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Europe's Largest Funds Refocus After the Storm

Financial turbulence leaves its mark on Europe’s fund managers as assets shrink and players consider strategic deals.

Once upon a time Europe’s asset management industry was a fairly predictable business, dominated by financial ser­vices powerhouses that attracted steady inflows of assets from investors and generated consistent, if unspectacular, profits.

The financial turbulence of the past two years has radically altered the landscape, though. Sharp falls in equity prices have hammered asset totals at most major fund managers and provoked substantial outflows. Although stock prices have rebounded strongly this year, many firms have not enjoyed the full benefits, as some investors stayed resolutely on the sidelines.

The impact of the crisis is evident in the Euro 100, Institutional Investor’s exclusive annual ranking of the region’s largest fund man­agers. Assets managed by these firms fell by 22.2 percent, or a whopping €4.5 trillion ($6.7 trillion), in 2008, to a total of €15.8 trillion.

[Click here to view the complete rankings of the Euro 100 Biggest Money Managers.]

Financial pressures, in turn, have prompted a strategic rethink by a number of leading players, leading to a flurry of M&A deals. In the most dramatic example, U.K. bank Barclays agreed in June to sell its asset management arm, Barclays Global Investors, to New York–based BlackRock for $13.5 billion. The deal bolsters Barclays’ capital base and will make BlackRock the world’s largest fund manager, with some $2.7 trillion in assets.

UBS leads the Euro 100 for a 12th consecutive year, but the big Swiss bank suffers a big decline in assets that substantially narrows its lead. The bank’s assets under management tumbled by 24.3 percent, or €410 billion, to €1.28 trillion at the end of 2008. UBS reported further outflows of Sf54 billion ($50 billion) in the first half of this year, a period in which it paid a $780 million fine and agreed to pull out of cross-­border ­money management for U.S. clients to settle U.S. allegations that the bank had helped American investors avoid income ­taxes.

Allianz Group jumps two places, to second. The German insurer saw its assets decline by a relatively modest 11.1 percent last year, to €1.14 trillion. Allianz benefited from a heavy exposure to bonds, reflecting the strength of its big fixed-­income subsidiary, Pacific Investment Management Co. Fully 85 percent of the assets of Allianz Global Investor, the fund management arm that contains Pimco, were in bonds at the end of last year. The insurer also moved to bulk up by agreeing in November to acquire Cominvest Asset Management, the €55.4 billion arm of Commerzbank; the deal closed in January.

“We navigated through the ­crisis quite smoothly because of our defensive positioning before the crisis and the stability and commitment of our parent company,” explains Joachim Faber, CEO of Allianz Global ­Investors.

BGI slips one place to third, followed by France’s AXA and ­Credit ­Suisse Group.

The 2008 bear market has had some long-­lasting effects on the industry, notwithstanding the rebound in equities this year. Many investors have made major changes in asset allocation, shifting from active equities to indexed port­folios and bonds to lower their risk profile.

“This theme started in earnest in the first quarter of 2009, after asset allocation and asset liability matching reviews detailed the significant damage inflicted on portfolios during 2008,” says David Semaya, CEO for BGI in Europe and Asia ex-­Japan. “We expect this theme to continue during the remainder of the year.”

BGI saw its European assets decline by 23 percent last year, to €1.08 trillion, as the stock market rout hit its big indexing business and quantitative funds. It reported new inflows of £72 billion ($108 billion) in the first half of 2009, largely reflecting the strength of its iShares exchange-­traded-funds business, which was one of the key attractions for BlackRock in acquiring the firm.

Another big index firm, State Street Global Advisors, also suffered heavy declines. The firm falls five places in the ranking, to No. 20, after seeing its Euro­pean assets drop by 42.5 percent last year, to €201.8 billion. Several Dutch and German pension fund clients liquidated their equity holdings in the fourth quarter of 2008, says Gregory Ehret, head of EMEA at SSgA. The firm has had inflows of nearly $10 billion in European fixed-­income port­folios so far this year, he says. “A lot of pension funds missed the equity rally, as they had not reallocated to equities. They are now looking to come back,” adds Ehret.

Although equity markets have recovered, downward pressure on fees continues to force change in the industry. “If ­you’re selling retail equity unit trusts for 150 basis points, compared with selling a corporate bond fund or Treasury fund at 40 or 50 basis points, your operating margins are dropping fast” as investors shift to fixed-­income products, says Chris Smith, an analyst at Jefferies & Co. in London.

Credit Suisse agreed in December to sell its €40 billion-in-­­assets European business to No. 31 Aberdeen Asset Management in exchange for a 25 percent stake in the U.K. firm; the deal closed on July 1. “The compression in margins in the long-­only sector is a long-term trend,” explains Robert Parker, the bank’s vice chairman of asset management. “We believe that the business will benefit from economies of scale at Aberdeen while we concentrate on our multi-­asset-class and ­alternatives businesses.”

Indeed, Credit Suisse’s ­increasingly specialist fund mix helped it resist market pressures last year. The bank’s assets under management declined by €149 billion, or 15.9 percent, proportionally the fourth-­smallest loss among the top ten firms this year, behind Allianz, sixth-­place ING Group and No. 9 Crédit Agricole Asset Management Group.

Cost pressures also prompted Crédit Agricole Asset Management Group to agree in January to merge its asset management arm, ranked No. 9 on our list, with the bulk of the fund management business of No. 12 Groupe Société Générale.

Consolidation requires a willing buyer for every seller, and Aberdeen CEO Martin Gilbert is more than content with his side of the bargain in the ­Credit ­Suisse deal. ­“We’ve decided ­we’ll be a boring, dull, long-only asset manager,” he says. ­Even as it maintains a traditional long-­only focus, Aberdeen is increasingly moving toward more-­specialized mandates, such as global equities and global emerging-­markets strategies, and away from old-­fashioned balanced mandates and property, he adds.

Some other big players are also sticking to their guns. “We have made our choice: We are resolutely active managers,” says Dominique Carrel-­Billiard, CEO of AXA Investment Managers, the fund management arm of the big French insurer. “We do not believe that passive management offers the necessary flexibility to create investment solutions tailored to a client’s needs.”

Notwithstanding several large mergers in the past year, the overall level of activity declined in Europe. M&A volume among Europe-­targeted investment firms fell to 205 deals worth $6.2 billion in the first three quarters of 2009 from 242 deals worth $13.7 billion in the same period of 2008, according to data provider Dealogic. (The figures exclude the acquisition of BGI, which is based in San Francisco.) But Gilbert, for one, believes deal-­making will accelerate, driven by a trend toward independent asset managers. “A lot of banks and insurance firms are questioning whether they should be owning their own asset ­manager,” he says.

“The uncertainty of the economic context has probably restrained some players in considering such opportunities,” adds Carrel-­Billiard. “It is therefore likely that we will see more consolidation in the coming months.”