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Raymond James Financial's CEO is bullish about 2010

Earlier this year, Tom James felt so dejected about the troubled economy he couldn't even enjoy the Super Bowl spotlight on his company-branded Raymond James Stadium in Tampa.

On Friday, the head of St. Petersburg brokerage Raymond James Financial sounded downright bullish about 2010.

Bank capital across the country is being steadily replenished. Corporate profits are kicking in again. The stock market has rebounded impressively from a horrendous March low. And even the gloomiest economic indicator, high unemployment, appears to be leveling off.

"Things are a lot better. We survived this!" James told a luncheon gathering of the St. Petersburg Downtown Partnership on Friday. "This could have been an absolute disaster."

At 67, James has run Raymond James for 40 years as it evolved from a hometown brokerage into a super-regional financial player. He had a front-row seat to the financial debacle of late 2008.

In September, Raymond James closed one of its worst fiscal years in memory with a 35 percent drop in profits and a 19 percent drop in revenue. But as James prepares to retire this spring and pass the CEO baton to Paul Reilly, who was literally sitting in waiting at Friday's lunch, he said he's optimistic his company was rebounding.

Last year, Raymond James hired 750 financial advisers in North America, many of them evacuees of other brokerages. It carved out a niche in taxable, fixed-income investments with 60 specialists in Memphis after acquiring the former Bear Stearns office there from JPMorgan Chase.

Like Raymond James, most financial companies appear to be recovering, James said. He gave kudos to Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke and U.S. Treasury officials for pushing the Troubled Asset Relief Program and other transformational changes that helped banks regain their footing.

"This was not a bailout. … This was saving the financial system in the United States and the world," he said.

Shunning the idea of a double-dip recession, James said he expects recovery to build in 2010 and beyond, though ever so gradually.

"Next year the market may have some volatility, but we will see an improved economic climate in the United States," he said.

In this era of instant news, people flip through CNBC and other financial outlets with unrealistic expectations that they'll see improvement on a daily basis, he said: "You'd be much better served if you (looked) once a quarter."

Take Bank of America, a pre-recession $60 stock that tumbled below $2 a share in the darkest days on Wall Street early this year. Today, Bank of America has rebounded to $16 a share and James sees the trajectory continuing.

"When you look back in three years, the stock will be $60 again," he said.

The process of replenishing financial institutions with cheaply borrowed federal money may take another year, eventually making them secure enough to start lending again, he said.

James received his biggest applause from the St. Petersburg crowd for a topic far removed from financial services: whether a new stadium should be built for the Tampa Bay Rays outside the city.

"I don't think we ever need to move baseball stadiums out of downtown," he said.

He pointed out that the hot-and-cold Tampa Bay Lightning have lost a huge chunk of attendance, but there is no talk about moving the team from Tampa to St. Petersburg.

As for that third major sports team in the region, James pleaded the Fifth.

"Don't ask me about the Buccaneers," he said, "to which I'm more closely aligned."

Jeff Harrington can be reached at jharrington@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8242.

Raymond James Financial's CEO is bullish about 2010 12/11/09 [Last modified: Friday, December 11, 2009 9:03pm]
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