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Comment: Pause for reflection

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At first sight, it might seem deeply inappropriate for two sectors of the global fund industry to have held their biggest and most high-profile get

At first sight, it might seem deeply inappropriate for two sectors of the global fund industry to have held their biggest and most high-profile get-togethers this month in Monaco. The very location seems redolent of the past decade’s excesses of which the financial industry is now seeking to purge itself.

Perhaps Frankfurt, or another location that does not evoke ‘fun’ among outsiders, might have been a more tactful venue for FundForum International, the premier gathering of the traditional fund industry. That at least was the joke at a press dinner last week co-hosted by Citi, an institution that these days is extremely sensitive to any perception of wasteful spending as the recipients of billions of dollars from the US taxpayer.

Yet far from being just an industry jolly, FundForum – like GAIM International at the same venue the previous week – was the occasion for some serious soul-searching for an investment industry, traditional and alternative alike, that is looking for the right way ahead after a chastening 12 months.

Both events bore the scars of the downturn, with both delegate numbers and exhibitors significantly fewer in number. By contrast, attendees were struck by a much greater willingness on the part of fund management leaders to speak frankly about the challenges facing their industry, rather than come out with the bland truisms that are too often staple conference fare.

Both arms of the industry are, it is clear, much more ready to listen to their investors that they were a couple of years ago. The hedge fund industry is having to examine what it should be promising its investors, and as a corollary, what it should be charging for both basic services and success.

The business model that has fuelled the sector’s storming growth of the past decade has been tested nearly to destruction, and developing a more resilient one will require a much greater willingness to engage with and open up to investors. And it faces an uphill task to ensure that the new wave of regulation that now seems inevitable is shaped in a constructive way rather than becoming a punitive exercise driven by politicians with little knowledge of the industry and less sympathy for it.

The need to reconnect with investors is also an important theme for the traditional asset management industry, where active managers have been challenged to demonstrate the value they add by the emergence of exchange-traded funds and other passive vehicles, and where retail distribution is still grappling with problems such as the pernicious effect of advisers’ commissions that were evident well over a decade ago.

Over the coming days the Global Fund Media web sites will be examining in greater detail some of the issues raised in Monaco over the past fortnight, and that are part of a wider debate over the future of both the traditional and alternative asset management industries.

So far the fund industry have come through the downturn probably as well as it could have hoped, bloody but largely unbowed, but the events of the past two years have highlighted problems that require reflection and then action over the coming months and years. With its image of glitzy celebrity glamour, Monaco may seem an unlikely staging post in this process of self-examination, but sometimes enlightenment is found in the oddest places.

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