recent gains aren't unique.

"Everyone is hitting a 52-week high," he said.

Indeed, Legg's Baltimore competitor, T. Rowe Price, also saw its stock close at a 52-week high of $75.56 per share on Friday.

Still Legg's gains have outpaced those of many of its peers. The S&P financial index, made up of banks, insurance companies and other investment firms, is up about 12.4 percent this year.

"Anything financial has been blistering hot," said John Boo, a senior portfolio manager with Chapin Davis, a Baltimore investment firm.

Investors are returning to the market, and the sequester of automatic government spending cuts have hurt less than expected, said Howard Silverblatt, senior index analyst with S&P Dow Jones Indices.

While the financial sector has been this year's top performer, Silverblatt said, it's still off by 48 percent from the highs in October 2007. And by that measurement, the sector remains the economy's worst performer since then, he added.

Asset managers tend to perform well in a rising market because the equity portfolios they manage go up as stocks climb, Warren said. And that means that their fee income — tied to a percentage of assets under management — increases as well, even if the funds aren't attracting new investor dollars.

"The downside: When the market goes down, they also go down harder," he said.

Warren said his biggest concern about Legg centers on what happens should investors start bailing out of bonds — where the bulk of Legg's assets are invested — and back into equities.

"They will be in trouble," he said.

In recent years, stock investors have gravitated to index funds and exchange-traded funds, products that Legg doesn't offer, Warren said.

Late last year, though, Legg received regulator approval to offer actively managed ETFs.

Daniel McHugh, president of Lombard Securities in Baltimore, noted that most of Legg's gains came this month, particularly in the past week. Some of that interest may be from speculation that Legg eventually may be sold, he said.

Even so, the run-up in Legg's stock no doubt eases pressure on Sullivan and the company to lift shareholder value, perhaps giving him time to right the money manager and get it back on the road to growth.

eileen.ambrose@baltsun.com

twitter.com/eileenambrose

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