Mutual fund investors are not alone in how the financial crisis has profoundly changed the way they approach saving, risk management and asset allocation. Without question, investors are more conservative and interested in flexible products that minimize risk and use alternative investments during heightened market volatility or a prolonged downturn as we saw in 2008.
For asset managers who serve this dramatically different public, the financial crisis has changed the products and services that they must offer. Today, asset management firms must be more nimble and client-centric than ever and, particularly as clients' retirement balances grow, do a far better job of educating investors through proper guidance and advice.
But the crisis and projected continued market volatility has also unalterably changed the way asset managers run their businesses. They must provide high-quality customer and operational services in the face of this increased market volatility and continuously fluctuating assets. And even the largest firms with billions of dollars under management are finding that the only way they can accomplish this seamlessly high level of service is by strategically outsourcing more back- and middle-office functions to a full-service provider that can adjust with their needs and provide a long-range vision for growth.
Asset management, regulatory and operations executives met last month at the headquarters of SourceMedia, publisher of Money Management Executive, for a roundtable on the future of the asset management industry, post-crisis, and what the winning business models will be.
In attendance were:
Fred Naddaff, Managing Director and Head of Fund Services, N.A., Citi
Elizabeth Krentzman, Principal, Governance, Regulatory & Risk Strategies, Deloitte & Touche
Amin Rajan, CEO, CREATE-Research and Visiting Professor at the Centre for Leadership Studies, Exeter University
Hazel McNeilage, Executive Director, Institutional Advisors Services, Principal Global Investors
Bob Wallace, Managing Director, Head of Securities and Fund Services, N.A., Citi
Lee Barney, Editor, Money Management Executive
Barney: Are investors truly changed by the credit crisis? Are they actually risk averse and if so, how can asset management firms compete and stand out from their competitors if their customers are favoring mainstream, low-fee asset classes? After all, the mutual fund industry is known for its bold innovation.
Hazel McNeilage: Our feeling is that they are absolutely changed. We've already seen savings rates in the U.S. rise to 6% or 7%. There's a big debate as to whether that's just a temporary phenomenon and people will go back to spending pretty much everything that they earn.
Our view is that the shock has been sufficiently severe that savings rates will probably go even higher and stay there for some time. We're starting to see this reflected in the behavior of our 401(k) participants.
We've just completed some research that indicated that over the last 12 months, almost 20% of our 401(k) participants have increased the level of their contributions, versus a much smaller number, 9%, who have reduced contributions and 7% who have stopped them.
So, overall, the tide is toward more people increasing their contributions rather than suspending them or reducing them.
Barney: Have you been able to drill down on that data to find out if the performance is affecting those contribution rates?
McNeilage: People are definitely concerned about the fact that their balances have gone down. Our data suggests that the average 401(k) balance is about $37,000, which is around the level it was two years ago.
A lot of investors are saying they intend to work longer. However, our data suggests that historically that has not necessarily been feasible due to factors like ill health or downsizing.
Amin Rajan: Too much has happened for things to remain the same. We experienced two of the four worst bear markets of the last 100 years in the past seven years. As if that wasn't enough, we had a battery of rules and regulations introduced in this decade to curb the excesses of the last decade. They were benign in their intent but malign in their outcome in the sense that the mark-to-market rules, for example, have converted the U.S. subprime crisis into a global disaster.
It's always best not to project the future at a time when the present is so uncertain, although I'd like to think that what we will see will be a model emerge which will combine stability and change.
Certain aspects of investor behavior will remain stable. Investors will continue to put money into 401(k) plans. Private investors will continue to save, too, even in countries like Japan where they've lost huge amounts of money in stock markets in the past.
So, savings will be there, as will people's appetite for investment.
However, what would really change will be the kind of investment approaches that they will adopt.
For example, in the 401(k) space there is a lot of interest now on the part of investors to have serious conversations with their fund managers and their advisers alike. While they are replenishing the losses that they've suffered, they will be adopting a twin-track approach to investing.
Track No. 1 will cover those asset classes that they really understand. This will necessarily mean flight to quality, simplicity and safety.
Track No. 2 will involve tactical opportunism at the edges of clients' portfolios. In other words, speculation isn't going to go away. This is because the market disaster in 2008 was grossly overdone, creating a lot of mispriced opportunities in, for example, the distressed debt market and the private equity secondary market. Investors cannot ignore those opportunities.
