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Westwood Holdings Group Inc (NYSE:WHG)
Q4 2019 Earnings Call
Feb 5, 2020, 4:30 p.m. ET

Contents:

  • Prepared Remarks
  • Questions and Answers
  • Call Participants

Prepared Remarks:

Operator

Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for standing by, and welcome to the Westwood Holdings Group Fourth Quarter 2019 Earnings Conference Call. [Operator Instructions]

And now, I'd like to introduce your host for today's program, Julie Gerron, General Counsel and Chief Compliance Officer. Please go ahead.

Julie K. Gerron -- Senior Vice President, General Counsel and Chief Compliance Officer

Thank you, and good afternoon. Welcome to our fourth quarter 2019 earnings conference call.

The following discussion will include forward-looking statements that are subject to known and unknown risks, uncertainties and other factors, which may cause actual results to be materially different from those contemplated by the forward-looking statements. Additional information concerning the factors that could cause such a difference is included in our press release issued earlier today, as well as in our Form 10-K for the year ended December 31, 2019, that is filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission. We undertake no obligation to publicly update or revise any forward-looking statements, whether as a result of new information, future events or otherwise. You are cautioned not to place undue reliance on forward-looking statements.

In addition, in accordance with the SEC rules concerning non-GAAP financial measures, the reconciliation of our economic earnings and economic earnings per share to the most comparable GAAP measures is included at the end of our press release issued earlier today.

On the call today, we have Brian Casey, our President and Chief Executive Officer; and Terry Forbes, our Chief Financial Officer. I will now turn the call over to Brian Casey.

Brian O. Casey -- President and Chief Executive Officer

Good afternoon, and thank you for taking the time to listen to our quarterly earnings call. As always, we will start with comments on the market environment and investment teams and finish with comments on our business.

Volatility continued in the third quarter as markets worldwide fell in August, only to rally once more in September. Small caps outpaced large caps and growth stocks rallied over value stocks, as market sentiment changed, and we saw a strong risk-on rally beginning in October. Markets were buoyed by rising optimism on economic and trade developments and finished with a string of new all-time highs for most major equity indices. Similarly, fixed income markets also finished the year in positive territory.

The Federal Reserve again supported markets with a third rate cut, and comments from Chairman Powell suggest this level is likely to persist in 2020. Interest rates recovered much of their decline from the prior quarter, and the yield curve returned to normal. An initial Phase 1 trade deal was struck between the US and China, which helped fuel confidence and an improving 2020 economic environment, both here and abroad. GDP growth remained steadily positive, supported by strong trends in consumer spending, low unemployment and low inflation. Sentiment indicators such as the ISM's PMI for manufacturing also continued to improve, building on recent positive readings.

Trends outside the US began to show some potential early signs of stabilization and improvement as well. With 2020 presidential election rhetoric heating up and rising geopolitical tensions, investors will continue to grapple with high levels of uncertainty around the world.

As we look into 2020, Wall Street analysts are estimating another year of corporate earnings growth, though questions remain regarding trade and other geopolitical risks. The tight labor market remains supportive of consumer spending, which should help keep GDP growth nicely positive. As the economic cycle continues to progress, the preference for high-quality cash-generating businesses will likely increase, while those companies with high leverage or lower cash generation will fall out of favor. This dispersion should create a favorable environment for active managers who can assess both absolute and relative risk in their clients' portfolios.

Turning to investment performance within our US Value Equity products, our domestic equity products fell behind during the fourth quarter's risk-on rally due to their focus on high quality and value. But they remained well ahead of their benchmarks for the full year. LargeCap Value and LargeCap Select finished the year ahead of the benchmark by approximately 170 basis points and 130 basis points, respectively.

Institutional peer rankings for our LargeCap Value and LargeCap Select strategies are strong over multiple periods and their respective peer universes. Our LargeCap Value strategy is in the top quartile over the trailing three, five and seven-year periods, and since its inception, is in the seventh percentile. LargeCap Select is in the second percentile since its inception in 2014 and has ranked in the fourth percentile over the trailing five-year periods.

SmallCap delivered another strong year of outperformance, finishing over 600 basis points ahead of the Russell 2000 Value benchmark. Our SmallCap mutual fund, WHGSX, completed 2019 in the 20th percentile and is in the top decile for the seven and 10-year trailing periods in MorningStar's Small Blend universe.

