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Today New City Initiative is comprised of 51 leading independent asset management firms from the UK and the Continent, managing approximately £400 billion and employing several thousand people.

Displaying articles for 10 2017

Blockchain and Boutiques

Blockchain and Boutiques

Having begun its life as a fairly unimposing piece of technological infrastructure supporting the then peripheral and arguably mysterious world of cryptocurrencies, Blockchain is now seen as being one of the biggest potential enablers of cost reduction and efficiency in financial services, including fund management.  

Blockchain or shared, immutable distributed ledger technology (DLT) is forecast to save the financial services industry approximately $110 billion in costs over the next three years, according to McKinsey, with cross-border B2B payments, trade finance, P2P payments, repo transactions, derivatives settlement, AML and KYC likely to be the areas targeted for streamlining and disintermediation.

Fund managers – at least in the short term – are likely to find Blockchain technology being increasingly used in client and regulatory reporting, corporate actions, proxy voting and automation of transactional processes in the distribution cycle. Over time, the use cases will expand with the technology – which can process transactions in real-time -  potentially disrupting clearing and settlement. The elimination of intermediary costs – certainly in the custody chain – will bring cost savings for managers which can be passed on to customers.

Boutique asset managers will not be omitted from the Blockchain revolution. Admittedly, most boutiques will not develop proprietary Blockchain solutions, mainly due to the initial costs of the R&D being too high, but also because service providers should do it for them, providing industry-wide solutions and infrastructure. As fiduciaries, however, fund managers have a responsibility to investors to mitigate operational risk, and this applies to how they use Blockchain.  

Interoperability: Getting it Right

System upgrades and transformations rarely go ahead without some form of inconvenience or impediment to the end client. The legacy technology supporting the fund management industry and their service providers can be antiquated, making it very difficult to introduce new systems without causing massive disruption. If Blockchain is to work, it must be able to operate with legacy infrastructure, which can be decades old.

This may require service providers to maintain their existing technology simultaneously to rolling out a Blockchain solution in parallel. A dual infrastructure should help avoid IT meltdowns as and when Blockchain becomes more customary in financial services, but the cost of running two systems may result in the industry and its customers being saddled with higher fees during that interim or transition period.  

Making a Complex Ecosystem More Unnavigable

Given the gravity around unwanted disclosure of confidential information and cyber-crime, most fund managers do not support the idea of a public Blockchain despite the efficiencies it will bring. As such, most service providers are developing private Blockchain solutions.

This has scope to exacerbate complexity in an already convoluted and crowded financial ecosystem, particularly if different Blockchain solutions cannot interoperate, or were fund managers to find themselves working across dozens of distinctive and arbitraging DLT interfaces. Rather than saving costs, this could potentially add to them. 

No Standards

Market-wide standards are essential as they help create uniformity across capital markets. SWIFT, for example, has played a vital role in setting the standards for payments and securities transactions across multiple geographies. Nothing of this sort exists for Blockchain although this is symptomatic of any technology’s early stage development and a reluctance among industry participants to impose prescriptive requirements at the expense of innovation.

Regulation of Blockchain is limited for similar reasons. Without some standardisation or regulation, Blockchain’s development is likely to be slightly staggered and uneven across markets, something which will make it harder for the fund management industry to fully embrace.

Secure or Not?

Cyber-security was found wanting in 2017 as a number of multinational organisations fell victim to sophisticated hacks. Information contained on a Blockchain is protected through encryption and cryptography, barriers which make it materially harder for hackers to breach, or so the theory goes.

Advances in technology have cast doubt as to whether Blockchain encryption is sufficiently capable of protecting client information against future threats such as those posed by quantum computers.  Quantum computing is an extraordinarily powerful, theoretical form of computational strength which could decipher or crack even the most sophisticated Blockchain encryptions and cryptography.  

If Blockchain providers do not take note of this potential risk, the technology may only be usable for a decade or less. It is critical for managers to pause before they consider Blockchain, and ensure the technology is future-proofed, otherwise they could end up spending significant sums on a short-lived concept vulnerable to new, unexplored risks.

Blockchain Bubble?

The highly speculative Bitcoin and Initial Coin Offering (ICO) mania which has swept the world over has alarmed some Blockchain providers. For several years, they have worked assiduously to disassociate themselves from Bitcoin, and the big fear now is that any sudden price rationalisation in cryptocurrencies could hurt a number of investors which in turn may sour (unfairly) the reputation of DLT.

Conversely, there is a Blockchain bubble in itself, namely an oversupply of providers, many of whom are hoping to capitalise on the technology’s popularity in financial services. Most Blockchain providers will fail and it is important managers work with established or credible organisations when implementing a DLT strategy to avoid any business disruption.  

The Best Approach

Blockchain will have a positive impact on asset management, but firms still have time to make a decision on how to apply it to their businesses. It is probable the larger asset managers that will embrace the technology initially, before it trickles down to the boutiques unless they collaborate. NCI is hosting a Blockchain seminar later this year for its members. Venue and details will be published shortly.  