For both tracks, liquidity has become so important because in the crisis, liquidity dried up to the extent that it was impossible to sell anything without taking enormous losses. Like volatility, it has become an asset class in its own right.
And even traditional index equities are now viewed as part of technical opportunism. This is because many institutional clients have realized that if you wanted to achieve good returns on equities in the last 40 years, you had to be in the market in one or more of 11 days that recorded maximum gains. Indexed equities provide a low-cost option when markets are expected to zoom north.
So, the asset industry is not going to die. But its investors are going to be far more discerning than they have been in the past, and asset managers are going to have to carefully segment investors into different camps to understand their needs.
Elizabeth Krentzman: Money managers tell us the fixed income base is getting more attention as a product offering than ever before. In addition, I think you're going to see annuitized products come more into the fore.
People want certainty. I think we're going to see increasing combinations of an equity component and an annuitized component to deal with longevity risks. If annuity products really take hold, there could be a challenge to the dominance that mutual funds have in the 401(k) space.
Fred Naddaff: That's interesting, because we are seeing a different dynamic on the retail side. While the market was down 38% last year, U.S. retirement assets were down only 22%. The leading factor behind that asset retention was participant inertia-investors continued their systematic payroll deductions into asset allocation products.
On top of that, as a result of asset depreciation, a significant amount of older workers are expected to delay their retirement age and extend their target date for leaving the workforce. As such, one of the things we're hearing, particularly from those targeting the 401(k) space, is that the retail investor will require some sort of advice and guidance, which has traditionally been a legal quandary.
Krentzman: It's fascinating that in the retail space it's 80%-plus that's broker sold, but when you get to the retirement space, investment advice may not be available, because of ERISA and fiduciary concerns.
McNeilage: We didn't see a lot of knee-jerk reactions among our 401(k) investors in terms of their investment strategies. Obviously, the asset allocation mix has changed, but that's been more driven just by the returns, which obviously by definition changed those allocations.
We really see the behavior of 401(k) investors as being quite significantly triggered by the size of the account balance and the investor's age. For account balances under $25,000, which is obviously a large number given that the national average is only $37,000, 90% are in the default option.
The people with the larger balances tend to take a more active interest. Many of them are certainly looking at what they should be doing at this point.
Rajan: Our data shows that there is already some kind of rebalancing going on. People getting closer to retirement don't want to take too much risk; they are moving to safer assets like bonds and real estate. It may be of interest for you to know that large pension plans are putting money into esoteric asset classes like forestry, intellectual property, even gold. The latter is increasingly seen as a buy-and-hold asset as well as a safe-haven asset.
There is a fundamental reevaluation of risk now in progress. Retail and institutional investors alike realize they can no longer take a five- of 10-year approach to risk because they've been burned badly by being buy-and-hold investors.
They were especially shocked to discover that the correlation between previously uncorrelated asset classes was far higher than anybody ever imagined. Now, return of money is more important than return on money.
The worst example of investor retrenchment is in Japan, where a huge pile of $15 trillion is sitting in post office savings accounts earning zero return. I hope to God such a commoditized industry never happens in Europe or the United States.
Bob Wallace: While an estimated $14 trillion in housing and stock market wealth has been lost over the last 18 months, one positive finding is that individual investors have listened to their advisers, and their losses have been much less than the broad equity indexes.
Vanguard and Fidelity released some statistics earlier last month indicating that 15% to 17% of investors in their retirement accounts were 100% invested in equities, which shows that a majority of investors had some level of diversification across asset classes.
As investors are presented with different investment products going forward-whether target-based, capital preservation, annuities or other choices-investors have proven they will listen to advice and information presented to them and will act prudently.
So I feel much better about the U.S. investor weathering the crisis and continuing to invest in the markets. Investors have listened to guidance over the last few years, and over time, will rebalance their portfolios based upon the advice they get, the articles they read in the newspapers about what they discern as the right thing to do.
And so, I take that as a strong positive. Yes, we don't know how much change we're going to see going forward, but I take confidence in the fact that American investors will go slow and judiciously. They're not all rushing one way left, one way right.
As long as we can continue to work with investors, providing them with the knowledge to make informed decisions, I think we'll be okay.
