What Is Asset Management?

Definition & Examples of Asset Management

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Asset management is the service, most often performed by a firm, of directing a client's wealth or investment portfolio on their behalf. These firms typically have investment minimums. Their clients often have a high net worth.

Understanding the field of asset management and what role asset management companies play will help you hire the right professional to help you meet your goals. You may even learn about money management options you didn't know were available to you.

What Is Asset Management?

Asset management firms take investor capital and put it to work in different investments. These may include stocks, bonds, real estate, master limited partnerships, and private equity.

They handle investments according to an internally formulated investment mandate, or process. Many asset management firms offer their services to wealthy businesses and individuals. It can be difficult to offer services to smaller investors at an appropriate price.

Wealthy investors often have private accounts with these firms. They deposit cash into the account, in some cases with a third-party custodian. The portfolio managers take care of the portfolio using a limited power of attorney.

How Asset Management Works

Asset managers work with client portfolios by taking a look at several factors. These include the client's unique circumstances, risks, and preferences.

Portfolio managers select positions customized for the client's income needs, tax circumstances, and liquidity expectations. They can even base decisions on the client's moral and ethical values as well as personality.

High-end firms may cater to a client's every whim, offering a bespoke experience. It's common for the relationship between investor and asset management firm to span generations; managed assets are often transferred to heirs.

Asset Management Costs

Investment fees for asset management can range anywhere from a few basis points to a large percentage of the shared profits on performance-agreement accounts. These fees will depend on the specifics of the portfolio.

In other cases, firms charge a minimum annual fee, such as $5,000 or $10,000 per year.

Firms for Average Investors

Some firms have updated their offerings to better serve smaller investors.

Many of these companies create pooled structures such as mutual funds, index funds, or exchange-traded funds. These can then be managed in a single portfolio. Smaller investors can then invest directly in the fund. Or, they can go through an intermediary. This could be another investment advisor or a financial planner.

Vanguard, one of the largest asset management firms in the world, focuses on lower- and middle-income investors. Their clients' asset balances might be too small for other firms. Vanguard's median account balance was only $22,217 in 2018. This means half of their clients had more than that, and half had less.

Vanguard's efforts make this service more accessible to clients who likely couldn't cover the minimum fee at most private asset management groups.

These clients don't have complex investing needs; they might simply buy $3,000 worth of a Vanguard S&P 500 index fund and hold it for the long term. They don't have enough wealth to worry about things such as asset placement. Neither do they need complex strategies such as exploiting tax-equivalent yield differentials on municipal bonds and corporate bonds.

Robo advisors such as Betterment or Wealthfront are low-cost online investing platforms that use algorithms to balance portfolios. These are other options for average investors.

Combination Firms

Some firms combine service offerings for both wealthy clients and investors with more average-sized portfolios.

For example, J.P. Morgan has a private client division for its high-net-worth clients. However, it also sponsors mutual funds and other pooled investments for regular investors, who likely invest through a retirement plan at work.

Another company, Northern Trust, has a large asset management business. But it also owns a bank, trust company, and wealth management practice.

Registered Investment Advisors

Firms known as Registered Investment Advisors (RIAs) provide advice to their clients. But they outsource the actual asset management to a third-party group.

They do this one of two ways: either through a negotiated private account, or by having the client purchase the company's sponsored mutual funds, ETFs, or index funds.

Note

Many asset management firms also serve as RIAs. This means they function as both asset managers and as investment or financial advisors.

It's similar to how all heart surgeons are doctors but not all doctors are heart surgeons. Most asset managers are investment advisors, but not all investment advisors are asset managers.

The Asset Allocation Model

Many large asset management firms end up hiring their own financial advisors, who don't manage assets directly.

These advisors take on clients and steer them into the asset management division's products and services. Perhaps they use an asset allocation model from a software package or other type of guideline.

To use Vanguard as an example again, it's first and foremost an asset management firm. But recently, the company's moved into financial planning for average investors. The client pays Vanguard's advisors a fee of 0.30% of assets under management for the service.

