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Asset Managers Need New Skills to Meet Millennials’ Demands for Social, Sustainable and Impact Investing Opportunities

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By Marta Maretich @maximpactdotcom

It’s clear: the global investment landscape is changing. Oil, that mainstay of portfolios, is on the slide. Markets long dominated by pension funds and insurance companies are now seeing greater international ownership of companies and the rise of other players such as hedge funds and private equity firms. Investment horizons are shortening. Regulation is increasing.

These factors are creating a challenging climate for financial asset managers who need to adapt to the new realities of a changing investment marketplace.

To make matters more complex, investor profiles are changing, too. As older investors pass on their wealth, a new generation of socially conscious millennial investors are demanding more opportunities to put their money into investments that produce social good and avoid doing environmental damage. The effect of this trend is already measureable, with studies, like this one from Eurosif, showing all sustainable and responsible investment strategies continuing to grow at a faster rate than the broad European asset management market.

This means that, while asset managers are getting to grips with a new financial picture, they’re also looking for ways to serve new kinds of clients. Many of them already see the writing on the wall: in a recent survey by First Affirmative, a financial network, 49% believed that “the needs and interests of younger investors will have to be catered to if the industry is to thrive.” Female asset managers are ahead of the curve, the same study shows, with a higher rate of awareness when it comes to impact, social and sustainable markets and a greater likelihood to already be offering such options to clients.

The age of the “multilingual” asset manager

Change may already be happening, yet the mainstreaming of socially beneficial investing—and particularly impact investing, which has grown faster than any other part of the market—means that asset managers across the industry will need to upgrade their skill sets and become “multilingual” when it comes to creating investment strategies.

Recent thinking about the future of the impact investing sector flagged the importance of the “multilingual leader”—an individual or team with an array of cross-sectoral skills that create the right mix of social commitment an financial know-how to lead beneficial businesses.

The rise of popularity in social and impact investing will demand that asset managers become “multilingual” in a similar way. In this context, multilingualism will mean bringing all the traditional skills of asset management to the table, and adding to these new tools and expertise to meet the demands and opportunities of today’s more diverse marketplace.

But what, specifically, are these new skills and capabilities?

New skills for a new investing landscape

Practices are evolving even as the market for impact, sustainable and social investing expands, but some core competencies have been identified so far.

Familiarity with diverse investment markets: Lack of familiarity with new kinds of investing is often cited as a main reason why many asset managers don’t offer these options to clients. Asset managers with an eye on the future need to familiarize themselves with the ever-growing array of opportunities across the sector. These include private equity impact investing, social investment bonds, ESG screened portfolios, themed funds, and now even electronically traded funds in areas like cleantech, water and edutech.

In a market where innovation is extending the range of options on a daily basis, keeping up can be a challenge. Tuning into the conversation by following the work of leading institutions such as GIIN and the IIPC, websites like GreenBiz , and good twitter feeds such as @pioneerspost  and @IAimpactassets can help newcomers find their way. 30 Must-Follow Twitter Feeds for Impact Investing. For a mainstream take, large media sites like Forbes  and Huffpost and financial publications like The Economist and the FT increasingly cover the social investing trend in terms asset managers can relate to.

Confidence with more information: As digital natives, millennial investors have higher expectations when it comes to communication and transparency, especially where social and environmental impact is concerned. In this, they are in step with a global trend toward more stringent regulation leading to higher demands for disclosure and transparency on the part of companies. Today’s young investor is likely to be more actively engaged than her older predecessor, demanding timely, accurate information on investments to be delivered in a convenient and easy-to-grasp form.

This has a host of implications for asset managers offering socially beneficial investment options to their clients. First, they will need to be able to evaluate the reported data of potential investments accurately and align investor concerns with outcomes in a given strategy. An ability to see beyond claims and accurately judge the quality and reliability of the various reporting practices used by companies will be key. Asset managers will need to choose investments that can deliver a high level of accountability and transparency in both financial and extra-financial performance, for example ones that adopt extended reporting practices and use new standards for sustainability like SASB.

Faster, detailed, two-way communication: Importantly, they will also need to find effective ways to communicate this information to clients more quickly and at every point in the investment cycle.

The practice of annual and quarterly reporting is already being viewed as insufficient by many investors, and real-time, on-demand reporting is now a reality inside some companies. What this will mean for the wider investment marketplace is still not certain, but it’s clear that asset managers will need to be prepared to handle unprecedented levels of information and use it effectively to build strategies and also to communicate with clients.

And they can expect communication to be an increasingly two-way street. With better informed, socially conscious clients wanting more of a say in how their money is invested, the ability to receive and manage investor feedback will be a key skill for asset managers. Satisfying clients will mean keeping pace with their evolving social and environmental objectives and responding quickly to their concerns.

Changing the industry from within

Mainstream finance has made strides when it comes to embracing sustainability, social benefit and impact investing. Driven by government regulation and supported by high profile initiatives like the G8 taskforce, the movement is becoming part of the broader market ecosystem. Industry giant BlackRock’s appointment of Deborah Winshel, a multilingual leader if there ever was one, is one example of a changing mood in finance. Another is the high profile of climate change and sustainability at Davos this year.

Asset managers obviously have an important role to play in giving more investors access to the expanding marketplace for beneficial investing. Their influence, however, goes beyond the purely commercial and is likely to be felt on a deeper level.

Increasingly, asset managers themselves form part of the groundswell toward creating a new kind of financial marketplace. Many are shifting out of traditional investing to take up roles in impact and sustainability. The next generation is demanding more training in innovative financial approaches from their MBA programs, while organizations like GIIN are offering training for professionals already working in the field.

At the same time, inside many large institutions, committed individuals like Harald Walkate of Aegon are quietly at work teaching other asset managers how to build more impact into existing portfolios and how to create investment strategies that maximize social and environmental benefit while delivering profit.

While not a “skill” as such, this new outlook on the part of asset managers may be the most valuable thing they bring to the field of beneficial investing. It will contribute to reshaping the financial landscape and, in highly practical ways, help establish socially beneficial finance as a viable choice for investors of all kinds. For asset managers, this mindset looks set to be one of the factors that will shape their working lives in coming years, demanding from them new skills and new sensitivities and profoundly changing their relationship with markets—and with the millennial clients they serve.

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