Money Managers Aren’t Ready for a Bear Market

Photographer: Joshua Hodge/Getty Images

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Photographer: Joshua Hodge/Getty Images

The people and companies who manage the world’s assets are flush with cash, for now. Asset managers brought home $93 billion in profit last year, according to a new Boston Consulting Group report, up 17 percent from 2012.

In a world where banks routinely pay multi-billion-dollar fines, asset managers’ growing profits are one of the few bright spots in the financial industry, says BCG Partner Gary Shub.

Except that those profits are almost entirely based on rising markets and not organic growth. Very little net new money is turning up in investment accounts. Net flows into U.S. investment accounts were just 1 percent last year. That could create problems when, inevitably, stocks cool off. And if a bear market comes along, managers of funds may face a true reckoning.

The hardest hit will likely be traditional active money managers. They’re being underpriced by cheap passive strategies that hold stocks and bonds based on indexes in mutual funds or exchange-traded funds. Managers of mutual funds are also getting squeezed by a variety of new, more sophisticated strategies, which BCG calls “solutions.” These are options like target-date funds, income funds and global asset allocation funds that operate pretty much on autopilot.

The result is that an elite group of big asset managers, who provide such alternatives, are winning the lion’s share of new dollars. In the U.S., Vanguard Group, famous for its cheap index funds and ETFs, and BlackRock, the world's largest money manager, together get two of every five new dollars that get invested in the U.S. BCG says the top 10 asset managers make up almost three-quarters of new investment flows.

The good news for investors? All this competition means fees are dropping for run-of-the-mill investments. Retail fees last year fell 3 percent for active stock funds, 23 percent for passive stock funds and 20 percent for money market funds. In a low-interest rate environment, those percentage drops are one of the closest things to a sure-thing investment yield. Remember yield?

More stories by Ben Steverman:

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