When a Fund Manager’s Drama Is in Its Business, Not Its Boardroom

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Standard Life Aberdeen Plc’s decision to abandon the dual chief executive officer structure that has been in place since the company was created in a merger two years ago makes sense. Its underlying business, however, remains at the mercy of forces largely out of its control – and the outlook for the fund management industry remains distinctly gloomy.

The recent arrival of new Chairman Douglas Flint probably had something to do with triggering the change. The arrangement “was becoming a distraction, both internally and externally,” he said on Wednesday. But Martin Gilbert says it was his suggestion to step aside and become vice chairman, leaving Keith Skeoch as the sole CEO. Given how the pair have managed their responsibilities, his statement rings true.

With 75 percent of the integration of the two companies already completed, the duties that attach to the CEO’s office have shrunk. Add in the sale of the insurance business that was completed in August, and it’s clear that Skeoch can cope alone with running the company and sitting on the various committees the CEO needs to be involved in. That, in turn, leaves Gilbert free to ditch those meetings and spend his time cultivating customer relationships. And SLA needs him to work some magic with its clients.

From a business perspective, last year was pretty dismal. Assets under management slumped to 551.5 billion pounds ($725 billion) at the end of 2018 from 608.1 billion pounds a year earlier, as net outflows of more than 40 billion pounds were exacerbated by investment losses of more than 20 billion pounds. Withdrawals from the firm's flagship Global Absolute Return Strategies Fund, for example, dragged the firm’s multi-asset portfolios down to less than 20 billion pounds after clients withdrew almost 17 billion pounds last year.

Membership of what Gilbert has in the past called the trillion-dollar club looks further away than ever. It probably stings a little that Legal & General Group Plc’s investment management arm announced last week that its assets under management topped 1 trillion pounds for the first time in 2018.

SLA’s cost-income ratio improved to 68 percent from 71 percent in 2017. But that still leaves it well short of the company’s medium-term goal of 60 percent and far behind the 51.5 percent achieved by its larger rival Amundi SA. SLA is sticking with its target to deliver at least 350 million pounds of cost savings by the end of 2020; but it will need to generate revenue to improve its expenses ratio.

Investors warmed to the simplified management structure by sending SLA’s shares up by as much as 4 percent on Wednesday. Skeoch told me that the firm is seeing “green shoots” as the performance of its investment improved in recent months. Those buds will need to flower if investors are to recoup last year’s near-50 percent decline in SLA shares.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or 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."

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