Howard Joseph France Sr., 78, Md. pension investment chief


Howard Joseph France Sr., who had been chief investment officer for the Maryland State Retirement and Pension System, died of complications from a stroke Tuesday at his Towson home. He was 78.

Born in Baltimore and raised in Waverly, Mr. France delivered the Baltimore News-Post during the day and attended evening classes at City College.

While attending the University of Baltimore and later Loyola College, where he earned a bachelor's degree in business in 1952, he worked repossessing automobiles.

In 1953, Mr. France enlisted in the Navy and served during the Korean War aboard the destroyer USS Black.

He later had assignments at the Pentagon and in the Naval Reserve as a gunnery officer aboard the destroyer USS Darby. He held the rank of lieutenant at his discharge in 1960.

Mr. France became a stockbroker in 1957 with the firm of Stein Bros. & Boyce. The firm became Bache & Co., where he was vice president of institutional sales.

He left the Charles Center brokerage firm in 1973 when he became investment administrator of the state's then-$1.4 billion retirement system portfolio. He was chief investment officer from 1988 until retiring in 1991.

"Howard J. France plays the money market like Van Cliburn plays the piano - grandly and with style," said a 1975 article in The Evening Sun.

In an interview, Mr. France told the newspaper that he employed a Friday-Tuesday strategy that earned the state a little more money for its pension system.

Pension checks were mailed Friday and not cashed until Tuesday, as a rule, which allowed Mr. France to take advantage of the float and invest in short-term notes that drew up to an additional four days' interest.

"It may not sound like much, but it adds up," he said in the interview. "One day's additional interest on $1 million invested at 6 percent brings in $166.69. It's a maneuver that's quite legal and quite profitable. I can assure you, I have no intention of losing even a day's interest on our money."

From his ninth-floor office in the Herbert R. O'Conor State Office Building on West Preston Street, Mr. France showed his economic acumen in 1987.

Nearly two months before the "Black Monday" stock market crash that Oct. 15, Mr. France reduced the portion of stocks and increased the amount of bonds in the system's portfolio - and just two weeks before the market's collapse, he sold stocks worth about $2.3 billion and purchased $4 billion in bonds.

"Instead of suffering large losses on its stock holdings, the Maryland retirement system took some losses on a much-reduced stock portfolio," The Sun reported.

At Mr. France's 1991 retirement, the value of the retirement system's portfolio that he nurtured had grown to $10.5 billion.

"He was a conservative investor who carefully grew the pension funds' investments," said Arthur M. Lynch, who was Mr. French's deputy chief investment officer and now is a consultant to those funds. "He carefully chose outside money management companies, many of whom are still with us."

"He was very conscientious and very dedicated to his job. He always paid great attention to details," Mr. Lynch added.

"He set high standards, and we're still aspiring to those standards that he started," said Joseph A. Coale, who retired last year as the agency's public relations director.

Mr. France's professional memberships included the Baltimore Society of Security Analysts and the National Association of State Retirement Administrators. He was a past president of the Exchange Club of Baltimore.

From 1991 to 1998, Mr. France lived in Orlando, Fla., before returning to his home in Towson. He enjoyed gardening, gourmet cooking, traveling and spending time at a second home in Ocean City.

He was a communicant and chairman of the stewardship program at St. Mary of the Assumption Roman Catholic Church, 5500 York Road, where a Mass of Christian burial will be offered at 9:30 a.m. tomorrow.

Surviving are his wife of 52 years, the former Margaret Patricia Bollinger; two sons, H. Joseph France Jr. of Towson and James Thomas France of Flanders, N.J.; two daughters, Patricia Ann Hargest of Cockeysville and Catherine Margaret Furr of Pasadena; two brothers, Alfred H. France Jr. of Cleveland and John France of Ellicott City; a sister, Helen France of Taneytown; and six grandchildren.

Sun reporter Jacques Kelly contributed to this article.

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