Europe has had a rough ride this year. Concerns over China triggered a sell-off that dampened January and February. By midyear more local concerns — like Brexit, slow growth, negative interest rates, and quantitative easing — made it hard for investors to find much solace in the headlines.
But there have been pockets of opportunity. The firms that lead the Euro 100, Institutional Investor’s exclusive ranking of the region’s biggest investment firms, say being nimble and open to new ways of thinking about asset management have paid off.
Allianz Group, which tops the list for the third straight year, with some €1.83 trillion ($1.98 trillion) in assets under management as of June 30, posted a 37 percent rise in profit for the third quarter despite sluggish European conditions. The firm also reported net inflows to its U.S. fund manager, Pacific Investment Management Co., for the first time in three years.
Allianz chief executive Oliver Baete, who took over last year, has made a concerted effort to sell off noncore businesses and invest in technology to save money and improve the firm’s capabilities. He also oversaw the appointment of a new CEO at PIMCO, Emmanuel Roman, stemming a tide of redemptions that had been steady since 2013.
On the investment side, Allianz is looking ahead to 2017 by adding exposures to alternatives — specifically, infrastructure equity and debt in developed markets, as well as retail and commercial mortgage loans, wind and solar farms, and real estate. Next year “will be driven by a slightly more benign environment — if protectionism can be avoided,” says CIO Andreas Gruber. “Moderate growth is a perfect scenario for equities and other real assets.”
UBS, holding steady at No. 4 with about €1.02 trillion in assets, has also seen recent strength in its performance as a result of balance sheet optimization. Profits were up some 33 percent for the third quarter, and thanks to the recent rally in banking stocks, the Swiss bank had its best day since 2011 during the post–U.S. election rally on November 10. UBS gained just under 8 percent in that one day, ending the week at $15.80.
“When you look at this environment with all of these events, investors look to us as a guide for information to help them make good decisions and preserve wealth. We’ve been able to do that successfully this year,” says Themis Themistocleous, head of UBS Wealth Management’s European investment office. “The investors that made the most money this year were heavily globally diversified and willing to consider a range of investments.”
Given such surprises this year as the outcomes of the Brexit vote and the U.S. presidential election, Themistocleous says investors need to stay vigilant and be willing to take another look at their portfolios, examining what works and what doesn’t today.
“I think one of the big questions going forward is how monetary policy will play out in the next year,” he adds. “We are underweight high-grade bonds as a result of this, for example, but you can make up for that in other areas of fixed income and equities.”
Other firms in the ranking have been up-and-comers. This is the second year that BNY Mellon has climbed the list, moving to No. 6 from eighth place on the strength of €795 billion in assets. Jamie Lewin, head of product strategy and performance management at BNY Mellon Investment Management, agrees with Themistocleous that being proactive and opportunistic are key investment themes in the euro zone right now.
“We’ve really seen three core trends this year,” Lewin says, “the first being pension plans and other institutions going to a liability-driven investing model in terms of how they allocate. We’ve also seen significant growth in the multiasset absolute-return space and, finally, a greater interest in specialist investing.” Within multiasset and specialist investing, BNY Mellon has two separate boutiques focused on each area, allowing for a more customized response.
Lewin says there’s a disintermediation going on in asset management and banking in Europe that makes it tough for less dynamic firms. “We see our model as being responsive through the combination of specialist active management, LDI, and beta. If we can continue to execute on those things, we will be successful.”