Asset Managers Ended 2020 With Record Revenues

But a closer look at the data shows that most of the profits are going to a small group of firms.

Angus Mordant/Bloomberg

Angus Mordant/Bloomberg

Publicly traded asset managers’ revenues and profit margins were up in the fourth quarter, but most gains are going to a small group of firms that have been able to capitalize on trends like investors’ appetite for alternatives, according to an analysis from strategy consultant Casey Quirk, which is owned by Deloitte.

“At the beginning of 2020, we would have expected to see more margin and revenue pressure than we’ve seen. But it’s been a positive year for the industry writ large,” said Amanda Walters, a principal at Casey Quirk, in an interview. “The dispersion of winners and losers, however, is more pronounced and accelerating.”

Walters said the consultancy included five publicly traded alternatives firms in its most recent analysis. “That group of firms is doing very well,” she said. “But it’s also larger traditional firms that have both active and passive, are managing their expense base efficiently, and have a significant portion of their asset base aligned with equity markets. So you can’t say only the alternatives firms are winning.”

According to Walters, the asset managers that are winning can also be characterized as having profitable growth. “We’re not seeing them cutting their way to profitability,” she said. “They are reinvesting while growing.” Walters emphasized that while Casey Quirk’s analysis focused on public firms, she also sees the same trend happening with privately held asset managers.

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Casey Quirk analyzed the fourth quarter results of 26 public traditional and alternative asset managers in North America and Europe. The analysis showed that aggregate revenue increased 2 percent compared to the last quarter of 2019. The median profit margin for the group also grew in 2020, increasing from 29 percent in the fourth quarter of 2019 to 35 percent last year.

With markets hitting highs after an initial downturn due to the pandemic in March and April, asset managers benefitted all around, including an increase in assets under management. Revenues hit the highest level yet and the assets that these managers oversee grew by 5 percent, according to Casey Quirk.

For asset managers in the top quartile, revenue increased by 9 percent last year, Casey Quirk said. In contrast, managers in the bottom quartile experienced a decline in revenue of 5.1 percent.

In a separate report that looks only at mutual funds, including exchange-traded funds, PwC estimated that U.S. growth in assets will average 3.1 percent annually between 2019 and 2025. That’s a big drop from PwC’s forecasts a year ago. In its 2020 Mutual Fund Outlook, the consultant predicted a 5.6 percent growth in assets between 2018 and 2025. Between 2011 and 2019, mutual fund assets grew at almost double that rate, at 10.2 percent.

Passive management of mutual funds keeps growing. In 2019, passive accounted for 39 percent of total mutual fund assets in the U.S., according to PwC. By 2025, passive could represent more than half, or 55 percent, of the total, the consultant said.

PwC also reported that big firms are getting even bigger. Twenty percent of the current crop of mutual fund firms might be bought by competitors or eliminated. The top-five mutual fund asset managers will represent a whopping 68 percent of mutual fund assets by 2025, according to the report. That’s up from 53 percent at the end of 2019.

Asset managers need to build a business model that can weather the shift to passive. Casey Quirk expects managers to look for ways to offer private equity, private debt, and investments with environmental, social, and governance goals, among other capabilities. There’s also growing demand for firms that can assemble comprehensive solutions that include both public securities and private assets, according to Casey Quirk.

Walters also sees more demand for broadly defined activist investing.

“Think of the large index providers,” she said. “They are much more active now than they used to be. A lot of is related to ESG as investors demand more sustainable practices.”