Wednesday, March 4, 2009

New York Life – “Built For Times Like These”

Everyone is hysterical – friends begging, stocks plunging, progressives drooling, conservatives barking and banks folding like cheap suits. For relief, Brandsinger took a walk on the tame side: I had lunch with my old friend Steve Rautenberg, the top communications and marketing officer at New York Life.

That’s right, New York Life, the big, old, boring insurance company. Why not? Vanilla is good sometimes.

So I strolled into Steve’s plain office in Manhattan and was warmly greeted by Mr. Rautenberg, friend and one-time boss. He was wearing a conventional silk tie and blue suit – just like the old days when he bossed me around at Chase Bank. Looked like the same suit, come to think of it. We went around the corner for chicken tikka and mango chutney – over which I heard the tale of the world’s most boring company. Of course, New York Life's lack of drama stands out when Met Life’s stock has dived to $15 (from $65), Prudential’s has caved to under $14 (down from $90) and AIG has imploded to… well, dust.

New York Life’s credit rating is… get this, TRIPLE A. Its losses last year were… well, there were hundreds of millions in PROFITS!... New York Life’s plea for government aid was particularly eloquent: No plea. No aid.

The joke around New York Life, according to Steve, is that while other companies boasted of their PHDs and vast server farms to dynamically hedge risk, NYL had a simple risk management strategy: investing a monster chunk of assets in BORING TREASURY BONDS. They didn’t need no math genius to interpret the Gaussian copula. They put their money in safe investments – such a quaint idea. More vanilla ice-cream anyone? Like a glass of milk with that?

In short, New York Life’s brand is golden. The company’s marketing – under the apt theme “Built For Times Like These” – hammers home the blunt, dull reality of enduring strength founded on tiresome principles like boring old prudence, pathetically tedious integrity and yawn-inducing adherence to diversified investing.

While the world is gripped by hysteria, New York Life is just one monotonous tale of long-standing solidity, strength.... and… stabili… zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.



Jeffry Pilcher said...

I'm sorry, but the ratings agencies have proven that they can't be trusted. Everyone seemingly starts with a great score, then (4-6 months after the company struggles) the ratings agencies come along and revise their previously inflated grade -- a little late to the party.

Steve said...

Actually, "safe and secure" is a pretty exciting message today. Thanks for the chicken tikka.
And yes, that probably was the same blue suit.

brandsinger said...

Jeffry - Good point, as always. However, this is a special case. NYL survived the dot-com bust for the same reason - boring, safe investments. It has profits while others losses. This is a mutual company, not a publicly traded corp, meaning less pressure to return high quarterly results. The Canadian banks have also weathered the storm, by the way -- proving my point that everyone needn't have followed the crowd over the cliff.

As for Steve -- Thanks for your comment. Suit still looks great. -Claude

Jeffry Pilcher said...

Boring is the new sexy. That's one of the reasons credit unions are doing so well right now. The once frumpy, dopey little financial institutions now look like the best thing out there (similar to the mutual concept).

If I were a financial institution out to prove my safety and soundness, I wouldn't be using any data from Fitch, Standard & Poors or Moody's. They've lost all credibility. And for some people, seeing a company tout its Moody/S&P "stamp of good health" can have exactly the opposite of the intended effect.

Financial institutions need to look from within to find the proof that they are safe and sound.