Naddaff: We also have the benefit of the last eight months, where investors have recovered some of their losses and the market is now seeing inflows back into equities.
Wallace: Long-term mutual funds started to see positive inflows in March, before flows to hedge funds turned positive in August.
Barney: I think a critical component of this, which you've all touched upon, is advice. Despite sponsors' aversion to shifting the fiduciary component of advice to a third party under the provisions of the Pension Protection Act, do any of you expect 401(k) advice could finally become a reality?
Krentzman: We lobbied for 401(k) investment advice when I was at the Investment Company Institute, but there is just an amazing amount of skepticism in Congress that any kind of investment advice will open the door to products that are high-fee-producing for asset managers. I strongly feel that this is misplaced but this notion is very entrenched in the Congress. So even the final legislation was not particularly workable.
Naddaff: In the midst of a recession, the retirement market remains a desirable place to be, given the predictability of inflows and the sticky nature of assets. If you look at projections for 2010, half a trillion dollars in IRA rollovers will be up for grabs just due to job displacement. And over the next five years, an additional $1.5 trillion will be invested in DC plans.
As such, one thing that will help the advice movement is the effect the auto-enrollment default has had on 401(k)s. As more dollars are automatically directed into target-date funds, eventually the average account balances will increase, and the call for advice will have to be answered.
In addition, there's no doubt different product and services are going to be required in the new environment. Whether it's annuity-like products, stable value, sub-advised, target-dates, advice and guidance-the smart firms will step up and fill the void, and investor education will play an important part.
Wallace: I think we are moving from a product sales strategy where firms just sell individual funds to selling solutions. These solutions should enable investors to better protect investment gains from erosion during periods of market declines.
Krentzman: There was concern that the Securities and Exchange Commission was going to overreact to the crisis with respect to the poor performance of some target-date funds and restrict this product type. It's really a great, innovative product. Instead, we need to have some better disclosure about equity and fixed income composition in relation to particular target dates and glidepaths. I think target-date funds will remain viable and the SEC will propose rules to do that.
I would add, just from a regulatory standpoint, that the 12b-1 fee issue is not going away. I think we have a very unrealistic regulatory view of mutual fund fees, in terms of funds run as enterprises, not as standalone vehicles.
We have a Supreme Court case that will be heard in November on fund fees, and it is possible that as a result of the decision in that case, the industry will be open to plaintiff's lawsuits, which we've really been insulated from. Congress is also planning to take up retirement fees.
These discussions could act to stigmatize the industry in a way that somehow the fees are high, unfair, when again, when you look at the reality of what a mutual fund can bring to an investor, it's really amazing on a cost basis.
So I think that's an issue that could become problematic in the coming years.
Rajan: The extent of the losses has undoubtedly worried the U.S. regulators. At this point, their response is unclear. Congress has been lobbied to do something, but nobody has clearly defined what something is.
In contrast, lawmakers in Europe are very clear what that something is. First, they want product labeling. That means that for every product, asset managers will have to spell out clearly what the associated risk and returns are. Second, they want independent oversight of middle-office activities to be provided by third-party administrators. Third, they want alignment of interest between investors and their managers, especially with respect to fees and charges.
So, the regulatory creep is inevitable, for sure. Like a blunt instrument, it will punish the good and the bad managers indiscriminately. It's up to the industry to keep the regulators at bay by promoting best practices in areas that genuinely promote client interests.
Naddaff: Well, we almost have no choice; the regulatory pendulum is swinging too far to one side, and it will be some time before it settles back in.
McNeilage: One of our biggest regulatory concerns as a global firm that operates on an integrated basis, is that regulators around the world are taking very different stances. This could make it more difficult to deliver the kind of global products that are increasingly in demand.
Wallace: It will be interesting to see, going forward, who takes responsibility for product structuring and whether that will now be viewed as a distribution activity or an asset manager activity. Will asset managers begin turning to the investment community to seek specific capabilities beyond their core competency, and in turn, manage the structuring of those capabilities into investor solutions?
From the asset manager's perspective, they may be quite comfortable with distribution assuming the role of structuring solutions, because of the diverse distribution channels and level of risk involved. New legislation will likely regulate how these products are structured and sold.
