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The race to be the next Hargreaves Lansdown

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Asset managers across the City of London, the UK’s traditional financial hub, have long vied for the attention of investment platform Hargreaves Lansdown and wealth manager St James’s Place with the aim of selling their funds to the groups’ vast armies of affluent investors.

But now investment managers are going head to head with their distributors and increasingly targeting wealthy clients directly. Not content with simply managing funds, the likes of Schroders, Standard Life Aberdeen and M&G are seeking to control the entire value chain by becoming wealth managers themselves.

Traditional stockpicking groups hope that moving into wealth management will help to revive their profits, which have been hammered by fee pressure as investors abandon them for cheaper passive funds.

“Owning everything from manufacturing all the way to delivery to the client means that you can set the pricing and terms. That’s an extremely attractive proposition for asset managers at a time of sustained pressure on fees,” says Jonathan Doolan, head of Emea at Casey Quirk, the Deloitte consultancy.

Wealth managers’ businesses are also more resilient and less likely to lose business in times of market volatility. Their revenue margins are about 30 per cent higher than those of asset managers, owing to the fact that investors tend to stay invested for 12 years on average, compared with just four and a half for asset management clients, according to research by Schroders.

But challenging the established position of Hargreaves and SJP will not be easy, as asset managers grapple with branding, cost and strategy considerations — all at a time when going out to win clients has been complicated by the coronavirus crisis.

Wealth clients stick around for longer than asset management clients

For now, however, the pandemic appears to have only strengthened asset managers’ desire to branch out into wealth, as they look to future proof their businesses and tap into growing demand among wealthy investors for financial advice.

Some groups have hit the acquisition trail to accelerate their growth drives. Schroders, whose chief executive Peter Harrison has identified wealth management as one of the group’s primary growth drivers, snapped up family office Sandaire last month. Schroders already oversees £65.7bn in wealth assets, including via its joint venture with Lloyds bank.

M&G’s first deal as a standalone company was the purchase of adviser platform Ascentric, which it recently folded into a newly created wealth management unit overseeing £28bn in assets.

Other asset managers have focused on giving greater prominence to their existing in-house wealth capabilities. One of the first things Standard Life Aberdeen’s Stephen Bird did when he became CEO last month was to promote the heads of company’s wealth and advisory businesses to his leadership team.

This marked a change in direction for SLA, which previously placed less importance on wealth and arguably undersold its clout in the space. With assets of £84bn, SLA’s combined operations makes it the fourth-largest player in the UK wealth market, but its lack of joined-up strategy for the business hindered its development up until now.

However, the current market opportunity has changed the game for SLA and others. An ageing population combined with the gradual closure of defined benefit corporate pension schemes is set to encourage ever greater levels of private savings.

Wealth management also boasts higher margins

At the same time, UK regulatory changes have made it difficult for so-called mass affluent individuals to access financial advice, particularly if they have a relatively small pot to invest. This is spurring large fund groups to seek to muscle in on this underserved market.

“The democratisation of savings is a trend that is accelerating and will lead to a greater portion of savings being dealt with directly,” says Standard Life Aberdeen chair Douglas Flint. “We’ve got a brand and set of capabilities that fits very well with serving those needs.”

Peter Hall, global head of wealth management at Schroders, says that his company’s historic brand and breadth of investment capabilities make it well placed to compete. “Many clients are planning for their future against the uncertain backdrop they currently face,” he says. “We can leverage our global investment expertise and draw on our experience of looking after families across generations.”

But only a handful of asset managers have a brand that is well-known enough to allow them to push into wealth. Christian Edelmann, head of wealth and asset management at consultancy Oliver Wyman, warns that these groups would nevertheless face challenges in expanding beyond their home market. So far Vanguard is one of the only major investment houses that has attempted to expand its advisory service internationally.

Given the high cost of building a traditional wealth management business, one of the biggest challenges for asset managers that are new to the space is achieving sufficient scale to operate profitably, particularly when it comes to servicing smaller investors.

