Global assets under management rose 16.3% to $49 trillion last year from a year earlier, according to Cerulli Associates.

The data, released Friday, reflects retail and institutional assets, encompassing everything from mutual funds to structured products. Assets held in mutual funds rose 16.3% to $21.3 trillion.

Last year around this time, Cerulli estimated that global assets under management would reach $42.6 trillion, and that global mutual fund assets would reach $17 billion.

Although Cerulli analysts were pleasantly surprised by the progress, they say that a closer examination indicates a fragile market where forward steps are still tentative. Fiscal and monetary stimulus triggered stock market surges in 2009 that drove growth. Just 1.1% of mutual fund growth came from net inflows, an indication of entrenched nervousness among investors facing turbulent market conditions.

“The thing we look for is a nice healthy combination of net new money and stock market appreciation,” said Shiv Taneja, Cerulli’s managing director overseeing international research. But the end-of 2009 assessment didn’t have that balance.

“It’s easy-come easy-go. There is still money coming into the system, but it was not nearly as strong as previous years.”

Low bank rates gave investors incentive to seek out more lucrative returns elsewhere. So, although the equity markets had left many investors wary, at least returns were better than what the banks were offering.

Cautiousness among investors and asset managers could also restrain them from looking overseas to emerging markets. Setting up those operations is potentially very expensive, Taneja said.

While asset managers acknowledge that investors in the emerging markets could eventually account for at least 50% of all global assets under management, those markets are historically volatile. Emerging market economies have delivered gross domestic product growth between 8% and 15% in some cases, but that does not always translate to one-to-one gains in stock market appreciation or mutual fund market growth, Taneja said.

“People are asking ‘what are the intelligent ways to take advantage of growth in those markets?’” he said. Tapping the emerging markets for growth might mean setting up sub-advisory agreements with local portfolio managers, striking cross-border agreements, or setting up a global brick-and-mortar presence abroad, Taneja said. In any case, growth will come from those markets, which is something investors and asset managers will have to incorporate into their plans.

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