 

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2018: Key Considerations for NCI Members

2018: Key Considerations for NCI Members

Mathematical economist Irving Fisher once confidently assured his followers that prosperity would be in a perpetual state, arguing that the stock market had reached “what looks like a permanently high plateau.” The only issue was that he made those comments in 1929 and three days later the stock market nosedived leading to the Great Depression. In short, making predictions is not for the faint-hearted, but New City Initiative (NCI) will have a go, looking at some of the key regulatory trends likely to impact asset management in 2018.

MiFID II

MiFID II will be EU-wide law on January 3, 2018, one year later than its original implementation date. For NCI members, MiFID II will introduce significant change, most notably in their ability to source sell-side research. Inducement bans mean research cannot simply be given to managers in exchange for equity commissions. Instead, the cost of research needs to be unbundled and managers must pay for it out of their own pocket.

Larger fund houses have confirmed they will pay for research out of their P&L, but smaller firms are likely to face more serious cost pressures. Most NCI members and asset managers generally are either paying for research directly out of their P&L; increasing management fees, or establishing separately funded research payment accounts (RPAs) in order to keep accessing sell-side research.

GDPR

GDPR imposes strict standards on data governance and protections across EU-wide companies including investment funds. Breaches of GDPR will lead to significant fines, and potential reputational damage and even client redemptions. Firms need to be preparing for the rules, identifying the location of any client data that they possess, in addition to obtaining consent from clients if customer data is used for purposes of analytics, distribution to third parties and marketing.

GDPR also lays out a framework for organisations to report data breaches, and requires firms with more than 250 people to appoint a chief data officer. For asset managers, GDPR needs to be a business priority in 2018.

SMCR

The Senior Managers & Certification Regime (SMCR) has been bedded down for more than a year now, although it currently applies only to banks and PRA regulated financial institutions. It will, however, be extended to asset managers in 2018. Its core demands are fairly uncontroversial with a number of organisations welcoming the regulation. Put simply, SMCR introduces prescribed responsibilities for senior managers, and subjects them to greater accountability when rules are breached.

David McNair Scott, CEO at Trailight, highlighted the biggest SMCR challenge for buy-side firms was around allocating responsibilities and functions to designated persons within an organisation. He added a number of asset managers had yet to systematise and document their SMCR processes, something which can be quite painstaking. McNair Scott also acknowledged that most of the contents of SMCR were proportionate and the FCA had sought to curtail any destabilising impacts on smaller managers.

AMMS Consequences will be felt

SMCR is only one part of the FCA’s efforts to heighten standards in asset management. The FCA’s AMMS was released in June 2017, and it was a report many in the industry considered to be fairly even-handed. Most significantly, the industry is not staring down at a Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) probe unlike the investment consultants. Overall, the AMMS is likely to bring about tougher standards and greater competitiveness in asset management.

One of the proposals being put forward is to require managers to independently assess whether they deliver value for money to clients, a process which will be overseen by an impartial board of directors who are all subject to the SMCR. This recommendation is a regulatory reaction to concerns that retail investors sometimes struggled to understand precisely what the objectives of their managers were.

The AMMS also led to the creation of the Institutional Disclosure Working Group (IDWG), a body looking at formulating a template to be provided to investors about cost disclosures across different segments of asset management. Anecdotal reports suggest the template will be detailed, which may be a problem for smaller asset managers, although many will probably outsource data aggregation to third party vendors. Creating a framework for transparency and competitiveness is certainly not a bad thing for asset management during this period of Brexit uncertainty.

And finally Brexit…..

At the time of writing, nearly all newspapers appear to give the impression that Brexit negotiations are finally making progress, as the UK confirmed a willingness to pay a substantial divorce bill to the EU. NCI members have repeatedly urged there be a transitional arrangement in place to enable its constituents and their clients to manage Brexit risk in a calm and composed manner.

A cliff-edge Brexit would be devastating for asset managers, leading to rushed decision-making, potential redemptions and possible relocations. NCI urges the government and the EU to minimise any instability in financial services that may come about through Brexit.

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Complacency is not an option

Complacency is not an option

 

Clarity about the UK-EU future relationship may be provided later this year, a full seven months after Article 50 of the Treaty of Lisbon was invoked by PM Theresa May, which ratified the start of Brexit talks. It is hoped the EU will sign off on a transitional arrangement for the UK in December 2017, a milestone which would significantly reduce the risk of a sudden, hard Brexit. 

A transitional agreement would allow impacted organisations such as fund managers, their staff and clients to accustom themselves gradually to the new UK-EU relationship, with limited disruption. A transitional agreement is fully supported by New City Initiative (NCI), as we believe it will provide essential stability in what could potentially be a highly uncertain process. The likelihood of a transitional arrangement may be assisted by the increasingly rational and pragmatic approach being taken by EU and UK negotiators, who realise that a traumatic Brexit could aggravate systemic risks and economic damage.

