Investment consultants and plan sponsors continued to express the strongest interest in the geographies of ACWI ex-U.S., global and emerging markets in September, according to a prominent institutional investment database.
The latest analysis of eVestment Alliance's internal data highlights the sustained trend of asset diversification, both by geographic sector and the increased interest in all-cap products.
"What we're seeing is consultants plan sponsors are moving to the more diversified categories," said Ben Olmstead, vice president of new product innovation for eVestment
In its monthly analyses, eVestment tallies the products that its customers, which comprise more than three-quarters of the top 50 global consultants, are searching for and presenting them as groups by universe.
In September, the leading universe was the ACWI ex-US All Cap Core Equity, with the average product therein garnering about 24 unique searches. eVestment positions its search data as a predictive indicator of fund activity, noting a correlation between search activity and asset movement, with a lag time that varies among fixed-income products and equities.
One of the strongest recent gainers has been the relatively new global balanced / TAA segment, with two universes -- the Global Balanced - Hedged and Global Tactical Asset Allocation -- generating heavy interest over the past year.
"As it gains traction we've sort of seen it snowball," Olmstead said. Though he pointed out that over the trailing three months interest in the global balanced universe has somewhat "plateaued," the attraction of global equities as a diversification play shows no signs of abating. "Everything that we have seen points to that continuing. We've seen a significant inflow of assets into global equity."
In addition to the broad shift toward diversified products, many plans, with billions of dollars in play, have been vesting managers with greater agility to move assets in response to the jarring fluctuations that lately have been a mainstay of the markets.
"What we're seeing across the board is a move to places where managers have more freedom," Olmstead said. "It makes sense when you consider the volatility that you're seeing."
The search data eVestment reported keeps in step with recent asset flows. Last year, ACWI ex-U.S. equity gained $33.4 billion in institutional assets, while global equity flows increased $33.2 billion and global debt picked up $37.8 billion. Institutional asset flows to the emerging markets debt universe gained $70 billion, according to eVestment.
Indeed, the No. 2 universe on eVestment's most-searched list for September was Emerging Markets Fixed Income - Unhedged, while global and ACWI ex-U.S. filled out most of the rest of the top 10. At the same time, the trend lines indicated that interest in emerging markets among consultants and plan sponsors has waned in recent months, though the segment still remains an attractive opportunity for many investors compared to the U.S. and Eurozone geographies.
"The flows for the first half of the year have slowed in emerging markets," Olmstead said. "But 'slowed' means you're driving at 60 miles an hour instead of 100 miles an hour."
"The perception in the market is there are areas that could be overbought," he added.
While ACWI ex-U.S. products continue to draw strong interest among consultants and plan sponsors, the news is not all bad for the U.S. equities sector. After several years of massive institutional asset outflows, U.S. equities have bounced back in the first half of 2011, posting net asset gains that, while little more than a rounding error when viewed in light of the global market, still represent hopeful signs of stability.
"The bright spot is the outflows appear to have slowed the United States," Olmstead said. "The fact that it's flat is a significant improvement."
Meanwhile, with markets roiling as EU countries grapple with harsh proposals to recover from the banking crisis bail out the Greek economy, many institutional investors actually began unloading European debt holdings about two years ago, leaving them fairly well insulated from the current volatility, according to Olmstead.
"It's interesting how far ahead of the curve they were from what we're seeing today," he said.