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Advisor Group, Cetera Outlooks Upgraded to Stable: Moody's

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Moody’s has updated its outlook on Advisor Group and Cetera Financial Group holding company Aretec Group, returning each of the firms to “stable” from the “negative” outlook given to them in 2020.

However, Moody’s maintained its Corporate Family Rating of B3 for each of them. B3 is the rating that it gives to firms considered speculative and subject to high credit risk.

The firms “acted quickly and effectively to adjust their businesses to the market disruptions, interest rate cuts and other operational challenges of the coronavirus pandemic,” Moody’s said in a report issued Tuesday.

The management at both independent broker-dealers “swiftly lowered expenses, raised efficiencies and adapted their operations to a new remote work environment,” according to Moody’s.

That “credit positive action proves the companies’ ability to adapt, underpins our change in outlook on their ratings to stable from negative, and puts them in strong position to benefit from improving operating conditions and a strong, broad-based rise in equities markets,” it said.

Advisor Group is “now on steady footing despite entering the coronavirus pandemic in a position of weakness,” Moody’s said, noting the BD had closed on its acquisition of Ladenburg Thalmann in February 2020.

The purchase was only weeks before the market downturn that Moody’s “anticipated would delay its planned post-transaction deleveraging and led to our March downgrade of Advisor Group’s ratings with negative outlook,” the ratings service pointed out.

Since then, however, Advisor Group “achieved most of the extensive post-acquisition synergies it planned and will exceed its expense-reduction targets, supporting a return in outlook to stable, which also reflects the benefits of the equity market rebound,” Moody’s said.

Aretec, meanwhile, was “again resilient to adverse conditions, despite starting 2020 with significant acquisition-related debt,” according to Moody’s. Despite its Genstar acquisition, “Aretec was able to achieve operational efficiency gains in 2020 and retain crucial liquidity,” Moody’s said.

The ratings service warned, however, that “another severe market decline, if not followed by a quick rebound, would be negative for both firms, though the profitability hit would be softer than when interest rates dropped precipitously.”

Advisor Group is “pleased with Moody’s upgrade,” Jamie Price, CEO of Advisor Group, said Wednesday, adding it reflects ”the strength of our capital structure, our significant levels of cash, the low rates on our variable debt and that we are well ahead of plan on the integration of our Ladenburg Thalmann acquisition, which has exceeded advisor retention and financial expectations.

“The latest Moody’s report also underscores Advisor Group’s focus on utilizing our industry-leading size, scale and financial strength to continue reinvesting back into platforms, technology and tools to help our financial advisors continue to grow and succeed,” he said.

Commenting on Moody’s upgraded outlook, Jeff Buchheister, Cetera chief financial officer, said: “Our company’s strong financial health, which reflected a significant increase in cash reserves during 2020, is guided by stewardship to our financial professionals, employees and stakeholders.

“The strength and flexibility of our financial model and underlying capital structure is designed to support the long term aspirations of our organization enabling us to maintain responsible levels of capital deployment, even during times of uncertainty.”


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