Some are hopeful that technology will come to fund groups’ aid by bringing down operating costs. The likes of Hargreaves and AJ Bell, people-light, technology-centred businesses whose share prices have soared in recent years, could serve as a blueprint for new entrants.

Schroders, for example, is focused on developing Benchmark Capital, its technology-led support platform for advisers. Meanwhile SLA, under the leadership of former Citi consumer banking head Mr Bird, is expected to boost its digital capabilities to get closer to end investors.

Berenberg analyst Chris Turner expects SLA to pursue “light physical, high digital and high brand” strategy with a layer of basic financial advice on top, potentially taking it in the direction of robo-advisers such as Nutmeg. SLA appears to be preparing a move into automated advice, having invested £17m last year in a UK company registered as Standard Life Digital Solutions.

However, the recent decisions of UBS and Investec to close their robo-advisers point to the difficulties of making these services profitable, particularly if they use active funds, which are more expensive to manage.

Fund fees are a key consideration for asset managers pushing into the wealth market, regardless of whether they go down the automated or human advice route.

“For asset managers moving into wealth management, there is a trade-off between independence and cost,” says Mr Edelmann. “Nobody is going to believe you’re super independent [compared with incumbents such as Hargreaves Lansdown] so to make up for that you need to offer a significant cost advantage.”

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But Mr Doolan says that asset managers should be alive to the risk of only offering their proprietary funds to wealth clients. Managers should carefully consider whether their product range meets their clients’ needs, and offer external products where there are gaps, he suggests. For example, pure active houses might choose to make third-party passive funds available to clients.

If asset managers can resolve these thorny issues, their whole business stands to benefit from their expansion into wealth management.

Jefferies analyst Julian Roberts says the groups that are successful in pivoting to wealth are those that are more likely to stand the test of time. “If you as an asset manager don’t have a clear investment specialism that gives you an edge, having an offering to compete in the wealth space is a way of making sure your business remains viable in future,” he says.



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Bond spreads collapse as investors rush into corporate debt

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The premium above super-safe US Treasuries that investors are demanding to buy corporate debt has dropped to its lowest level in more than a decade.

The collapse in the difference between yields — or spread — is a sign that investors are growing increasingly confident that recent rises in inflation will not hinder the booming economic recovery.

The spreads between US Treasury and corporate bond yields have tightened markedly this year, as investors gained confidence and clamoured to own even marginally higher yielding assets in a low return world.

That spread compression, which indicates the level of risk investors see in lending to companies compared to the US government, had come under pressure from the spectre of higher inflation from mid-April to May.

However, an increasing number of investors are coming around to the Fed’s mantra that price rises will prove transitory as the economy reopens after the pandemic, pushing measures of expected inflation lower.

“The Fed has been controlling the transitory narrative which has provided confidence to corporate bond investors,” said Adrian Miller, chief market strategist at Concise Capital Management. “After all, corporate bond investors are more focused on the expected strong growth path.”

Line chart of Spread on US corporate bonds, by rating (percentage points) showing Investors are demanding less yield to lend to US companies

Confidence in the economic recovery was further bolstered on Wednesday as Fed officials signalled a shift toward the eventual repeal of crisis policy measures, embracing a more optimistic outlook of America’s rebound. The more hawkish tone from Fed chair Jay Powell — including comments that “price stability is half of our mandate” at the Fed — has helped to mollify concerns that inflation could run out of control, forcing a more abrupt response from the central bank.

The spread between US Treasury yields and investment grade corporate bond yields fell 0.02 percentage points to 0.87 per cent on Wednesday, according to ICE BofA Indices, its lowest level since 2007, and was unchanged on Thursday. For lower rated — and therefore riskier — high-yield bonds, the spread fell 0.05 percentage points to 3.12 per cent, below a post-crisis low last set in October 2018. It widened modestly to 3.15 per cent on Thursday.

The slide in spreads has been buoyed by the central bank’s accommodative policies through the pandemic crisis as well as the federal government’s multitrillion-dollar pandemic aid package. Financial conditions in the US are close to their easiest on record, according to a popular index run by Goldman Sachs, which has spurred a wave of corporate borrowing by riskier junk-rated businesses.

