Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Market Falls Catch Fund Managers On The Hop

Fund managers aren't having much fun right now.
If it wasn't bad enough having to watch renascent bears driving the bulls out of town, and all that means for management fees, some high flying portfolio planners are having to keep their heads well down to dodge their own investors' ire.
Hot on the heels of customer withdrawal freezes by large UK property funds, one quoted asset manager has just fired off a profit warning while another's profits have slowed sharply.
Scottish Equitable has announced that private investors in its £2bn property fund won't be able to access their cash for up to a year. And Scottish Widows has imposed a six month suspension on withdrawals from its own £2.5bn property funds.
New Star Asset Management (LSE: NSAM) has just lost a chunk of its stock market value after admitting that operating profit would be "significantly lower" in 2008.
And Rock investor RAB Capital (LSE: RAB) has revealed its lowest earnings growth since the company's flotation three years ago.
Falling Star
New Star, which has grown into Britain's sixth-largest manager of funds for individual investors, has ‘fessed up to recent client withdrawals of £500m and a 6.5% decline in assets under management to £23bn from £24.7bn six months ago.
Yet what must really have hurt for the asset manager is admitting that most of its UK and European funds have (here's that word again) "significantly underperformed their peers".
Apparently the portfolios were "badly positioned" for a combination of the credit crunch and soaring commodity prices. In other words, the managers held the wrong stocks.
The UK funds generally started undershooting before the first bout of money market mayhem, then failed to join the October rally. And though US fund performance was strong, the damage has been done. Having traded as high as 485p in July last year, the shares have crashed to around £1 each.
Though promising "whatever is necessary" to sort out problems with performance, the company is not keen on 2008. Expecting more client withdrawals and lower profits this year, it has slashed the dividend to 5p from the 9p mooted in April 2007.
Now this isn't Schadenfreude - I've made plenty of poor stock picks over the years - but when you're a well paid professional investor in a publicly quoted company, there aren't too many places to hide if things go awry.
It could take a long time to restore New Star to its former slot in the firmament.
And other portfolios have been suffering, too.
Hedge fund manager RAB Capital, Northern Rock's second largest shareholder, said that net income rose less than 2% last year after its main fund posted its worst-ever annual return.
Property Panic
But it was the news firstly from Scottish Equitable, and then from Scottish Widows, that has prompted the biggest panic amongst small investors.
The £2bn Scottish Equitable property fund is one of the UK's biggest commercial property ventures with 129,000 investors.
Yet the managers have had to put up the shutters by halting withdrawals for up to a year, admitting they no longer have enough cash reserves to meet investor demands following significant customer switching.
With the "buffer" fund down to 1% of total assets from the usual 10-15%, this action "protects" continuing investors as more property than normal needs to be sold, according to the company, with only a "small number" of investors is likely to be affected.
Though now Scottish Widows has joined in, announcing that both its Life Property Fund and its Pension Property Fund, which have a combined value of over £2.5bn, will now operate a 180-day delay period for redemptions, transfers and switches.
Again, the decision was made to "remain fair" to investors staying in the funds, as short-term liquidity has plummeted.
There have been earlier cases of fund managers being forced into property fund protection, as I wrote a month ago. And late last month, Friends Provident halted access to its £1.2bn fund.
But such action seriously erodes investor confidence, as commercial property endures one if its worst slides in decades. After all, if investors can't get their cash out of a fund when they want to, will they ever be prepared to put in back in again?

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