Our Institutional strategy also has attractive peer rankings with top 20 performance for the trailing one and five-year periods and top decile rankings for annualized seven and 10-year periods, and since exception in 2004.

Our SMidCap strategy finished the fourth quarter ahead of its Russell 2500 Value benchmark and 700 basis points better for the year. The trailing three-year returns are ahead of the benchmark, and SMidCap has improved its peer rankings with a top quartile institutional ranking for 2019 and a 26 percentile ranking over the trailing three years in the eVestment universe. SMidCap mutual fund, WHGMX, completed 2019 in the 28th percentile in Morningstar's Mid-Cap Blend category.

These performance numbers are a great accomplishment for our portfolio management teams and our entire group of research analysts who provide investment ideas for the US Value strategies. We are excited about the opportunity in the years ahead for our US equity strategies.

Within our Multi-Asset group, our product lineup holds an array of strategies aligned across the risk and return spectrum that are tailored for a client-specific risk profile and investment objective. Income Opportunity put together a great year with compelling idea generation from our research analysts. The fund benefited from the new leadership team of Adrian Helfert and David Clott, who made positive asset allocation decisions and timely duration extension calls ahead of the drop in interest rates. Our mutual fund, WHGIX, finished the year in the 11th percentile in Morningstar's 30% to 50% equity category. It also ranked in the top 10% for the trailing three, seven and 10 years as of year-end.

Our high-income, total return and flexible income strategies also all produced strong absolute returns for the fourth quarter and the full year, and our flexible income mutual fund, WFLEX, finished with a fifth percentile ranking in the MorningStar 15% to 30% equity category. Strong security selection, coupled with timely asset allocation adjustments, produced attractive results for our Multi-Asset strategies.

Our Global Convertible strategy was ahead of its benchmark, the Thomson Reuters Convertible Global Focus Index, for the fourth quarter and the full year. Among its institutional peers, our strategy ranked in the 13th percentile for the quarter.

Our Alternative Income strategy, also known as Market Neutral, continued to build on its excellent start by finishing the year with strong absolute returns. And our mutual fund, WMNIX, finished with a 19th percentile ranking in Morningstar's market-neutral category for the fourth quarter and a top-decile ranking for the full year. Among institutional peers and the eVestment database, the strategy finished 2019 with a top-decile ranking for the trailing one, five, seven and 10-year periods.

In emerging markets, most markets posted strong rallies over the fourth quarter to cap off one of their best years since the global financial crisis of 2009. Emerging markets outperformed US domestic markets in the fourth quarter, though investor focus shifted toward high-beta, high-volatility, cyclical securities, which are not traditionally favored by our investment process. Our Emerging Markets and EM Plus strategies underperformed for the fourth quarter in this environment. But our Emerging Markets strategy remained ahead of the benchmark, MSCI Emerging Markets Index, for the full year.

EM SMid markets trailed the broader EM universe with a lower exposure to China's rally at year-end. Our EM SMidCap strategy underperformed the MSCI Emerging Markets SMID Cap Index in the fourth quarter, but finished the full year more than 400 basis points ahead of its benchmark.

The valuation case for emerging markets remains positive, particularly relative to developed markets, following the EM asset classes' underperformance of recent years. Despite the challenges of a global trade war, growth concerns and geopolitical instability that precipitated uncertainty and volatility through most of last year, the developments in trade negotiations and growth indicators that helped fuel an end-of-year market rally also provide reasons for optimism in the coming year. As long-term investors who invested through past crises', we remain disciplined to our process, avoiding the lure of the herd mentality and positioning for the long-term growth story that is yet to come.

Shifting now to Wealth Management, our teams in Dallas and Houston produced great results in 2019. Client retention was high at 96%. And in total, our Wealth Management group had over $400 million in new inflows for the year. We've begun to gain traction in our full suite of financial services with high-net-worth clients, which allows us to provide a range of services tailored toward managing and simplifying the increased financial complexity of their lives. Nearly half of our new business in 2019 was from new relationships, which included several new large clients, and importantly, a younger age demographic.

Westwood Private Bank has been open for over a quarter. Through our partnership with the bank, we have broadened our offering for high-net-worth clients, improving our ability to retain clients in our Westwood branded ecosystem. The concept of providing banking services integrated with existing financial planning, trust and investment management services, including the ability to lend against an existing portfolio, combined with bill paying and concierge private banking services, is resonating extremely well with our clients.