Naddaff: Well, we're starting to see more and more of that approach via manager-of-manager products. Sub-advised, funds-of-funds and target-date funds have gained significant traction over the last couple of years. In addition, more of the underlying product is being allocated toward cheaper solutions, such as exchange-traded funds, or toward a specific expertise, such as a boutique.
In this way, you can bring both a more cost-efficient and differentiated product to the market.
Wallace: If you look at investment performance historically, it's driven more by asset allocation rather than individual security selection. So if you get the asset classes right, then ETFs may become important components in client solutions.
Rajan: Our report found that many asset managers feel that this crisis is nothing more than a concealed opportunity. As a result, they are doing two things. First, they're drawing the distinction between "doing the business" and "running the business."
The doing bit involves focusing on their core capabilities, especially in the front office. The running bit involves outsourcing the non-core activities, especially in the back and middle offices.
This demarcation is promoting genuine innovation. In the past, innovation was nothing more than producing copycat products. Now, special task groups are set up to come up with new ideas to solve longstanding problems with respect to products, business practices and client service.
These are important developments. Similar approaches have been used in best-practice companies like 3M or Johnson & Johnson where individuals are constantly challenged to come up with innovative solutions to emerging problems.
More and more fund managers are now taking innovation as seriously as it deserves to be. Innovation is now seen as something which adds value, something which meets specific client needs, and something which also gives a competitive edge.
In outsourcing and innovation, the asset management industry is coming of age. There's no doubt about it.
New products and services of enduring value may well be created as a result of this crisis.
Naddaff: We're already seeing that in the U.S. The last few years have been a wild ride: new product introductions, extremely complex securities, and a much more onerous regulatory environment-it's just been hard to keep up. Overlay onto that the last two years of market volatility, and you can see where people may want to get back to just focusing on their core competencies, particularly managing money and product development.
On top of that, the expense pressures and the new investment requirements are huge. It's almost impossible to take 30-year-old service platforms and retrofit them into the new landscape, and that's before we even talk about what new products are going to be developed to help navigate through this new global economy.
Five years ago, price and service levels were the major components of any outsourcing decisions. Today, they're just the table stakes.
Now, the main drivers are risk mitigation, cost avoidance and compliance support. We've seen a complete mind shift regarding the criteria used in deciding if one's firm should outsource. As the larger asset managers start contemplating the new product requirements of the current landscape, they're reevaluating the need to provide back-office and middle-office functions internally.
Barney: Fred, what are some of the larger players outsourcing now?
Naddaff: Well, as I mentioned earlier, asset managers are realizing they have to get back to their knitting: managing money and developing a new product mix.
As a result, we're also seeing another new dynamic-the difference between the middle office and back office has become increasingly blurred. Managers opting to outsource non-core functions now require an integrated suite of products. As there's no proprietary or competitive advantage to having a middle office anymore, even the larger players are looking to outsource more of these functions, which they never did before.
This becomes an easy answer, particularly when you factor in the technology costs associated with the new environment, specifically as they pertain to data consistency, transparency and real-time access. As such, they're re-evaluating their big-ticket operational expenses for non-competitive functions and realizing that it makes more sense to hand them over to service providers, who already have built-in expertise and efficiencies. They can then focus on asset management and bringing the appropriate product to their clients.
McNeilage: We've seen a significant increase in the last several years in the extent and quality of the outsourcing capabilities of firms like Citi. Those opportunities enable us to focus on our front office asset management, product structuring and distribution activities.
Naddaff: You know, one of the biggest questions, is what does scale mean nowadays?
Before, it was just number of accounts and number of assets. Now the new utopia, particularly for the larger firms and global players, is getting as close as you can to one platform across the product mix, across service lines and across jurisdictions. And no matter how big the company is, that's too difficult to get to without turning to an outsourcer whose franchise interest is in operating such a unified platform.
And I think the current market has forced this to become a reality three or four years earlier than it naturally would have.
Rajan: We're definitely seeing the early signs of that. The old vertically integrated model, where everything was done in-house, is now being replaced by a horizontally integrated model which outsources non-core activities.
At the same time, distribution is now being increasingly decoupled from manufacturing. That started here in the United States, moved to Australia, then to the U.K. It is now spreading across Europe. And regulators are driving this process. In the past, distribution was heavily conflicted. Distributors mainly sold products that gave them the highest up-front commissions, irrespective of clients' needs and managers' track records.
