Assets under management (AuM) at the world’s 500 largest asset managers reached a new record of over US$131 trillion in 2021, according to new research from the Thinking Ahead Institute. This is an increase of over 10% on the previous year, when assets had grown by 14.5% to over US$119 trillion.

The research, conducted in conjunction with Pensions & Investments, a leading U.S. investment newspaper, also shows further concentration of assets managed by the very largest organisations. The world’s top 20 asset managers are now responsible for over US$59 trillion of assets, having grown at an above-average annual rate of 13%.

The research shows that BlackRock is both the world’s largest asset manager and the first to exceed US$10 trillion. While the Vanguard Group is ranked second (breaking the US$8 trillion mark), it is significantly ahead of Fidelity Investments and State Street Global – ranked third and fourth respectively – each with around US$4 trillion.

The dominance of US managers is increasingly apparent at the top of the rankings, which now account for 15 out of the 20 largest firms and around 82% of these assets. This share is now boosted by US managers Invesco and Wellington Management joining the top 20. More broadly, as a result of consolidation and competition, 218 manager names which featured in the ranking ten years ago are now absent.

According to the research, passively managed funds grew by 12.1% during the year, faster than actively managed assets which grew at 9.5%, and now account for over 29% of assets – a record high. It also shows that equity and fixed income continued to make up the majority of assets, split by 46.5% and 33.9% respectively. In addition, cash makes up 6.6%, alternatives 5.9% and other strategies 7.1%, these include liability-driven investment (LDI) and other specialist solutions.

Marisa Hall, co-head of the Thinking Ahead Institute, comments“Investment managers are facing a combination of long-term headwinds from macro-economic, geopolitical and climate risks – but are also spurred on by the driving factors of technology and industry innovation. This is a story of dark clouds on the horizon, potentially matched by a powerful engine room of innovation.

Consolidation is an obvious symptom of a changing investment industry, but bigger is not always better. Specialism is still sought after with genuine boutiques and smaller global managers proving that standing out for the right reasons can be as strong a business model as offering standardisation.

Asset managers are adapting as organisations and we’re seeing competitive pressures manifest in a reassessment of the skills and structures that drive success. For example, healthy scrutiny of sustainability claims is leading to enormous demand for climate and environmental specialists. Meanwhile, modern expectations for digital client service and a need for rigorous data-led investment processes is separately driving total re-evaluations of operational technology. These trends mean we’re not just seeing a shift in the rankings – but also a shift in what it means to be a successful asset manager.”

Claire Shen, Director, Investments Asia, WTW adds: “After 2021’s stella market performance, asset managers find themselves having to weather through a bear market in 2022. Consistent with global peers, Asia’s asset managers experienced a slowdown in their growth. The global macroeconomic conditions remain volatile as geopolitical tensions intensify, teetering on the edge of a synchronised recession. The radical uncertainty combined with climate-related risks contributes to increased systemic risk exposure for most asset manager clients. 

Mandate transitions are evolving to match client thinking in the relatively low-return world. There continues to be a growth in passive, factor investing and solutions products. Nevertheless, growth in the sustainable investment universe has remained strong. Traditional asset managers have been expanding into the ESG market through M&A activities to harness the benefits of scale.”

Additional research findings, from a subset of managers in the ranking:

  • Assets allocated to ESG principles increased by over 4 percentage points to reach over 60% of assets
  • Allocations to LDI strategies slowed marginally to around 13.9% of total assets invested in LDI strategies, from 14.2% a year before
  • A majority (56%) of managers increased the number of women, and those of other protected minority groups, in high positions
  • Technology and big data received additional resources among a strong majority (76%) of managers, while a similar 75% boosted their resources focused on cyber security
  • Product offerings are still expanding – with 72% increasing the number of investment products they offer to clients
  • Aggregate investment management fee levels decreased for a third (29%) and increased for 13% of managers.