In institutional and intermediary sales, our institutional and retail business had fourth quarter inflows of approximately $400 million that were offset by outflows of $800 million, producing net outflows of $400 million. Outflows were primarily in the Income Opportunity strategy, which despite excellent performance, had a large capital gain distribution, which caused several investors to sell out of the fund ahead of the December distribution. We're going back to many of these clients and hopes they will return to the fund this year. And we feel Income Opportunity is poised for a return to positive flows in retail with its strong performance over multiple-year periods.

Our Alternative Income strategy, also known as Market Neutral, had net inflows of over $100 million and was our largest gainer for the fourth quarter, as our partner Aviva Investors allocated additional assets to the strategy.

Our SmallCap franchise continues to gain momentum with searches on the institutional and retail front. SmallCap was our most successful strategy in terms of net inflows for 2019 and our SmallCap mutual fund and separately managed account vehicles are expected to be approved by one of the major wirehouses this month.

SMidCap's recent improvement in performance has resulted in new searches in the quarter, and we can now move into offense with this strategy. In fact, we're making progress on SMid with one of the largest consulting firm's OCIO platform and hope to see additional flows this year.

Performance was strong across several of our strategies in 2019, and we are optimistic in our ability to grow assets. We made significant investments in our distribution infrastructure over the last two years, including people and technology, to support growth in the years ahead. Some highlights include the following: the completion of the build-out of our institutional and intermediary sales teams and the establishment of dedicated client relationship managers and client portfolio managers; the creation of well-defined territories and top quartile activity levels with over 900 meetings held during the quarter; the pursuit of additional platform approvals to make our funds more widely available to investors. We were pleased to hear that our SmallCap mutual fund was added to the Schwab OneSource Select List. This is an exclusive group of funds that are selected based on performance, risk and expense levels. Possible addition of our strategies on a large turnkey asset management program, or TAMP, based in the Midwest. We've submitted the RFPs and expect to be available by the end of the first quarter. The redesign of our sales force technology to provide better data and feedback for our sales professionals. A reduction in pricing for many of our strategies, along with the introduction of Sensible Fees, to expand our brand awareness and improve our discoverability. The enhancement of our digital marketing initiatives with new content and a focus on our quality value approach for our domestic value equity strategies. The conscious alignment of our investment teams, vehicles, pricing, product definitions, risk guidelines and messaging in order to increase our commercial competitiveness going forward.

With increased sales activity and key consultant approvals, our pipeline is healthy and spread across several different strategies. We've seen a nearly three-fold increase in pipeline value from the end of 2018 to the end of 2019, as a result of our focused sales efforts and investment performance. There are several late-stage institutional opportunities we are participating in, and expect decisions in the first half of 2020. We are hopeful and feel that net flows have the potential to be positive this year, with particular strength coming from SmallCap, SMidCap and eventually several of our Multi-Asset strategies, including Income Opportunity. Clients are looking for differentiated results, and we have demonstrated an ability to deliver a differentiated client experience, as evidenced by our high active share equity strategies with strong track records.

The asset management industry is experiencing disruption on several fronts. Recent financial results have been disappointing, and the industry continues to experience rising data, technology, compliance and distribution costs. The major technologies investments we've made in recent years have resulted in operational efficiencies. Equally important, the value of our investment in our partner, InvestCloud, has increased by more than 50% in the past year. Further, as part of our cost-sharing agreement with InvestCloud for the implementation of our new portfolio accounting system, we anticipate potentially receiving payments related to this partnership over the next two years.

We expect industrywide disruption to continue. And the steps we've taken to reinvent ourselves have placed us in a position to survive and grow. We have taken meaningful steps to reduce our cost structure by reducing personnel and cutting underperforming and commercially unviable funds. We've partnered with a firm in India to reduce our marketing costs and utilizing a freelance writer to replace a former employee. We are looking at our mutual fund and use its platforms for potential cost savings later this year, and fine-tuning our InvestCloud technology to create an information superhighway to further improve efficiency.

