It's easy to assume that the recent upheaval among asset managers would result in a much smaller industry.
But that's far from certain. Some big investment firms have certainly shrunk, but many have remained roughly the same size over the past few years. Going forward, the amount of net job reductions will depend in large part how well firms adapt to changing technology and trends.
The number of employees in asset management has stayed surprisingly stable in many corners. Staff levels at BlackRock, Legg Mason and Aberdeen Asset Management, three of the bigger firms, have stayed relatively constant. A recent study by Greenwich Associates showed that big asset managers had the same number of traders on their desks over the past two years.
Even though computers are taking over some jobs within the investment-management field, someone needs to program them. Other new technologies will open up opportunities for new types of employment.
Kevin McPartland, head of market structure and technology research at Greenwich Associates, recalled his experience in the 1990s, when he worked in information technology in an equities unit at one of the biggest Wall Street banks. "They started getting rid of traders (I remember them literally walking off the floor), but IT and more tech savvy front office people quickly filled their shoes," he wrote in an email last week.
This is important context to remember as more investment firms announce layoffs. Bloomberg reported last week that BlackRock was firing more than 30 people in its active-equities group, including five of its 53 fundamental portfolio managers. Legg Mason said it was cutting 30 jobs, or about 3 percent of its administrative staff.
These firms are responding to the sea change in the asset-management business, with investors gravitating toward low-fee, indexed strategies and algorithm-directed funds. They've been fleeing from higher-cost active funds, especially those in which humans try to pick specific securities that'll perform better than broad market metrics.
It would be simple to view this as computers taking over for humans, resulting in a relatively insignificant number of people baby-sitting a host of asset-management machines. But the reality is more nuanced.
Asset managers have been heavily investing in technology, with trader compensation declining and expenditures on computers and programming increasing. In some cases, these investment firms have been increasing their overall spending.
While this may lead to fewer traditional roles, it'll pave the way for new jobs. This is like any other period of disruption: There ought to be at least as much opportunity as there is pain.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.
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