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AllianceBernstein looks to add value to digital channels

Ajai Kaul, regional head, says the buy-side battleground is moving to banks’ evolving digital distribution.

Ajai Kaul, AllianceBernstein

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This week DigFin is highlighting three asset-management firms’ approach to digital distribution, particularly in China. We will also provide strategies from Invesco and BEA Union Investments. Go here for more insights into digital asset and wealth management.

Asset managers need to be ready to work with banks’ digital capabilities to reach retail investors.

Ajai Kaul, the Asia ex-Japan CEO at AllianceBernstein, a $580 billion investment firm, says digital distribution remains a puzzle for the industry. Although new channels are emerging, particularly in China, asset managers will likely adapt to what their existing distributors do online.

“Banks have the capital and the captive client base,” he said. “As asset managers, we deliver a product and service the client, including their digital engagement. So we need to understand how we’re going to plug into what banks are doing.”

Over the past two decades, banks in Asia have transitioned away from supermarket approaches involving dozens of manufacturers to a core set of perhaps 20 asset managers on the shelf.

Banks represent the vast majority of sales to retail investors in the region, so asset managers remain dependent keeping these relationships. Although buy-side firms recognize the importance of “digital transformation”, in Asia at least they are waiting to see which way their distributors move.

Follow the banks

“Banks are already responding with their own digital strategies and we need to continue to engage them and plug into their platforms,” Kaul said, adding this is likely to be more around operations, education and reporting than marketing or front-office activities. “We’re having conversations now about what this might look like…I do not believe banks are about to cede customers to the digital and online service providers.”

One aspect is likely to change how asset managers support distributors with things like marketing material. This will increasingly be less about papers and statements, and more about real-time online communication. And it will change the way asset managers arm financial advisors, bank salespeople and other intermediaries with information about their products, and about investing.

“People want convenience,” Kaul said. “They’re used to instant transactions. But we need to ensure that they understand what they’re buying.”

That principle sounds simple but it’s not clear how it will materialize. Does that information get communicated at point of sale, or via a continuous stream of back-and-forth with investors? Who is responsible for education – and who finances it?

The prize for getting this right is data-driven insights that enable fund mangers to build better products, with more tailored, suitable features, be it about liquidity, or asset classes, or risk. “You can scale faster if you get a real insight,” Kaul said. “And there’s a lot of data – if you ask the right questions.”

What about direct?

Is there a point at which asset managers will also go direct to consumers?
Kaul says this could emerge as a complementary strategy, but: “We’ll always be working with banks. Wealth management and financial advice are just tools for banks, along with loans, credit cards and foreign exchange.”

In other words, banks will retain the overall customer relationship, at least as far as asset managers are concerned – although banks themselves are now eager to cement their customer relationships in the face of being themselves swallowed up into “ecosystems” dominated by consumer-facing tech platforms.

Kaul is also looking at more direct digital channels, notably in China, where AB, as the firm is known, is licensed as a private fund manager, which can raise money from professional investors but not retail.

This makes PFMs unappealing to domestic banks, which can’t sell their products to their retail clients. Most sales are institutional in nature, but digital channels are becoming relevant.

This is still however more theoretical than real for firms like AB. But Kaul and his colleagues are putting time into studying the market.

“We need to understand mobile platforms and how we engage with them, in general,” he said. “In mobile environments, we can’t just be a product on a shelf.”

The China experience

So far the majority of funds sold in China through such channels are money market funds. But platforms such as Ant Financial, EastMoney and WeChat are beginning to develop more advice-based services that will help users with financial planning.

“How does a fund manager add value?” Kaul said. “If a transaction is on a mobile phone, that’s a very small piece of visual real-estate to work with, or become prominent on.” Fund products are usually three, four or five clicks away from where users spend their time on these platforms. Foreign fund managers do not enjoy brand recognition in China. “Just being a product isn’t sufficient to win traffic,” Kaul said. “You have to present something of value that creates interaction between the user and AB.”

He says China offers a good place to begin this learning process, given the popularity of these channels for everyday use. And within the Chinese context, these digital platforms are similar – if a fund house can master one, it can adapt a similar method to the others.

What’s special about mainland China isn’t the platform so much as it’s the investor culture, which ever since the stock markets appeared in 1990, have been habituated to short-term trading.

“How we build and deliver product may not match the local wealth market, which has developed its own biases toward duration, time horizons and the purpose of investment,” Kaul said. “But the population there has fully embraced mobile platforms, as we can see by the sheer volume of transactions now taking place. China is the front line of innovation.”

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AllianceBernstein looks to add value to digital channels