Administration, too, is being decoupled and outsourced in order to reap its inherent economies of scale.
More and more, best-of-breed distributors and administrators are forming alliances with manufacturers, resulting in what we call the "Toyota-ization" of the asset industry.
Toyota produces the same number of cars as General Motors but makes about $2,000 profit per car while GM makes less than $200. Toyota outsources most of its non-core activities and focuses on manufacturing excellence.
Barney: Is this what is meant by strategic outsourcing?
Wallace: Investment managers realize that they may not have the in-house capabilities across the full value chain of investment activities. They have the choice of investing and building the missing capabilities, which will take time and must remain current with regulations and new technologies.
Or, asset managers can stay focused on their core competencies, redirecting the bulk of their spending away from middle- and back-office technology and operations. Rather, they look for a long-term partner to align with on strategic outsourcing. In this way, an asset management firm's primary focus becomes the front office and investing.
So that's why you see the relationship between the manager and the outsourcing provider getting much deeper. It's more of a trusted, aligned partner-no longer a generic, commoditized service provider.
Most importantly, the selection is based on who is going to serve the asset manager going forward and have the capability to handle new initiatives.
Barney: Might this lead you to develop new services for your clients?
Wallace: The innovation will come from the assemblers and asset managers as they embrace new securities, investment strategies and regulations. The key is to partner with a service provider that works with clients, that is pushing the envelope to do bigger and better things and that has the technology and operations expertise to help them achieve their goals.
Rajan: As a result of credit crunch, we have seen the emergence of two new service lines from third-party administrators: collateral management and risk management.
Naddaff: Well, we certainly have seen the operational risk-management side. As the outsource model gets more traction with the larger shops, the oversight function will come more into focus, particularly as it pertains to compliance and regulatory requirements.
Given what has happened to the market over the last two years, we've seen a not-so-subtle shift in asset managers' focus, where they're lasered-in to both the bottom line and compliance. "Keep me out of jail" is now a service provider requirement, which is both a challenge and opportunity for us.
Barney: Because assets under management and flows to different asset classes have fluctuated so greatly during the bear markets of 2001 and 2008, fund companies have learned they need a variable expense model to keep costs down and be able to guarantee excellent, cutting-edge products and customer service as the market rebounds. Not to mention being able to meet all of the demanding new regulatory requirements in order to avoid the legal quagmires you just mentioned, Fred. How difficult is it to develop such a variable cost model?
Rajan: It's difficult but not impossible. Some 17 years ago, for example, oil majors had to tackle this issue. And they did.
In this decade, we've seen the price of oil go up from $14 a barrel to $147 a barrel without large-scale redundancies or shutdowns. They have done this by converting as many fixed costs as possible into variable ones through large-scale outsourcing.
In the asset management industry, the biggest cost component is total compensation. It can become variable when linked directly to either the business performance or the funds' performance. This is now being done by nearly 20% of managers worldwide.
The second thing they've been doing is strategic outsourcing.
And the third thing that they've been doing is a large-scale rationalization of their product mix, shutting down sub-scale product lines.
Our research shows that 50% of asset managers are moving in the direction of the variable cost model. The old model worked only in the bull market. There were howls of anguish every time there was a market downturn. Forty-eight of our survey respondents believe that we're going to have another systemic crisis within the next decade.
A variable cost model is the answer in the face of future meltdowns. A variable cost model is not the managers' first choice or their last choice; it's their only choice.
McNeilage: The research we see tells us that asset managers are definitely making changes to their business models.
Some of them are doing it much more quickly than others, and I think that's because revenue in an asset management firm is a lagging indicator. We're quite intrigued at the different pace that we see across different firms.
We see dis-economies of scale in active management but very significant economies of scale in things like institutional distribution. This suggests to us that a multi-boutique model has significant benefits, if implemented well. The better and the broader the range of products that you can put through a high-quality institutional distribution team, the better place you're going to be in our view.
Right now, Principal Global Investors has a hybrid multi-boutique model, and we are intending to move further in that direction. We have purchased several boutiques, and we have helped them to grow, very significantly.
We've also nurtured and grown one or two of our own boutiques. We define a boutique as a team that has a distinctive investment philosophy and process which that team implements largely independently of other investment teams within the overall firm. It will be interesting to see whether the industry in general moves further in the direction of a multi-boutique model as a result of some of the challenges currently being experienced.
