Anthony Hilton: Mainstream fund managers blamed

First it was private equity that aroused the wrath of politicians and then it was hedge funds that found themselves friendless, blamed and the target of regulation. Now it looks as though the mainstream asset management industry is about to pay the price for taking success for granted and not spending on comms in the good times.

The result is that it probably does not have enough media friends, sympathisers or people who understand what it is trying to do, who will stand by it and support it when markets collapse and the mood turns sour.

The problem faced by mainstream fund managers is threefold. First, the fall in asset values means most of their clients are showing losses, not just over the past 12 months but over the past 12 years. Share buying is supposed to be a long-term game, but clients who have lost money over a decade begin to question not just what is meant by the long term, but the competence of their fund managers.

Second, the business is barely profitable for many operators. Their main source of revenue is a charge on the funds under management, which is spiced up with additional initial charges when new investors join their funds. As markets fall, new investment dries up and with it the fees. Indeed money gets withdrawn. So just when it needs to be out there banging the drum, the industry finds it is having to retrench.

Third, there is fallout from the collapse earlier this year and subsequent rescue takeover of New Star, which had been one of the most successful and fastest-growing firms in the industry in the past decade.

Obviously it is bad for the industry's image, but more relevantly it has aroused the interest of the Financial Services Authority to the risks to the system that could follow the collapse of a fund management firm. So it is going to take a much closer interest, probably insist some firms are better capitalised, and encourage industry consolidation.

Change is coming fast to an industry where most PR has never got beyond product marketing. It badly needs to raise its game.

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