While disappointed with our financial performance over the last year, we have made several investments and executed on numerous initiatives to strengthen our foundation for the future, namely: we partnered with InvestCloud to build, test and install a cutting-edge portfolio accounting system that has increased our efficiency and reduced our operating cost; we produced excellent investment performance for US Value and Multi-Asset strategies by delivering alpha generation with high active share; we created a partnership with Charis Bank, forming Westwood Private Bank with the new space delivered on schedule and under budget; we partnered with Blackstone to give our clients access to Blackstone private equity opportunities at attractive investment minimums; we enhanced our financial planning and estate planning capabilities with new hires in Dallas and Houston; we became a signatory to the UN PRI and improved our firmwide ESG rating; we addressed industry fee challenges by introducing a flexible and innovative fee construct known as Sensible Fees to meaningfully improve investor alignment; we expanded our Multi-Asset capabilities to include multiple strategies that allow us to demonstrate skill and judgment across a broad spectrum of risk; we received SEC approval to utilize Sensible Fees in three of our public mutual funds; we launched SMA accounts on several platforms and have increased platform availability for our mutual funds; we achieved a 70% year-over-year increase in social media impressions and website sessions; we built an institutional, intermediary and marketing team of over 30 people to grow future sales and build our brand; and finally, we're pleased to be recognized by Pensions & Investments Best Places to Work for the sixth consecutive year.

I want to thank our entire team for all their work on this long list of accomplishments. While much of this has not yet lifted our financial results, we remain confident that we are on a great path to a solid future state.

We believe the industry will continue to face major headwinds and will further consolidate in the years ahead. We believe that Westwood is viewed as a great home for teams that want to hard-working entrepreneurial culture, superior technology, broad distribution and a public currency [Phonetic] they can impact with their hard work and results. We are seeing more inorganic opportunities than at any time in our history. With over $100 million in cash and investments, we are ideally positioned to execute on an accretive acquisition. We are fortunate to have many opportunities to choose from, and we'll remain disciplined with our shareholder capital.

I will now turn the call over to Terry Forbes, our CFO.

Terry Forbes -- Senior Vice President, Chief Financial Officer and Treasurer

Thanks, Brian, and good afternoon, everyone. Today, we reported total revenues of $18.6 million for the fourth quarter of 2019, compared to $26.1 million in the prior year's fourth quarter and $19.9 million in the third quarter of 2019. The decrease from the prior year was due to lower average assets under management due to net outflows, partially offset by market appreciation. The decrease from the prior quarter was due to lower other revenues.

Fourth quarter net income of $2.5 million or $0.30 per share compared to $5.4 million or $0.64 per share in the prior year's fourth quarter. The decrease primarily related to lower revenues and higher foreign currency transaction losses, partially offset by lower incentive compensation costs and unrealized gains on private investments. Economic earnings, a non-GAAP metric, was $5.4 million for the current quarter or $0.64 per share compared to $9.5 million or $1.12 per share in the fourth quarter of 2018.

Fourth quarter net income of $2.5 million was higher than the third quarter 2019 net income of $1.1 million. The current quarter benefited from unrealized gains on private investments, partially offset by higher foreign currency transaction losses. Economic earnings of $5.4 million was also higher than $3.9 million in the third quarter.

For fiscal 2019, total revenues of $84.1 million compared to $122.3 million in 2018. The decrease was due to a $32.3 million decrease in asset-based advisory fees, a $3.5 million decrease in trust fees reflecting lower average AUM, and a $2.2 million decrease in performance-based advisory fees earned in 2019.

Fiscal 2019 net income was $5.9 million or $0.70 per share compared to $26.8 million or $3.13 per share in the prior year. The current year decreased primarily due to lower revenues and foreign currency transaction losses, partially offset by lower incentive compensation expenses and unrealized gains on private investments. Economic earnings, a non-GAAP metric, was $18.2 million or $2.15 per share compared to $43.9 million or $5.14 per share in 2018.

Firmwide assets under management totaled $15.2 billion at quarter-end and consisted of institutional assets of $8.7 billion or 57% of the total, private wealth assets of $4.4 billion or 29% of the total, and mutual fund assets of $2.1 billion or 14% of the total. Over the year, we experienced net outflows of $4.4 billion and market appreciation of $3 billion.

Our financial position continues to be strong with cash and short-term investments at quarter-end totaling $100.1 million and a debt-free balance sheet.

Today, our Board of Directors approved a quarterly cash dividend of $0.43 per share, payable on April 1, 2020 to stockholders of record on March 6, 2020. This represents an annualized dividend yield of 6% as of the closing price on February 4.

