Complex can of worms – The Investment Association urge fund managers to divulge pay practices

Photograph-by-Ian-DavidsonIntroduction
The Investment Management Association has urged its members to disclose their pay policies and how this encourages alignment between investment teams and clients. At one level this is a worthy aspiration, particularly given the recent attacks on the industry by the Institute of Directors. On the other it is a smoke and mirror exercise to hide poor practice and misaligned reward. Anyone with any knowledge of the workings of financial services reward knows that broad principals often hide dirty details at the operational level.

Complexity, culture and competition
The publishing of generic pay policies cannot reflect the necessarily complexity of remuneration structures and practice in the investment management industry. Investment and asset management is, like the majority of financial markets, heavily segmented, heavily differentiated and deeply complex, There are considerable differences between the activities of an Equity Index fund, an active bond fund, a property fund and an active emerging markets equity fund. Their risk and reward profiles are totally different as is often the time frame in which they operate, There are multiple flavours of “funds of funds” as well as cross holdings of house and non-house funds with the occasional derivative overlay. Each and every segment will have a different reward strategy, outputs and labour markets. The industry has long ago moved away from “long only” strategies to complex and hybrid mixtures of long, short, derivative and real asset funds; all with very different revenue and risk profiles,

The characteristics of retail and institutional funds can be different as are their objectives. The maturity and fund flows also add layers of complexity to structuring remuneration. Some investment funds are nearer hedge funds than the traditional investment approaches with hedge fund like carry arrangements and performance fees. No one set of remuneration principals can cover the vast array of arrangements – often set on a fund by fund basis and changed every year,

Culture
As we have learned from the history of the many investigations in to financial services malpractice; culture can play a larger role in determining behaviours, reward and performance than any set of policies. A typical example is the on-going issues with LIBOR fixing. The “nod and wink” or the tacit acceptance by senior management that certain behaviours will not be noticed if a profit is turned is as frequent in investment management as it is anywhere in financial services. The same pressures on sales and fund performance exist in this industry as it does in, say investment and corporate banking. The amounts at stake are of eye watering size. In 2013 assets under management just in the UK were £6.2 trillion and that is before the recent uptick in world stock markets. The FT estimates that an average compensation cost per employee at global asset managers is US$263,000 and is set to overtake investment banking pay by 2016.
Regulation in the sector is growing and increasingly odious. However, as history of the recent past shows, the regulators are invariably behind the curve and just do not have the intellect or resources to catch up with changing remuneration and risk profiles in fast moving, innovative financial services industries.

Competition
The competition for star players in the investment and asset management industries are just as intense as in investment banking. Individuals and teams move houses with remarkable rapidity; given the alleged longer term horizons. The facts are that performance is measure over months, quarters and annually the same as it always has been. Despite regulation, lucrative transfer terms are still a very active activity in this market place. Again, there are few star performances and everyone knows who there are. The fight to retain and recruit talent from a limited pool is one of the major drivers of remuneration in this sector. A 2013 survey by Heidrick & Struggles in late 2013 noted that:
• 41% of respondents are actively recruiting
• 57% of distribution professionals are open to considering new opportunities
• 50% of survey respondents had changed jobs in the last three years
Dated as this survey is, the trend can only be upwards given the ever increasing amount of assets under management in the global marketplace as investors scramble for return in the long-term low interest rate return environment.

The amount paid to these star players cannot be overestimated, although small in number their remuneration can add up to a considerable percentage of the employee costs of an organisation. Thus the use of averages is, like most remuneration measurement in financial services, deeply misleading. The differentiation, the complex nature of packages, the uncertain future value of compensation awarded today means that even establishing a base line is fraught with methodological difficulty.

Remuneration policies
If you wanted to be mischievous; it would be fun to play buzzword bingo with investment and asset management remuneration policies. They all want to attract, retain and reward. They all want to create shareholder value within the risk appetite of the organisation. The vast majority will pay lip service to employee behaviors and risk management as counter-balances to pure performance measurement. Frankly, I could write a remuneration policy for any of these organisations in a relatively short period of time.
These policies hide a complex reality of highly diverse practices with a dazzling array of performance metrics (often differing between individual peers in the same team) that would take an actuary to calculate the outcomes; and that is before the inevitable horse trading around what the metrics actually mean and how they should be applied.

The remuneration policy will no doubt talk of alignment of interest with clients; but what does that really mean in practice? As one large institutional investor said to me only last week; she did not really care how the return was made provided she they hit their target benchmark. Other investors will have strict ethical guidelines or even religious considerations as constraints on the activities of the managers. Thus what aligns with one client requirements will be an anathema to another. Yet it may well be the same investment manager running both funds – what then is “alignment”?

Concluding can of worms
The request made to investment managers to be more open on their remuneration is a good try but no cigar. Being pragmatic, it may be seen as a sophisticated effort to ward off yet further regulation and statutory disclosure. The reality is that, like so much remuneration in financial services any potential “truth” is deeply hidden and can only be understood by seasoned professionals and remuneration analysts and even then on the basis of numerous, conflicting assumptions.
I know from experience that the world of asset and investment management remuneration is complex as a necessity. It reflects the fragmented, segmented complex world in which these organisations flourish and make a great deal of money.
Trying to reduce the environment to the level of disclosure of remuneration policy is perhaps something of a pointless, resource wasting and ultimately a counterproductive exercise.

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