Institutional investors focus on track records

Our survey of the regionÆs investors finds recent performance and branding seem more important to asset owners than investment process, stability or even training.

A survey of Asian institutional investors recently conducted by AsianInvestor magazine has revealed some puzzling results.

Perhaps in reaction to the extreme market events of 2008, investors report a focus on track record and brand, as well as risk management, when it comes to selecting external fund managers. This may reflect a desire to stick with those managers that performed relatively better during last year's turmoil, but at the risk of paying less attention to the process behind the numbers.

"The unlikelihood of these market conditions being repeated during the lifetime of an investment mandate -- that is, one to three years -- brings into question the value of putting so much emphasis on recent track record," says Oliver Bolitho, managing director at Goldman Sachs Asset Management, which co-sponsored the survey with JP Morgan and Watson Wyatt.

Investors were invited to pick their top-three factors when choosing an external manager, as more implement new asset-allocation strategies. 40% included 'track record' among their main factors. 'Risk management capability' came second, with around 28%, and another 20% selected 'brand name/market reputation'.

Risk management ranking high is no surprise -- it was named the top reason to select a manager in a similar poll conducted by AsianInvestor one year ago. But this emphasis on track record and brand is new. It is notable these factors were deemed more important than 'stability of the management team', 'stability of the organisation' or 'investment process'.

Bolitho wonders at the value of a brand name if the underlying organisation or investment management team isn't stable or its investment process isn't top-notch. "Brand should reflect consistency of delivery and quality of product," he says.

The biggest surprise in the survey was the very low priority respondents put on training -- only 4% put this among their top-three factors. Most RFPs today require some form of training or technology transfer. Bolitho could only speculate: perhaps training is already taken for granted, or perhaps the scars of 2008 have simply focused minds on immediate performance issues.

Asian investors have been through a lot over the past decade, including bubbles in domestic equities and real estate, in global tech stocks, in high-yield fixed income and in securitised products. The Asian financial crisis, the Nasdaq meltdown, the race for yield and the credit bubble in America have all handed investors major challenges.

"After all of this, investors are asking where the responsibility for asset management should lie," Bolitho says. "Clients are asking questions in a way they have not done before: not 'can we do asset management ourselves?', but 'should we do asset management ourselves?'"

AsianInvestor's poll received replies from 38 institutions in Asia ex-Japan whose assets under management total $740 billion. Of these, 15 are insurers, eight are commercial banks, seven are pension or provident funds, two are financial holding companies, one is a central bank, one is a sovereign wealth fund and four are other types of institutions.

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