Some 373 junk-rated companies have borrowed through the nearly $11tn US corporate debt market so far this year, including companies hard hit by the pandemic like American Airlines and cruise operator Carnival. Collectively the risky cohort has raised $277bn, a record pace and up 60 per cent from year ago levels, according to data provider Refinitiv.

Column chart of Annual proceeds from high-yield US corporate bond sales ($bn) showing Risky junk-rated US companies are issung debt at a record pace

However the fall in spreads and investors’ perception of risk has not been enough to outweigh an overall rise in yields, which have been jolted higher by the prospect of rising interest rates as investors adjusted to a quicker pace of policy tightening from the Fed.

Higher rated debt, which is safer but offers less of a spread to cushion investors against a jump in Treasury yields, tends to suffer more in high growth, rising interest rate environments. High-yield bonds on the other hand tend to benefit, with the booming economy making it less likely that companies will go bust.

“For the time being people are not at all fearing the price action of a move higher in yields,” said Andrzej Skiba, head of US credit at BlueBay Asset Management. “Companies are doing really well and we are seeing a meaningful recovery in earnings.”

Investment-grade bond yields have moved 0.3 percentage points higher to 2.08 per cent since the start of the year, compared with a decline of 0.27 percentage points to 3.97 per cent for high-yield bonds.

Bank of America analysts expect the two markets to keep coming closer together, projecting that investment-grade spreads will widen to 1.25 per cent and high-yield bond spreads will continue to decline to 3.00 per cent in the coming months.

However, while optimism about the US recovery abounds the continued zeal for lower-quality corporate debt has caused consternation in some quarters. Investors worry that precarious companies are being offered credit at interest rates that don’t account for the high levels of risk involved.

“It’s very important for us that the yield we receive on a high-yield bond offers an appropriate level of compensation for the credit risks of investing. When yields are as low as this, that naturally becomes harder to say,” said Rhys Davies, a high yield portfolio manager at Invesco. “It’s quite simple — the lower the yield on the high yield market, the more carefully investors need to navigate the market.”



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Global stocks slip and bonds weaken after Fed signals tighter policy

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Global stock markets dipped, European government bonds dropped and the dollar strengthened sharply after US central bank officials brought forward the anticipated timing of the Federal Reserve’s first post-pandemic interest rate rise.

The FTSE All-World index of developed and emerging market stocks, which hit a closing record on Monday, headed for its third session of losses on Thursday, falling 0.6 per cent.

The Federal Reserve said on Wednesday that most of its officials expected a rate rise in 2023, against earlier predictions of 2024, as the US economy recovered strongly from the pandemic and consumer price inflation hit an annual rate of 5 per cent in May.

Fed chair Jay Powell also said the world’s most influential central bank was “talking about talking about” reducing the Fed’s $120bn-a-month asset-buying programme that has boosted financial markets since March last year.

The announcement rattled the US Treasury market on Wednesday, as the prospect of higher interest rates on cash lowered expected returns from fixed interest securities such as bonds, with traders in Europe following those moves in the next session.

“It was a hawkish surprise,” said Keith Balmer, multi-asset portfolio manager at BMO Global Asset Management. “Markets now see the Fed as stepping in to control inflation earlier than expected,” he added, following previous comments from Powell that suggested price rises above the central bank’s long-term 2 per cent target would be temporary.

Line chart of FTSE All-World index  showing Global stocks dip from record high

The dollar index, which measures the greenback against trading partners’ currencies, jumped 0.7 per cent after gaining a similar amount on Wednesday as traders anticipated higher returns from holding the world’s reserve currency. The euro lost 0.5 per cent against the dollar to $1.193.

The yield on the benchmark 10-year Treasury note, which jumped 0.09 per cent on Wednesday evening to 1.58 per cent following the decision from the US central bank, moderated slightly in European trading hours to 1.558 per cent.

