Goodbye $1 Trillion Club, for Good

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The 2017 merger that forged Standard Life Aberdeen Plc was designed to create a company able to compete in the $1 trillion club of the world’s largest asset managers. On its current trajectory, however, the firm, now led by Keith Skeoch after co-Chief Executive Officer Martin Gilbert stepped down last year, won’t even be able to hang on to its status as the U.K.’s biggest stand-alone fund.

Last year, Standard Life Aberdeen reached a settlement with Lloyds Banking Group Plc, after the bank attempted to cancel a contract with the fund manager to oversee 104 billion pounds ($136 billion) of assets. An arbitration agreement left 35 billion pounds in place until at least April 2022.

But Standard Life Aberdeen’s loss has been Schroders Plc’s gain. Lloyds transferred almost 45 billion pounds to Schroders by the end of last year, and a further 30 billion pounds is poised to move across in the first half of this year. As things stand, Schroders, led by Peter Harrison since 2016, is set to become top dog in the U.K. fund industry.

Goodbye $1 Trillion Club, for Good

On Tuesday, Standard Life Aberdeen reported that its total assets were 544.6 billion pounds at the end of last year. Net outflows in 2019 were 17.4 billion pounds, excluding that Lloyds money, better than the 40.9 billion pounds that it bled in 2018 but still heading in the wrong direction.

More than bragging rights are at stake when counting assets to measure the market leaders in pure fund management. (Legal & General Plc’s investment arm is a bigger player in the U.K. with 1.2 trillion pounds of assets, but it’s tied to an insurance company.) The bigger the pile of other people’s money a firm manages, the more revenue it can generate. Despite an ongoing post-merger cost-cutting program, Standard Life Aberdeen’s cost-to-income ratio has been hurt by a decline in revenue, climbing to 71% in 2019 from 68% at the end of 2018.

To be sure, those 2020 asset numbers aren’t set in stone for either Standard Life Aberdeen or for Schroders. The former beat the analysts’ consensus for 2019 by about 3%, so the forecasts for this year could move higher. Standard Life Aberdeen may yet be able to hang on to its U.K. crown. 

But with equity markets currently in meltdown around the world, the first quarter is likely to prove tough for active managers with customers fleeing to the sidelines. Standard Life Aberdeen is well outside of the global top 10 in asset management; on current trends, it’s unlikely to make it into the top tier any time soon.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Mark Gilbert is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering asset management. He previously was the London bureau chief for Bloomberg News. He is also the author of "Complicit: How Greed and Collusion Made the Credit Crisis Unstoppable."

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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