What a difference a year makes! Last year we were reflecting on the uncertain global macroeconomic outlook brought about by geopolitical factors including political uncertainty and the rise of populist movements. In the UK and Europe, we were focusing on the uncertain future of the political and regulatory relationship with the EU. We had no idea that a more wide ranging event was soon to occur . . .
One imagines that 2020 will be primarily remembered in history as the year of the novel coronavirus pandemic, and all that the inescapable event has brought. The pandemic, far from being under control globally, is distracting from other developments and causing increased fear in the financial markets of the future strength of historically safe investments.
But what about those other events that the pandemic has masked? The UK has now left the EU and seems likely to fail to reach a 'deal' with EU on the long-term relationship at the end of the implementation period in 2021. This has had, and is likely to continue to have, a potentially destabilising effect on the UK asset management sector and its clients.
Sources of global uncertainty for financial markets are on the rise, with only increasing tensions on the global political stage. There are multiple examples of foreign investment controls being tightened, sometimes for political reasons and sometimes for understandable economic ones.
Leaving all of of this aside though, the importance of the asset management industry continues to grow. Nowhere is this truer than in the context of pensions, as the global population becomes larger, older and richer, and government initiatives to encourage independent pension provision continue. Both industry bodies and legislators are also increasingly interested in pursuing environmental, social and governance (ESG) goals through private sector finance. For example, the European Commission has proposed a package of measures seeking to introduce sustainable finance into current regulations to make it easier for investors to identify and invest in such projects.
This should not be a surprise: lack of shareholder engagement has been identified as one of the key issues contributing to the governance shortcomings during the financial crisis. Given the importance of the asset management industry in investing vast amounts on behalf of clients, the sector is the natural focus of regulatory and governmental initiatives to promote effective stewardship and take the lead in instilling a corporate cultural focus on sustainability and ESG initiatives.
The activities of the financial services industry remain squarely in the public and regulatory eye, and the consequences of this focus are manifest in ongoing regulatory attention around the globe. Regulators are continuing to seek to address perceived systemic risks and preserve market stability through regulation. Operational resilience – a concept focused on ensuring asset managers' holistic preparedness against any risk event, particularly significant operational risks – has become a significant focus point for global regulators.
It is not only regulators who continue to place additional demands on the financial services industry in the wake of the financial crisis: the need to rebuild trust has led investors to call for greater transparency around investments and risk management from those managing their funds. Senior managers at investment firms are, through changes to regulatory requirements and expectations as to firm culture, increasingly being seen as individually accountable within their spheres of responsibility. Industry bodies have also noted further moves away from active management into passive strategies, illustrating the ongoing pressure on management costs. This may, in itself, be storing up issues for years to come.
The rise of fintech and other technological developments, including cryptocurrencies, data analytics and automated (or 'robo') advice services, is also starting to have an impact on the sector, with asset managers looking to invest in new technologies, seeking strategies to minimise disruption by new entrants, or both. While regulators are open to the development of fintech in the asset management sector, they also want to ensure that consumers do not suffer harm as a consequence of innovations. Regulators across various jurisdictions are working together to develop a global sandbox in which firms can test their new technologies.
This continues to be a period of change and uncertainty for the asset management industry, as funds and managers act to comply with regulatory developments and investor requirements, and adapt to the changing geopolitical landscape. Although the challenges of regulatory scrutiny and difficult market conditions remain, a return of risk appetite has also evidenced itself and the global value of assets under management continues to increase year on year. The industry is not in the clear but, prone as it is to innovation and ingenuity, it seems well placed to navigate this challenging and rapidly shifting environment.
The publication of the ninth edition of The Asset Management Review is a significant achievement, which would not have been possible without the involvement of the many lawyers and law firms who have contributed their time, knowledge and experience to the book. I would also like to thank the team at Law Business Research for all their efforts in bringing this edition into being.
The world of asset management is increasingly complex, but it is hoped that this edition of The Asset Management Review will be a useful and practical companion as we face the challenges and opportunities of the coming year.
Slaughter and May