Strong Capital Management Inc. represents a good buying opportunity for banks still looking to gain a presence in asset management, according to industry observers.
"Strong represents a very high-profile brand name ," said Philadelphia- based analyst Burton J. Greenwald. The Milwaukee fund company also has a solid foundation in the defined-contribution area-a growing business that banks are eager to enter, Mr. Greenwald said.
Strong, which had $22 billion of assets under management in November, has been rumored to be up for sale for several months now. Though chairman Richard Strong has always quashed such scuttlebutt, in a Wall Street Journal story Wednesday Mr. Strong acknowledged that he has talked to investment bankers and would not ignore acquisition or joint-venture opportunities.
In a memo to his firm's employees, Mr. Strong on Wednesday reiterated that no actual sale is planned. But Neil Bathon, president of Financial Research Corp., Boston, said that at least three banks have eyed Strong during the last three months.
Mr. Bathon declined to identify the banks. Other industry observers speculated that the list includes Citicorp and Chase Manhattan Corp.
"Chase and Citi have not done anything in this area," said Charles B. Burkhart, a consultant with Investment Counseling Inc., in West Conshohocken, Pa. Mr. Burkhart's firm acted as a business adviser to London-based Mercury Asset Management in its merger with Merrill Lynch & Co.
Citicorp is also rumored, along with several foreign banks, to be looking at LGT Asset Management, a Liechtenstein-based fund company with $60 billion under management.
A Citicorp spokesman said chairman John S. Reed on Tuesday indicated to analysts that it is looking to expand its asset management business in- house, rather than through acquisitions. Though Citicorp had previously hinted at an acquisitive strategy, it changed course in May when it hired Peter Carman, head of Putnam Investments' equities area, to expand the business.
A Chase spokesman said the bank does not comment on market rumors.
Meanwhile, Mr. Greenwald said it is a safe bet that banks that have recently bought mutual fund businesses, including Fleet Financial Group and First Union Corp., eyed Strong when they were still shopping.
He added that if Strong is to do a deal, it may want to strike now, while prices for asset managers are still high.
"This is the time when multiples are at their peak and assets are going north," he said.
According to Mr. Greenwald, mutual fund companies have been netting acquisition prices four times their investment management revenues. A company like Strong could net six times revenues, he speculated.
But Mr. Burkhart and others said they doubted that Strong is in serious discussions with a buyer. Though Goldman Sachs & Co. is rumored to have cobbled together a preliminary book for Strong in recent months, Goldman partner Milton Berlinksi declined to comment.
Mr. Berlinski confirmed, however, that Goldman is getting close to finding a buyer for LGT. The fund company and its bankers are now looking at between "5 and 10 final bids," he said.
In addition to Citicorp, bidders are said to include Credit Suisse First Boston, Hypo Bank, Deutsche Bank, and ABN Amro. u