Psfs Investors Get Stuck Holding Worthless Stock

Posted: December 23, 1992

Should it be Reebok International or the Philadelphia Saving Fund Society?

Those were the investment options Clifford McCloskey faced back in 1983.

Acting on the advice of his aunt, he decided to play it safe - investing his $1,800 in the banking company.

Wrong!

Right before the bank closed Dec. 11, the stock he bought for $10.80 a share in 1983 was trading at a mere 6 cents after declining in value for years.

Needless to say, McCloskey, a carpenter who lives in Sewell, N.J., has been kicking himself almost as long as he has had the stock.

When the bank failed, shareholders saw their investment totally wiped out.

Officials at the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., which seized the bank's assets after the Pennsylvania Banking Department closed it, say it's unlikely that shareholders will be able to recoup any of their investment.

"What a dope," McCloskey said recently, berating himself. "Reebok wasn't on TV like it is now. It's just very disheartening.

The PSFS stock "was really a rip-off," he said. "It sounds like a set up."

He's not alone. Investors all over the region were left in the lurch after the closing of the venerable thrift, and its parent, Meritor Savings Bank.

Those who bought PSFS stock were converted to Meritor shareholders in the mid-1980s, when the parent company was created.

Like McCloskey, many of the original investors had made only this one stock market investment in their entire life.

Many were working-class and middle-class PSFS depositors who invested in the savings bank during its initial public offering in 1983.

When the thrift decided to convert from a mutual savings bank - which is owned by depositors - into a public company, stock was offered to all depositors first and was sold through the branches.

Many depositors bought it then at $11.25 a share. By the time that first stock sale was over, it was considered the largest initial public stock offering in history.

"The bank had been there through the Depression and had never closed its doors," said Leslie C. Voth, who had been the bank's shareholder-relations director. "That made such an incredible impression on some of these folks and their parents. They bought (the stock) simply on the name.

"They just weren't that sophisticated," she continued. "They just didn't really understand a lot about what they were buying or what the risks were."

Voth said she often took calls from puzzled shareholders questioning why they didn't receive monthly statements or wanting to know what kind of interest they were getting on their stock.

"They thought it was a new kind of account," Voth said. "They just didn't understand.

"Many of them couldn't even understand what we were sending them (when) mailing the annual (shareholders') report. They would call and ask people to explain it to them."

The initial offering brought in $370 million. The 25,000 to 30,000 PSFS depositors who invested in the thrift bought 5 million shares; another 30 million went to institutional investors.

Despite the positive response, the stock only once went above its initial offering price - that was for a week in the spring of 1986, when it jumped to $13 a share, Voth said.

Back in the early 1980s, it seemed like a sound investment, stockholders said.

"I got talked into it by a broker," said Helen T. Flanagan, a Bala Cynwyd resident who bought 100 shares. "It was a bad move."

Others said they were lured by the sense of stability that went with the institution.

"It was the first place you saved money," said I. Joel Harvitz, 58, an early investor who had opened his first bank account there as a youngster. ''It seems like everybody had a savings account at PSFS."

He said he was angry that the government would allow shareholders to be penalized.

"Why don't they help honest people?" Harvitz asked.

Richard A. Ash, 66, an investor who often publicly criticized the savings bank's directors for their policies during shareholder meetings, said: "I think many of their depositors did buy it because it was an ancient institution. . . . It had all the aura of stability that was expected with a bank."

Plus, "Here, you were being offered an opportunity to get in on the ground floor of this great savings institution," he continued. "I guess everyone expected that their money would be handled in a prudent fashion."

PSFS' downward spiral started in the mid-1980s, after it began an ill-fated nationwide expansion effort, with the goal of becoming a national financial- services company.

It never recovered.

For many years, until the late-1980s, when management tried to save PSFS by selling assets, the "Society," as it was called by employees, had been the largest bank in the region.

In 1990, Mellon Bank Corp. bought the PSFS initials and its branches in the suburbs and in Northeast Philadelphia from Meritor. Meritor continued to operate inside the city as the Philadelphia Savings Fund Society until it was

closed by regulators for operating in an unsafe manner.

That same day, the Pittsburgh-based Mellon bought the Society's deposits and now claims to have the biggest share of the Philadelphia market. Mellon now operates the Society's branches.

Officials at the FDIC, which sold the deposits and part of the Society's assets to Mellon, said it's "very rare" for stockholders to recoup any of their losses after a bank fails.

"If there were still capital, it wouldn't be insolvent," said Alan Whitney, an FDIC spokesman in Washington, D.C. "While it's possible that there may be some" money left after Meritor is liquidated, he said that ''it's impossible at this point to quantify that."

Shareholders could have a five-to-seven year wait before they know, Whitney said.

Led by former bank director Frank Slattery, a group of large investors may mount a class-action lawsuit against Meritor, Slattery said.

In the mean time, for many of the Society's small stockholders, the experience has soured them on the stock market.

"It has made me so bitter and sick," said McCloskey, the Sewell carpenter. "Some guy across the street just told me he made $5,000" in the market.

"He said 'Do you want to talk to my guy (broker)?' " McCloskey added. "I said, 'I don't want nothing. Keep it. It's just the plague.' "

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