Investment management is the business of investing other people’s money. It is the “buy side” of the broader financial industry. Investment managers, sometimes called asset managers or money managers, put their clients’ money to work in common stocks (equities), bonds and other fixed-income securities, commodities, or a combination of any of these. Their clients may be companies, government agencies, nonprofit organizations, and individuals—in short, anyone who has money to invest.
The investment management industry (IM) manages hedge funds, mutual funds, private equity, venture capital, and other financial investments for third parties, which include companies, pension funds, endowments, insurance companies, private banks, nonprofits, and individuals. The IM industry is also known as the asset management industry. The competent management of hedge funds, mutual funds, and other financial investments provides financial security to Americans, allows companies to grow and prosper, and fuels the U.S. and world economies. The U.S. financial crisis of 2008–2009 and the COVID-19 pandemic underscore how important strong investment management is to the health of the U.S. and world economies.
Hedge funds are privately offered, professionally managed investment vehicles that seek, like all financial investments, a positive annual return, limited variations in value, and the preservation of capital. HedgeFundFacts reports that “hedge funds play a critical role in the financial markets, broadening the use of investment strategies, increasing the number of participating investors, and enlarging the pools of capital available.” According to alternatives data provider Preqin, hedge fund firms controlled more than $3.6 trillion in assets in 2019, according to Hedge Fund Research, up from only $1.5 trillion in managed assets in 2006.
Mutual funds are a group of financial assets (such as stocks) that are managed by a portfolio manager. The Investment Company Institute (ICI) reports that, in 2019, these funds managed $25.7 trillion in assets for nearly 104 million U.S. investors. Total net assets of worldwide regulated, open-end funds (mutual funds, exchange-traded funds, and institutional funds) were $54.9 trillion at the end of 2019, according to the ICI.
Private equity consists of funds obtained from investors that are then invested in mature, private companies. Over time, private equity firms build up an equity stake in the company with the goal of eventually taking over the company and turning a profit on their investment. Private-equity firms invested $309 billion in U.S.-based companies in 2019, according to the American Investment Council. From 2013 to 2018, the top 10 states in terms of investment were Texas, California, Illinois, New York, Massachusetts, Florida, Pennsylvania, Georgia, Colorado, and Ohio. Critics of private-equity firms believe these firms are bad for companies and employees in the long run because they often focus on streamlining or liquidating inefficient or outdated businesses, which often results in people losing their jobs. The American Investment Council counters that “the private equity industry benefits investors, companies, workers, and communities. Investors gain from higher returns and less volatility than public markets. Companies receiving private equity investment benefit from access to capital as well as business mentorship and expertise. Workers benefit from stronger companies that are committed to growth. And communities across the country are bolstered by private equity investment that helps build sustainable companies and jobs.”
Venture capital consists of funds obtained from investors that are invested in young, innovative companies in exchange for an equity stake that hopefully can be translated into a profit when the company goes public or is merged with or sold to another company. The National Venture Capital Association (NVCA) reports that “venture capital is a catalyst for job creation, innovation, technology advancement, international competitiveness, and increased tax revenues.” Some of America’s greatest business success stories were founded with the help of venture capital, including Apple, Amazon, Google, FedEx, Starbucks, Staples, and Intel. In 2019, venture capital firms invested about $133 billion into 10,430 companies, according to the NVCA. The largest area of venture capital investment was in software, where companies received 34 percent of the total funding.
Over the course of the last 100 years or so an entire industry came into existence, built on the idea that professional money managers have the skills to invest their clients’ money safely and with a certain level of confidence. However, investing is still risky business. Money managers are careful to point out in their marketing literature that “past results are not indicative of future performance.” But for investors who don’t have the time or the expertise to manage their investments, investment managers offer some assurances that they have the skill to deliver the goods consistently and reliably over time.
For much of the past century, investors’ choices were limited to traditional investments: stocks, bonds, or cash (or investment pools owning stocks or bonds, such as mutual funds). All were regarded as prudent choices for the average investor. About 25 years ago, the universe of investment options began expanding exponentially. Wealthy individuals and big pension plans wanted to own securities that cushioned their holdings when the markets whipsawed. They began putting more of their money into nontraditional investments: hedge funds, private equity, venture capital, and other alternative investments. Successfully investing with these new options requires additional expertise, making investment management all the more helpful for investors.