These advisors invest the client's money into Vanguard's family of mutual funds, on which the asset management division charges its fees. Vanguard also raises money for its asset management business. They do this by allowing independent investment advisors to have their clients invest in Vanguard's funds through third-party brokerage and retirement accounts.

Vanguard also has a trust department that sets up various types of trusts for clients.

Asset Management Companies and Specialization

Each firm has its area of specialization. Some are generalists. These are most often large companies that design financial services or products they think investors will want and need.

Some firms have a narrow focus, concentrating on one or a handful of areas. For instance, they may focus on working with fellow long-term investors who believe in a value investing or passive investing approach.

Some firms only cater to wealthy clients through private accounts known as individually managed accounts, or with hedge funds. Some focus exclusively on launching mutual funds. Some build their practice around managing money for institutions or retirement plans, such as corporate pension plans.

Finally, some asset management companies provide their services to specific firms, such as managing assets for a property and casualty insurance company.

Possible Fee Structures

Pay attention to how different companies and their managers receive compensation.

For instance, for a mutual fund with a 5.75% sales load, that price comes right out of the investor's pocket. It pays the mutual fund salesmen or advisor for placing the client in that particular fund.

Meanwhile, the asset management business itself earns its annual management fee, which is taken out of the pooled structure.

In cases of integrated firms where asset management is one of the businesses under the financial conglomerate's umbrella, the asset management costs might be lower than you'd otherwise expect. But the firm makes money in other ways, such as charging transaction fees and commissions.

In another fee variation, firms may charge no upfront transaction fees or commissions; instead, they might take higher fees on other products or services. Then, they split it between the advisor and the firm for its asset management services.

Finally, fee-only asset management groups are companies that only make money from management fees charged to the client. They don't make commissions based on specific products.

Many investors feel this gives the firm more objectivity in choosing products and strategies strictly for the client's benefit. They know their asset manager isn't simply choosing products based on the fees or commissions earned for the firm.

Important

Many different business models exist in the asset management world. Not all of them are equally beneficial to the client.

Asset Management Accounts

You may have heard of an asset management account, even if your banking institution doesn't call itself an asset management company. These accounts are basically designed to be a hybrid, all-in-one account, combining checking, savings, and brokerage.

You can deposit your money, earn interest on it, write checks when needed, buy shares of stock, invest in bonds, mutual funds, and other securities all from one, centralized account. In many, but not all, cases, the account is actually managed by a portfolio manager of the institution.

Fees might run you between 1% and 2.75%, depending on your account balance. You may also receive other advantages that make the price worth your while.

For instance, some banks offer less-common investing strategies. They may allow you to create collateralized loans against securities in your asset management account at highly attractive rates. This could be useful if you found an outside investment opportunity that required immediate liquidity.

Sometimes firms will also bundle other services, such as insurance policies. You could save money by buying more products from the same company.

Asset Management vs. Wealth Management

Asset management is all about investments. It's a service that's performed by a firm for clients who typically have a high net worth.

On the other hand, wealth management takes a closer look at the financial situation of an individual (or family). In doing so, these people can figure out how best to manage their wealth and protect it in the long run.

Depending on who you are and your level of wealth you may only need one of these services. Figuring out which one will serve you best could help you to reach your financial goals.

Key Takeaways

  • Asset management is the service, often performed by a firm, of directing a client's wealth or investment portfolio on their behalf.
  • These firms typically have investment minimums, so their clients most often have a high net worth.
  • Asset managers work with client portfolios by looking at many factors, such as the client's circumstances, risks, and preferences.
  • Today, some firms have updated their businesses to serve smaller investors as well as high net worth ones.

The Balance does not provide tax, investment, or financial services and advice. The information is being presented without consideration of the investment objectives, risk tolerance, or financial circumstances of any specific investor and might not be suitable for all investors. Past performance is not indicative of future results. Investing involves risk including the possible loss of principal.