That brings our prepared comments to a close. We encourage you to review our investor presentation on our website, reflecting 4th quarter and fiscal 2019 highlights, as well as a discussion of our business, product development and longer-term trends in revenues, earnings and dividends.

We thank you for your interest in our company, and we'll open up the lines to questions.

Questions and Answers:

Operator

Certainly. [Operator Instructions] Our first question comes from the line of Mac Sykes from Gabelli. Your question, please. You might have your phone on mute.

Mac Sykes -- Gabelli -- Analyst

Oh, I apologize. Good afternoon, everyone. My first question is for Terry, and then two for Brian. On the InvestCloud investment, is that -- how is that carried on the balance sheet? Is that a cost and will that be adjusted as you start to take in revenue there?

Terry Forbes -- Senior Vice President, Chief Financial Officer and Treasurer

Yes, the initial investment was at cost, and then the accounting treatment is cost, plus or minus observable market transactions. So in the fourth quarter, there was another transaction with another party, which is why we had an increase in the value of our investment, which was part of the private investment write-up that we discussed.

Mac Sykes -- Gabelli -- Analyst

Okay. And then, Brian, you had mentioned in the release that you're seeing attractive M&A opportunities. I wonder if you could expand on sort of the businesses that you might be targeting or opportunities there or what you're seeing?

Brian O. Casey -- President and Chief Executive Officer

Sure. What we are -- we're seeing a lot of opportunities out there. We have always had a strong interest in private wealth businesses. We find that private wealth businesses are attractive on many fronts, particularly because the assets are very sticky and it dovetails well with what we've been doing around here for 2.5 decades at our trust company. So we've seen a lot in that area, and we've seen a lot of teams that are stranded, that are looking for a home. And for us, we'd be particularly interested in a firm that has private wealth and has some of the capabilities that we don't currently have such as fixed income.

Mac Sykes -- Gabelli -- Analyst

Okay. And my last question is on the SMA strategy. Maybe you can just give us an update on the strategy there, what firm strategies are leading in terms of sales and interest and what kind of platforms that you're targeting.

Brian O. Casey -- President and Chief Executive Officer

Sure. Well, one of the benefits of SMAs, which is something that we have not done a lot of historically, is that you're not -- you don't inherit the tax liability like you do in a mutual fund. And unfortunately for us, last year, on our Income Opportunity fund, the fund shrank in size but had a really good year in performance. And so the folks in December that own the fund on a taxable basis got hit with a large capital gain. In the case of SMAs, you build the portfolio one security at a time, so the tax treatment goes with the individual over the life that they have it.

We've made a really conscious decision to build our intermediary distribution force over the last year when we hired Harvey Steele to run that area for us. He hired six wholesalers that all started in July, and we have covered the country and divided it into six different territories. We've added three internal wholesalers, and we have focused on all of the major platforms and had probably our most success with Raymond James so far. We have -- we got great news last week that we got approved at RBC. So we'll be selling into RBC. And we've got two other wires now where we are first-in-goal for approval that we're really excited about and will expand the opportunity set for our wholesalers.

December and January were the best months for intermediary sales that we've had in three years. The pipeline on the institutional side has nearly tripled. We've got 11 new consultant approvals and 16 in process. Our direct calls on institutions is up 155% year-over-year. And we feel like we're in really good shape. We've spent a lot of time building the foundation, and I think this is going to be a year where we have some good success because, as I mentioned at the top, our performance in US Value and Multi-Asset has really been exceptional. It was one of the better years we've ever had.

Mac Sykes -- Gabelli -- Analyst

Great. And glad, I asked [Phonetic] the question, and congratulations on the outlook.

Brian O. Casey -- President and Chief Executive Officer

Thanks Mark. We appreciate the question.

Operator

Thank you. [Operator Instructions] And I'm not showing any further questions in the queue at this time. I'd like to hand the program back to management for any further remarks.

Brian O. Casey -- President and Chief Executive Officer

Thank you, Jonathan. Thanks everyone for your time. If you have any further questions, please feel free to call me or Terry and visit westwoodgroup.com for more information. Thanks again.

Operator

[Operator Closing Remarks]

Duration: 29 minutes

Call participants:

Julie K. Gerron -- Senior Vice President, General Counsel and Chief Compliance Officer

Brian O. Casey -- President and Chief Executive Officer

Terry Forbes -- Senior Vice President, Chief Financial Officer and Treasurer

Mac Sykes -- Gabelli -- Analyst

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