The key to any future UK-EU relationship has to be certainty. Even if the net outcome is poor, businesses need to know specifics in order to adapt. At present, there does not appear to be a tsunami of businesses moving operations into the EU. Many firms will probably retain a strong presence in the UK, while partially increasing their footprints on the continent. So far, financial services have not shifted operations into the EU at a pace or scale that many had envisaged following the referendum last year.  

UBS, for example, publicly said the number of staff likely to relocate into the EU post-Brexit would be far lower than initially forecast. Some attributed this to the absence of flexible employment laws in parts of the EU jostling for business. This business commitment, however, should not be taken for granted, as an absence of a transitional agreement and a lack of substantive progress on trade talks could force organisations to execute Brexit contingency plans. This could seriously threaten and impede the UK’s competitive edge over the next few years.

The Risk of Domestic Change

There are other risks to UK businesses not emanating from the EU, but rather domestic forces. The decision to hold an election in June 2017 cost incumbent PM May her majority and there is a very real possibility of a change in government prior to Brexit talks concluding.

This would lead to serious disruption in the Brexit negotiation process, particularly if there was a material change in policies and priorities put forward by an incoming regime. This could result in delays to Brexit and further uncertainty at a critical point. 

Domestic policies by any new government could also exacerbate business disruption. The opposition Labour Party, which many believe could win the next election, has made a number of statements – which if implemented - would seriously impact financial services. These have included calls for an introduction of a Financial Transaction Tax (FTT) and mandatory nationalisation policies. The Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer also suggested capital controls could be implemented in the event of capital flight.

If such events transpired and domestic policies became hostile to free enterprise and financial services, there is a very real risk businesses that had once remained committed to the UK after Brexit may leave on their own volition, either for the EU, North America or APAC.  Several industry experts have said that Brexit is manageable, but the spectre of FTT or capital controls unleashed by a government unreceptive to free markets could prompt a number of organisations to hoist business from the UK.

NCI is engaging with its members and external service providers about how they would react to the possible introduction of forced nationalisations, the imposition of capital controls and an FTT. This will form the basis of a research paper being produced over the course of the next few months looking at what these potential policies could mean for financial services and most importantly, its customers, and how the industry can best prepare themselves.

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ESMA Delegation

ESMA Delegation

The simplicity by which an AIF or UCITS can structure itself in an onshore EU market (Luxembourg, Ireland, Malta) and delegate the running of its portfolio and oversight of risk management back to the manager in a third country is a fundamental reason as to why both of these brands have enjoyed considerable popular appeal and global success.

Put simply, delegation is a cost-effective way of getting an AIFM or UCITS running without having to invest in onshore physical infrastructure. That the European Securities and Markets Authority (ESMA) is potentially calling into question this existing set-up should alarm not just UK asset managers, but investment firms all over the world.

Brexit is obviously the impetus behind ESMA’s proposals. It is no secret that some of the EU 27 have been trying to capitalise on the uncertainty in the UK to attract business into their domestic markets. ESMA has repeatedly warned these countries that standards cannot be loosened otherwise it risks creating regulatory divergences.

The regulator has also warned UK financial institutions against setting up letterbox entities in the EU 27 as a tool by which to continue passporting cross-border. The funds’ industry opposes the creation of letterbox entities, but the present regulatory structure in major onshore European fund domiciles around delegation is mature and substantive, a point made by industry groups including the Association of the Luxembourg Fund Industry (ALFI).

Some of the core proposals include forcing managers to appoint at least three people in their EU fund domicile, and it is also very probable that delegated activities will be subject to even more regulatory scrutiny. This will inevitably bring added costs and requirements to the funds world, eating into the revenues and returns of boutique asset management providers.

The cost of running an AIFM and UCITS – with its existing depositary and reporting obligations – is high, and many boutiques could end up shunning both brands, particularly if their European flows are small relative to other markets. In short, this protectionist measure would immediately reduce European investor access to boutique providers as non-EU firms look to distribute their fund vehicles elsewhere, and outside of the EU’s regulatory oversight.

UCITS has had a stranglehold on APAC and Latin American markets for quite a few years now. At a recent ALFI Conference in Luxembourg, financial services professionals from APAC and Latin America spoke extensively about their own various regional fund passporting initiatives. If delegation is scrapped or impeded, a manager in Sao Paolo or Hong Kong will likely pivot towards a regional fund passporting solution as opposed to UCITS.

Financial services regulators that comprise ESMA often applauded the UK’s Financial Conduct Authority’s (FCA) contributions to policy discussions, acknowledging that it curtailed some of the worst excesses of protectionist rulemaking in favour of free market thinking. With the FCA's role within ESMA much diminished now as a consequence of Brexit, the risk of protectionist market initiatives such as the restrictions around delegation have risen and UK firms need to keep a close eye on developments.

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