This year was supposed to a year of growth and dramatic improvement. It was meant to be the year of gaining momentum, adding revenues, restarting careers and returning to prosperity. It was a year of high expectations. Now that the year is three-quarters over, it seems that the some growth materialized but it never really brought optimism with it.
The revenues of the typical (median) firm participating in the Top Wealth Managers Quarterly Pulse Survey published by AdvisorOne.com are on a path to grow by 12.6% in 2010 compared with 2009. Much of that growth, however, occurred in the first quarter of 2010, and it was mostly due to the lag effect of quarterly billing rather than dramatic growth in assets or clients. On median, firms in the survey experienced a decline of 0.6% in assets under management (AUM) in the second quarter of 2010 and only brought in seven net-new-clients for the first two quarters of 2010.
Ambitious plans for 2011
More importantly, firms are not approaching the year with much optimism and the survey shows low forecasts for the remainder of the year, a sense of difficulty in developing new business and a cautious approach to employee decisions. Nonetheless, firms are committed to growth and when asked about their current strategic initiatives, most responded with plans of hiring new advisors and investing in their business development. Firms have lowered their growth expectations and become more cautious in their projections. Still, firms are making progress and starting to look at 2011 with ambitious plans. The question is “If 2010 wasn’t as good as we thought it would be, what will make 2011 different?”
The first half of 2010
Business development was slow for firms of all sizes and market performance made growth even harder. On average, firms added 4% of new assets to their AUM but lost 3% to market performance and 2% to distributions and lost clients. As a result, firms recorded median revenue growth of 12.6%, but it is clear that most of the growth was realized in the first quarter. For comparison, in the 2003 to 2007 period, average growth per year was between 19% and 25%. While medium-sized firms seemed to experience a little faster growth year-to-date, their new-asset acquisition in the second quarter was equally slow with only 3% new AUM and 5% lost to market performance and distributions.
The market is not the only culprit–it seems that clients are reluctant to make significant changes to their financial lives. When asked about their perception of client sentiment, most advisors believe that clients today are more cautious and take longer to change advisors than before. Ten percent of the participants even see clients as more than cautious–they see them as reluctant or even resistant to change. Still, 16% of participants are not seeing a change in client behavior compared to pre-recession levels. There are also signs of increased competition: When asked how many other firms clients evaluated before making a decision, advisors responded that, on median, clients evaluate two other competitors before choosing their firm.
Slow but steady growth
A slower but steady growth pattern may not seem like a problem for wealth management firms, but we have to remember that growth rates have so far only been slow—not steady. What’s more, there is a lot of pent-up expectation at the employee level where staff have been patiently waiting for pay increases and promotions. Slow growth, however, may create problems in terms of the financial affordability for such pay increases. When asked about end-of-year changes to compensation, most firms are planning to pay bonuses at the end of 2010, but only about half of the participants project pay increases beyond the cost-of-living increase. Again, across-the-board pay increases should not be seen as “normal” in any given year but we have to remember that most staff have not seen growth in income for a third year in a row.