Rajan: But there can be problems, as evidenced by the Madoff fraud. One problem with the multi-boutique model is that some units are hardwired for their independence. When oversight is imposed, there's the usual push back.
Now there's more acceptance that there's got to be proper rules of engagement and clarity on oversight roles.
Naddaff: The appropriate level of oversight is certainly at the top of our clients' agendas. The ability to facilitate the various oversight roles via new technology will be key to any service provider's success. When you think about all the different consistencies that require some level of information review, the views can grow exponentially. The COO, CIO, portfolio managers, compliance personnel, board, auditors, regulators-all have different requirements.
We're seeing all the buzzwords of the last few years come to fruition; data consistency, transparency, real-time access, etc., are all requirements in the new environment. In addition, we've seen a shift in operational requirements, a move from data entry and review to one incorporating more diagnostics and analytics.
Another thing I wanted to mention is what we see as an interesting shift in focus on the M&A front. While the motivation for entering into a deal will always have some aspect of asset growth rationale, we're now seeing the ability to fill product gap voids as a significant driver in M&A evaluation.
Wallace: Mergers and acquisitions didn't pose a challenge for asset managers until the credit crisis. Many acquisitions were never integrated, purposely. Now, with margins being squeezed, the luxury of dual and triple middle- and back-office infrastructures is not acceptable. Now there's growing tolerance for only one core infrastructure with the same controls, the same risk framework and the same operations supporting diverse investment management teams.
McNeilage: Our view is that you need investment people in the major money centers to harness the global information and to trade effectively. But it is not sufficient to just have them in the right places; they need to work in an integrated way, especially in a world that is increasingly interdependent on a global basis.
So we have a highly integrated global structure with both investment staff and client-facing staff, in key locations around the world. We make sure that our investment staff is well supported, can focus on investing and doesn't need to worry about operations and administration.
Krentzman: But I certainly see no one size, you know, fits all. Size, history and performance are determinants of the compliance and operational approach a firm may take to its future growth.
Wallace: Clearly, for any boutique, whether it's an internal product team or an external team of sub-advisors, they are going to have to compete on performance, and that's where you're going to have to decide whether you run the boutiques inside or not.
Krentzman: And the expense is just growing and growing and growing.
McNeilage: One of the things that we're finding, and our boutiques tell us increasingly, is that having a financially strong and stable parent is now becoming much more important to the clients.
While our clients are interested in the particular capabilities offered by the particular team, the quality of that team, and the quality of that investment process, they are now much more interested as well in the parent and the stability of that parent, and that's a significant change that we've seen from a few years ago.
Wallace: I think that's why you see some boutiques that will allow themselves to be taken over, aside from the way the two companies pair money and asset classes. They realize they need to have strong financial backing to make sure they're not going to be at a disadvantage in growing their business.
Rajan: We've been doing road shows to large pension plans on these reports on the Continent. When asked to state the key criteria used in selecting fund managers, they cite the track record.
Next comes alignment of interest and organizational stability. Organizational stability is seen as a proxy indicator of your ability to replicate your past performance. Are your people operating in a stable environment, with a strong backing, with a strong parent principal?
When you look at some of the best houses here in the U.S., they are very stable organizations, particularly the mutual fund houses. They put a strong emphasis on organic growth and home-grown talent. They have everything that makes for a good, stable structure.
Wallace: This brings us back to one of your original questions, Lee, in asking how asset management firms will stand out in this new paradigm. In addition to what the professor has just articulated-emphasizing the importance of organic growth and talent-I believe the new model to compete and win consists of several components, many of which we've touched upon today.
First, innovative products that are designed to meet the needs of investors' changing approach and flight to quality, transparency, safety and liquidity.
Second, embracing a variable-cost business model that relies on strategic outsourcing partnerships. In this way, linking the majority of cost items to the level of activity, in order to create a model that is resilient to major bouts of market volatility.
And finally, understanding client needs by selling products that are fit for purpose; giving accurate, timely information; doing periodic investment reviews; taking regular pulse surveys; and creating internal task forces aimed at protecting and furthering their clients' interests.
The industry has a great future if asset managers-and those aligned in support and oversight of asset managers-overtly become more investor-centric.
(c) 2009 Money Management Executive and SourceMedia, Inc. All Rights Reserved.