Asset Management

Ripe For Disruption: The Asset Management Business

Joseph W Reilly, July 26, 2021


The asset management industry will become more diverse, because many owners of asset management businesses will retire in the next decade, and because the money holder class are far more diverse than the money managers who want to work for the money holders, according to a prominent figure interviewed by FWR.

Joe Reilly, a longtime contributor to Family Wealth Report, interviews David Teten, the founder of Versatile VC, to share views on disruption in asset management, his research into the field, and where the industry needs to be headed.

Reilly: You have done a lot of research on the asset management industry. Who is your research geared to?
: A few years ago I was at a dinner for partners at many of the major New York venture capital funds. One partner said: “So, what do you all think of AngelList?” Another said: “I think it’s a remnant inventory...the Craigslist of venture capital. I don’t think it’s a threat to established VCs.” But a third partner said: “Isn’t that sort of like Hyatt dismissing AirBnB as a threat they don’t need to take seriously?”

In hindsight, the third partner was right.  

So with that preamble, I think that anyone working at an established asset management firm should understand the threats to their established profit streams. Jamie Dimon, CEO of JP Morgan, wrote: "There are hundreds of startups with a lot of brains and money working on various alternatives to traditional banking [and asset management]"..."They all want to eat our lunch...Every single one of them is going to try."

In addition, I think that fintech entrepreneurs seeking market white space should be working to understand how to take advantage of the market opportunity gaping in front of them.

Lastly, of course, any family office should understand the creative, focused, new service providers which may be helpful to them.

You have described the asset management industry as “somewhat baffling.” Why is that?
Asset management is a highly unusual industry. I can give two examples of how peculiar our industry is, relative to other industries:

The asset management industry collectively plays a near-zero-sum game. By contrast, most industries are positive sum: if you eat a great steak dinner, it doesn’t imply that others have to eat hamburger. In asset management, each new money manager in the liquid markets that is able to generate alpha normally does so at the expense of other money managers who underperform. Your own investment’s value may change because of a change in value of the underlying asset and/or market preferences. However, few investors can impact the value of the underlying asset, except for typically private equity and venture capital investors. And only celebrity investors like George Soros can influence market preferences. 

In fact, it is mathematically impossible for the median investor in a given publicly-traded sector to beat a low-cost index of that sector, after expenses. Money managers playing a positive-sum game include those who focus on well-developed sectors for which indices are not readily available (e.g., private companies, frontier markets) and/or nascent asset classes (e.g., crypto, at least to date).

The asset management industry rarely delivers the alpha that it promises. Delivering alpha on a net of fees and costs basis consistently over many years is incredibly difficult. How many other industries collectively fail so consistently to do what they are paid to do? 

Are there macro trends that will force change on the investment management industry?
Investors are much more aware now of new categories of risk. Most recently, COVID-19 taught the world to take the pandemic risk seriously. It is a safe bet that we will see other tail risk events over the next decade: extreme climate events, large scale takedowns of the critical internet infrastructure, electromagnetic pulse attacks, and who knows what else. We have to worry about both black swans, which are unforeseeable risks, and grey rhinos, which are foreseeable risks.

From my point of view as a VC, what gives me comfort is whatever crazy things happen in the world, it’s a safe bet that technology will continue to be more and more important.

What do you find is most disruptive in the industry right now? What do you see changing over the next five years?
I will offer my two highest-confidence predictions: 

Private equity and venture capital investors are going to copy our sisters in the hedge fund world by automating more of our job. When I was single, I registered for (a lot of) dating websites. When I met my now-wife, I realized that any technology that can find me a spouse is a killer app. That’s why 40 million Americans use online dating sites. But, most funds raise capital and source deals the same way people looked for dates 20 years ago: by networking at conferences (or bars). Venture capitalists are now eating our own dog food, by using technology and analytics to make better investments, which we can talk about.

The asset management industry will become more diverse, both because many of the current owners of asset management businesses are due to retire in the next decade, and because the money holder class (the clients) are far more diverse than the money managers who want to work for the money holders. The money manager owner class is disproportionately near retirement age. According to Imprint Group, “one third of assets currently managed are managed by men over the age of 60.” This creates a challenge in talent retention because junior people see their path blocked; succession planning as when their path eventually gets unblocked; and eventually in business continuity. For example, Chris Shumway’s transition out of his hedge fund lead to huge simultaneous redemptions, followed by fire sales, and eventually the closure of a highly successful $8 billion hedge fund. Meanwhile, only 10 per cent of mutual fund AuM and 3 per cent of hedge fund AuM are managed by women, and a similarly small percentage is managed by traditionally underrepresented minorities. This is inconsistent with the fact that women control $14 trillion in assets today, projected to reach $22 trillion by 2020, according to a Family Wealth Advisors Council white paper.

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