In 1937, near the end of the Great Depression, George Putnam was the "face of responsible investing. " He was also the "face of fiduciary...

Share story

In 1937, near the end of the Great Depression, George Putnam was the “face of responsible investing.”

He was also the “face of fiduciary responsibility,” the “face of long-term performance” (the Depression gave a whole new meaning to “long-term performance”), the “face of balanced investing,” the “face of investment expertise” and the “face of service excellence.”
Face it: George was one busy guy.

He’s busy again today, or at least a portrait of him is, as the star of an expanded ad campaign that Putnam Investments — the firm the old guy founded back in 1937 — started rolling out to mainstream audiences this month.

For Putnam, the firm, the message is important in many different ways. For investors, the message is mixed, given recent history.

Most Read Stories

Unlimited Digital Access. $1 for 4 weeks.

The question for both sides is whether the firm can live up to its own hype, and whether the investors who have not fled in the past 18 months want to stick around to find out.

Putnam’s recent history makes it a shining example of things gone wrong in the fund world. The company capitalized on the go-go crazy-growth bull market, but the scads of investors who came in wound up being mauled by the bear market.

The next punch was the mutual-fund scandal, particularly when it became clear that former top dog Larry Lasser had — as the company itself said in arbitration papers — made a “conscious decision to stick his head in the sand” about employees’ improper trading.

Putnam has since been compliant with regulators, appearing eager to make changes that will bring it into the upper echelons of fund governance.

New Chief Executive Ed Haldeman — the “face of responsible investing” in 2005, according to the ads — has worked tirelessly to restore the company’s reputation, the one built over six decades serving upper-crust investors with consistency and prudence.

The ads are interesting, in part because Putnam has never been a big mainstream advertiser, largely because its funds are sold entirely through advisers.

But Putnam managing partner Gordon Forrester says it was advisers who “wanted Putnam to advertise on TV in the first place. They said, ‘Tell people who you are and what you stand for. Tell people you have a well-known name and legacy.’ ”

The advisers hope that might stem the tide of assets. More than $70 billion — held in mutual funds and institutional accounts — has left the firm since the scandal.

Today, Putnam has about $140 billion in fund assets, eighth on the list of top fund managers.

Investors who fled Putnam knew what they wanted to do, but the ones who have been inert until now should view the ads — you can find them at Putnam’s Web site — and talk with their adviser to see if the person they trust for the decision feels confident that George Putnam’s vision really is back in place.

Roy Weitz of FundAlarm.com, says, “In the end, the Putnam investor can’t tell from the ad if things really have changed. That’s what they pay the adviser for.

“And if someone has confidence in their adviser, but isn’t so sure about Putnam, they should ask whether, after all of the changes that have been made, the broker still stakes his reputation and business on Putnam.”

Chuck Jaffe is senior columnist at CBS Marketwatch. He can be reached at jaffe@marketwatch.com or Box 70, Cohasset, MA 02025-0070.