Why your fund manager needs to be considering more than just alpha

To be successful in the changing asset management environment, fund managers need to continuously reinvent themselves. In the past, they had to deal with globalisation and quantification. Now, there is big data and machine learning. 

Developments in sustainable investing require the fund manager of the future to adapt yet again: To integrate material ESG factors to protect their client's portfolio. This requires a change in mindset for today’s portfolio manager. To be fit for the future, he or she needs to know more than just how to maximise alpha.

Key points

    • Fund managers need to understand sustainability as well as alpha
    • Diversity and cross-fertilisation of skills are becoming more important
    • Carbon budgets and pricing external impacts are now part of the job

Skills of the future

According to the CFA survey, ‘The investment professional of the future,' investment industry leaders rank ‘T-shaped skills’ as the most important future skill category. Some 49% of respondents rank these first, followed by leadership skills (21%), soft skills (16%) and technical skills (14%).1 T-shaped people are subject matter experts; they adapt to changing environments and can work across disciplines. They combine deep knowledge in a single field with wider knowledge in other parts of the ecosystem and have the competencies to connect them.

We would argue that most investment professionals actually have T-shaped skills, being experts in analysing companies, but always curious and interested in the world around them. However, working across disciplines comes less natural to the fund manager. To keep up with developments on the sustainability front, portfolio managers need to read up on the work of climate and human rights experts. Being able to use big data and machine learning to exploit behavioural biases is another skill that the future fund manager needs to have.

From T-shaped people to T-shaped teams

This is also the reason why we believe consultants and clients of asset managers focus more on the topic of diversity. The investment industry has already moved from the star manager model to the investment team model. However, the investment teams of today are mostly compiled of people that come from rather similar backgrounds, and more importantly, are mostly trained to be an expert on the same subject matter. There is hardly any investment professional who does not have a CFA or similar qualification. But there are a very limited number of climate scientists or psychologists with a focus on business ethics, for example.

In the field of AI and big data, it is already quite common for investment teams to include data scientists, making the team more T-shaped. Moreover, the two trends can complement each other; to make up for the lack of data on ESG, at Robeco we employ two climate data scientists. Of course, all of these professionals also need to understand finance. And for the fund manager, this means he or she needs to manage a team with different specialists and characters to come to better-informed investment decisions.

From ESG integration to impact

When Robeco started the process of integrating ESG in its investments about 10 years ago, portfolio managers needed to become familiar with the subject. They needed to start thinking about how topics like climate change, the rising costs of health care, the use of child labour in supply chains, and the ever-growing mountain of single-use plastics was affecting the ability of companies to create value in the long run. 

These trends are changing markets, affecting brand value, and if not managed, simply increasing risk.

Focusing on financially material ESG issues was a good place to start, as it was closer to the heart of fund managers, and did not have any impact on their investment universe. This leaves the most room to create alpha according to the fundamental law of active management. However, 10 years on, we see that our clients, regulators and society are moving towards focusing on the actual (negative) impact our investments have. This is adding another dimension to analysing companies and constructing portfolios: return, risk and social and environmental impact.

How to not be a dinosaur

We see the fund manager 2.0 as a professional who can take a carbon budget into account as well as a tracking error and alpha. Someone who understands that decarbonisation through time is a given, and those negative externalities (like waste or carbon emittance) should be priced in. Because policymakers will push for externality pricing, while stranded assets are the minefields of the coming years.

The fund manager 2.0 understands that real-world impact via our investments is equally important, in some products at least, to generating alpha. Taking into account real-world impact is the future.

Combining these efforts is a whole new challenge. Not adapting will make you extinct.

Learn the essentials of sustainable investing

The speed with which SI has become mainstream has left many advisers at a disadvantage in their ability to explain sustainability concepts to their clients. Bridge your knowledge with Robeco’s e-learning module and earn CPD hours. Visit The Essentials of Sustainable Investing for more information.

1 CFA Institute, Investment professional of the future, May 2019

This document is distributed in Australia by Robeco Hong Kong Limited (ARBN 156 512 659) (‘Robeco’) which is exempt from the requirement to hold an Australian financial services licence under the Corporations Act 2001 (Cth) pursuant to ASIC Class Order 03/1103. Robeco is regulated by the Securities and Futures Commission under the laws of Hong Kong and those laws may differ from Australian laws.

Masja Zandbergen
Head of Sustainability Integration

Masja is responsible for coordinating ESG integration across asset classes and works with clients to share knowledge and expertise in sustainable investing. She has a background in equity portfolio management and is a CEFA charterholder.

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