European bond yields, which move inversely to prices, raced higher as traders bet on other central banks following the Fed to rein in their crisis-era stimulus spending. The UK’s 10-year gilt yield rose 0.09 percentage points to 0.828 per cent. Germany’s equivalent Bund yield added 0.04 percentage points to minus 0.164 per cent.

Stock markets were less affected by the rate increase forecast as investors focused on the strength of the post-pandemic economic recovery and bought up shares in businesses expected to benefit from higher borrowing costs.

The Stoxx Europe 600 index, which rallied to an all-time high on Wednesday, fell 0.3 per cent on Thursday. Shares in European banks, which benefit from higher interest rates that enable lenders to make wider profit margins, gained 1.2 per cent.

The next US rate rise “will be happening at a time when the [global] economy is able to stand on its feet”, said Zehrid Osmani, manager of Martin Currie’s global portfolio trust.

Futures markets signalled the S&P 500 index would slip just 0.2 per cent at the New York opening bell after declining 0.5 per cent on Wednesday, while the top 100 stocks on the technology-focused Nasdaq Composite would lose 0.3 per cent.

Elsewhere in markets, the Norwegian krona rose 0.1 per cent against the euro to €0.984 despite the Norges Bank saying it was likely to raise interest rates in September. Some traders had expected an increase on Thursday.

Brent crude, the international oil benchmark, rose 0.1 per cent to $74.48 a barrel.



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Hawkish Federal Reserve forecasts jolt Treasury market

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US equities slid and Treasury yields surged after policymakers at the Federal Reserve signalled that they expected to lift interest rates in 2023, a year earlier than previously thought.

The benchmark S&P 500 fell 0.6 per cent, led by a decline in the shares of technology companies including Oracle, Microsoft and Facebook. The Nasdaq Composite was also down 0.6 per cent.

The equity market decline accompanied a sell-off in the $21tn Treasury market, where the yield on the benchmark 10-year note rose 0.06 per cent to 1.56 per cent.

Among shorter-dated government bonds most sensitive to interest rate policy, there were even larger moves. The yield on the five-year note climbed 0.09 percentage points to 0.88 per cent, while the yield on the two-year note briefly hit its highest level in a year at 0.19 per cent.

“Just as the market was getting comfortable with a patient Fed and inflation considerably above target, the dot plot has shifted,” said Seema Shah, the chief strategist of Principal Global Investors, referring to the graph showing Fed officials’ interest rate predictions.

“Now it will be up to [Fed chair Jay] Powell and other Fed speakers to once again reassure markets that tightening in 2023 doesn’t need to be disruptive.”

The equity market rally over the past year has been in part predicated on rock-bottom interest rates, which the Fed has anchored near zero since the crisis began in March last year.

While policymakers at the US central bank showed that they could raise rates sooner than previously thought, they did not yet signal changes to the Fed’s $120bn-a-month asset buying programme, which investors are starting to expect will be tapered soon.

But markets have worried that signs of higher inflation, which Fed policymakers acknowledged in their economic projections published on Wednesday, could force the central bank’s hand.

“Given that the only takeaways from the Fed update involved higher rates, it follows intuitively that Treasuries are trading lower,” said Ian Lyngen, the head US interest rate strategist at BMO Capital Markets.

Ian Shepherdson, the chief economist at Pantheon Macroeconomics, added that the forecast for higher rates in 2023 meant that members of the Fed’s policy-setting committee “now are ready to talk tapering, so chair Powell is not going to be able to repeat his March/April stonewalling . . . We expect him just to acknowledge that the discussion is under way, but that a firm decision is a way off.”

The US dollar index climbed 0.4 per cent along with the uptick in Treasury yields. The pound fell 0.4 per cent against the dollar, while the euro slipped 0.7 per cent to $1.20.

European stocks finished at new records before the release of the Fed decision. The Stoxx Europe closed up 0.2 per cent for another all-time peak, the region-wide benchmark’s ninth session of back-to-back rises.

Frankfurt’s Xetra Dax rose 0.1 per cent, while both the CAC 40 in Paris and London’s FTSE 100 climbed 0.2 per cent.

Additional reporting by Siddharth Venkataramakrishnan in London

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