MetLife buying Philly's Logan Circle bond house for $250M

MetLife, the New York-based life insurance and investment company that is reorganizing in the face of tighter financial regulation by the U.S. government, has agreed to pay $250 million for Philadelphia-based Logan Circle Partners, which manages $33 billion in bonds for big institutional investors.

In buying the smaller firm, MetLife is expanding further into managing big investors’ money and away from its insurance roots. It seeks steady profits “and sustainable cash flows,” MetLife chief executive Steven A. Kandarian said in a statement. Most of Logan Circle’s 80 employees — all in Philadelphia — will be offered jobs at MetLife, the company said.

MetLife is buying the company from a group headed by Jude Driscoll, who founded Logan Circle in 2007 with former colleagues from Philadelphia’s old Delaware Investments, and Fortress Investment Group LLC, which bought part of Logan Circle in 2010.

Driscoll will continue to head the group for MetLife, at least for now. He pledged to continue the firm’s focus on “in-depth fundamental research” — backed by MetLife’s larger resources.

Fortress, the first publicly traded U.S. private-equity and hedge fund firm, bought part of Logan seven years ago for $21 million and a share of future profits. But after disappointing profits of its own, Fortress agreed to be sold to Japan’s Softbank investment group earlier this year.

While Logan Circle accounted for nearly half of Fortress’ assets, it delivered only “a tiny fraction” of the company’s earnings, Reuters reported in predicting that Fortress would sell Logan Circle earlier this year.

MetLife already has a bond investment team, and Logan Circle will boost the company’s total assets only 5 percent.

But along with MetLife’s separate plan to spin off its life insurance and annuities business into a new company, Brighthouse Financial, MetLife’s decision to buy Logan Circle emphasizes the company’s shift away from its traditional life insurance and annuity sales business, which targeted individual investors, and reinforces its new focus on managing money for big institutions, John Barnridge, a research director at Sandler O’Neill + Partners in New York, told clients in a report.

That change in focus will help MetLife fight the U.S. Treasury’s attempt to regulate MetLife as a “systematically important” or “too big to fail” financial company and should also help free it from “regulatory overhang from the [U.S.] Department of Labor’s fiduciary standards rule,” which forces insurers to recommend only appropriate investments to their retail customers, Barnridge added. Financial companies worry that the fiduciary rule will make it tougher for them to sell investments to individual U.S. investors by forcing them to emphasize the risks and fees they face.

MetLife also hopes to boost its share price by persuading investors to rank it with big investment companies, which typically trade at higher prices than insurers, Barnridge concluded.

If $33 billion sounds like a lot of assets, remember that bond managers compete to deliver “a sliver of a basis point advantage to clients,” or well under 1 percentage point a year, said Howard Trauger, managing director for Philadelphia of Cleveland-based Carnegie Investment Counsel and a longtime officer of the Philadelphia Bond Club. In addition, “fees on the management of fixed income assets start out in the minuscule range,” so “you need size” to run a bond business profitably, Trauger concluded.

Indeed, “$33 billion is chicken feed in the debt area,” said Theodore Aronson, head of AJO, a $30 billion stock-investments manager based in Philadelphia. “I’ve always been impressed by Jude [Driscoll],” Aronson added, cheering the hometown money manager for building up a company that attracted two national, publicly traded buyers — first Fortress, and now MetLife.