Although they have some discretion about how to handle investments, investment managers follow guidelines given by their clients. These might be the investment policy for a pension plan or the prospectus of a mutual fund. These guidelines describe the types of permitted investments, the investment manager’s compensation, and other details of the portfolio. The actual “assets under management” are owned by clients, and investment managers have no physical control or direct access to clients’ assets. Generally third-party custodians, such as trust companies, chosen by clients are contracted to hold the assets. That’s one reason investment managers have small balance sheets and little debt when compared to other financial services firms.
Investment managers play a unique role in the financial services industry. Their business model is fundamentally different than commercial banks, investment banks, or insurance companies. Investment banks act as principal in proprietary trading, securities underwriting, and prime brokerage; commercial banks access their depositor base or the capital markets to make consumer and business loans; finance companies tap the capital markets and essentially re-lend these funds; and insurance companies provide long-term financing for real estate.
On the other hand, investment managers are paid on a schedule based on the amount of assets under their management. The revenue sources for managing investments are the fees for the advisory services provided—selecting securities and managing the portfolio according to the client’s guidelines. The fee structure generates a more stable income stream than that of an investment bank or any other transaction-oriented financial institution.
Another important difference between a commercial bank and an investment manager is the absence of government backing such as deposit insurance. Banks accept deposits that, in the United States, are insured by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. Investment managers have no such safety net. They clearly disclose to clients that investment performance is not guaranteed by the manager, the government, or any other party.
Investment managers represent their clients in making buy or sell decisions, acting as trusted agents. Their income is typically a percentage of the funds managed, which means a manager’s earnings can vary widely from one year to the next. A major sell-off in the stock exchanges can sharply reduce earnings.
Investment managers do not invest with their own funds (other than seed capital or small co-investments) or make promises about expected investment performance.
Taking a top-down view, more than 8.1 million Americans worked in business and financial operations careers in one capacity or another as of May 2019, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Many are involved every day in the world of investing in four different classes of investments: mutual funds, hedge funds, private equity, and venture capital. They advise clients, analyze securities, make investment and trading recommendations, run investment portfolios, or perform other essential duties.
- The work is demanding, but every work day offers a different set of challenges and opportunities. Investment advisors and investment managers have a high degree of independence on the job.
- There is plenty of personal interaction in this business. Investment advisors have frequent telephone or personal contact with clients, people at the companies they follow, distributors, and servicers.
- The work is rewarding financially. Investment advisors and managers are highly compensated for their efforts, and talented employees typically receive excellent benefits and vacation packages. For example, private equity professionals had average earnings (base pay plus bonus) of $315,000 in 2017, according to the 2018 Private Equity and Venture Capital Compensation Report. Those without MBAs received $264,464.
- Strong employment outlook. Job opportunities for financial analysts are expected to grow by 5 percent from 2019 to 2029, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, or faster than the average for all careers.
- Advancement opportunities are numerous, especially in firms affiliated with a commercial bank, investment bank, or insurance company. Investment professionals with an entrepreneurial drive can move up by starting their own advisory firm.
- Individuals with strong problem solving skills will thrive in this business. Investment firms want people who can write clearly, verbally express ideas to clients, and have an interest in all things financial.
- The work week can be long, often 50-60 hours a week when you first begin. Your work day may be filed writing reports, meeting deadlines, and returning phone calls late in the day.
- Getting in the door can take years of work and require certain credentials, such as state licenses or industry certification. Many people start out doing something else, often crunching numbers as research analysts or working in an industry outside investment management.
- Highly compensated employees may find themselves accepting a buyout offer at an unexpected time. In a tough economy investment management firms are constantly trying to rein in costs while retaining top talent.
- Career paths and advancement opportunities in smaller firms may be ill-defined. Many of these firms lack written job descriptions, potentially a turn-off for new hires.
- Compensation can be highly variable if tied to investment performance. Don’t count on big bonus every year if you’re working at a hedge fund or a major Wall Street firm.
- The percentage of women and racial minorities in the investment management industry is much lower than their percentage in the U.S. population—which can sometimes create barriers to hiring and advancement and even hostile work environments for members of these groups. Women comprised only 19.7 percent of global alternative assets employees in 2019, according to alternatives data provider Preqin.
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