Once Bitten

October 9, 2008

Nobody knows quite what the landscape for financial services will be after the mayhem of the last three weeks. There is much talk of the investment banking model being dead in the water and swingeing regulation aimed at firmly bolting the door of a horseless stable, butrtrow4b.jpg few are ready to hazard at the details.

One aspect on which we have seen almost universal agreement, however, is that investors have cottoned onto the immense risk of bankrolling investments they don’t quite understand. The trend for increasing pension fund investments in alternative strategies starts to look like a busted flush, and you have to question whether demand for the UK’s planned retail funds of hedge funds will sustain the new industry.

Schroders CIO Alan Brown told us this week: “People will be taking a long hard look at complex financial products.”

“If you see a creative investment banker head towards you, you are likely to develop short arms and deep pockets.”

It’s clearly an issue which encourages investors towards the poetic; Colin Melvin, CEO at the equity ownership service at Hermes told a sustainable investment briefing on Wednesday: “What we’ve seen perhaps is a multiplicity or complexity of investment products and services which has grown up in order to maintain unusual profitability of the industry. As you shine a light on it, it will simper off into the dark again.”

And Robert Talbut, CIO of Royal London Asset Management lends further weight to the argument.

He told us: “We see a return to simplicity in products – complexity is out. The absolute return-type product is significantly under threat – clients will be wary of the opacity and prime broking is getting much harder to come by.”

Some industry players talk about a return to favour for old-fashioned, long-only balanced funds, with some interest for high-grade investment bonds, or perhaps global equities. The trouble at the moment is that many investors see few viable bolt holes for their cash. Just ask Andrew Chapman, pensions manager at the 2 billion pound John Lewis pension scheme.

“There is nowhere to hide,” he said. “This is a whole new paradigm and there are too many uncertainties out there – you make one move and you might be worse off than what you are doing now.”

 — Joel Dimmock, Claire Milhench, Raji Menon

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