Independent firms will help shape the mergers and acquisitions scene in the asset management industry in 2010, according to investment bank Jefferies & Co.

This new trend, based on several deals in the fourth quarter, some involving independents, would be a new phase in the M&A landscape which has, until now, been largely dominated by mega-deals involving large corporations and multi-billion dollar contracts.

Divestitures accounted for 60% of the M&A transactions in 2009, a trend Jefferies expects to see continue throughout the first half of this year, the company said in a report released Thursday. But as market conditions improve and asset flows return, many aging advisors of independent firms who were waiting for sunnier skies over the past two years will begin transitioning out of the business in 2010, Aaron Dorr, a managing director at Jefferies’ Financial Institutions Group in New York City says.

Chip Roame, a managing principal at Tiburon, says that while independent M&A activity is sure to increase over the next two decades, it has little to do with the environment in 2010. “In the asset management, broker-dealer, RIA and even community bank industries, there are five or 10 big firms and thousands of little firms that are owned by little guys,” Roame says. “Will the little guys drive the activity going forward? Sure, there’s no one else to do, since most of the public companies have bought each other by now. These guys are simply getting older, so for the next 10 to 20 years you will have a series of little guys who are going to sell, and that has little to do with 2010. You aren’t going to see a tripling of M&A activity this year—you will see a slow increase across a decade or two.”

Only 61 independently owned managers were involved in transactions in 2009, 57% less than in 2008 and the lowest level in more than a decade. Nonetheless, large deals such as Advisory Research’s sale to Piper Jaffray and Metropolitan West Asset Management’s purchase by TCW in the fourth quarter indicated a new, more independent phase in M&A activity, Jefferies says. At the beginning of this year, Moss Adams Wealth Advisors acquired San Diego-based wealth management firm Rowling, Dold & Associates after an 18-month courtship, boosting Moss Adam’s assets under management to more than $1 billion.

“If they’re talking about wealth management, it is an expensive undertaking to uphold an RIA particularly to grow it and putting several RIA firms together will be something that we’ll see,” says Alois Piker, research director at Aite Group. “Right now, there are about 100 firms at $1 billion in assets—that number will grow. You will see firms at the top growing by acquisition.”

Throughout 2009, the M&As market was dominated by mega-deals with a record nine transactions involving firms with assets under management topping $100 billion. While deal volume in 2009 declined by 35%, the number of assets under management that changed hands rose to an all-time high of $4.0 trillion—up from $1.95 trillion in 2008 and 51% higher than in 2006, the previous record year. Total disclosed deal value also rose last year to $24.9 billion from just $15.9 billion in 2008.

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