Asset Management Sales 101: The Most Stable Area in the Smoldering Remains of Wall Street?
While you might be lusting after a private beach or three and in search of the fastest way to get there, traditional jobs in finance have a big downside: no stability.
Sure, we already know that “security” is impossible in the real world, but with some jobs you have a much higher chance of being fired quickly for under-performing (see: prop trading).
But with others, you have at least a decent shot of sticking around for the long haul – even if you just do as you are told.
One of those jobs is asset management, and today we’re speaking with an interviewee who works in the institutional sales division within asset management.
Here’s what you’ll learn:
- What it takes to get into one of the most stable areas in finance, and why our interviewee made a good bet by avoiding banking or consulting.
- What you actually do in asset management sales and how it’s different from other areas.
- Where to go once (if?) you thrive, but you’re still looking for those coveted exit opportunities.
Q: Let’s start with how you broke in… the most obvious question here is, why not banking or consulting instead? They’re more “prestigious!”
A: Yeah, like everyone else, I actually looked at those – but it was in the midst of the last recession and recruiting was nearly impossible. Just as you can’t buy what’s not for sale, I found myself more interested in where I could find a mutual fit than in “prestige.”
I wanted a role that was well-rounded, macro-oriented, and (relatively) stable.
I didn’t want to be that guy who joins the Leveraged Finance desk right before it gets wiped out and then becomes one of the “survivors,” all of whom are working on credit amendments and other busywork.
I had a few good options with asset management firms and thought: “Not only can I choose where I’d like to work, but the hours are much better, I work with more laid-back clients, and I get a well-rounded skill set and a strong foundation.”
It was an easy choice, and I’ve done well since joining my firm a few years ago.
Q: I see – yeah, if you aren’t as obsessed with money or moving up the ladder it can be a great choice. Any tips on breaking into the industry in the first place?
Most students don’t think to look at professional groups such as the CFA Institute and the Association of Latino Professionals in Finance and Accounting– both of which host conferences, and, in turn, host career fairs.
When I was recruiting, I even looked at the various conferences held at business schools. There’s a China business conference hosted at most of the major ones, and another really overlooked event is the Boston Career Forum.
While 99.9% of the job postings might be for someone who speaks both Japanese and English, I can assure you that there are some spots for people who speak other languages such as Mandarin.
Q: What can our readers expect from the interview process itself? How is it different from hedge fund or trading interviews?
A: Because asset management is focused on macro elements, you should expect to be able to dissect current events and discuss how they are relevant to making an investment decision.
While you may be asked to pitch a stock, you’re more likely to be asked about the proper investment for a particular buyer.
You will also be asked about the usual questions about what’s going on in the markets; they once asked me about oil price movements, and how an investor could get around volatility.
Q: So then it’s easy to get recruited; drop in your resume at the school career center…
A: Actually no. Recruiting is significantly different from investment banking recruiting because almost all moderately sized banks conduct on-campus recruiting, but few dedicated asset management firms do that to the same degree.
Dedicated asset management firms focus on a few core schools, and “few” here means “fewer than what banks focus on.”
To give you an idea of how different it is: even I attended a top university, the firm I work at doesn’t even recruit at the undergraduate level there.
It depends a little on the geography as well; I know that the SF office of the asset management arm at one large bank, for example, recruits undergrads in the local geography.
But for the most part, to have a shot at most asset management firms you need to take the initiative, go to conferences, and do a ton of networking on your own. They’re just less accessible and less visible on campuses compared to banks.
Q: OK, but how do you know if a company is actually hiring if it doesn’t come to your campus?
A: Many positions are not advertised at all, so it really comes down to extensive networking and getting to know the company before you even think about open positions there.
It’s not the type of industry you can get into easily if you’re not comfortable with this.
Asset Management 101
Q: Great, thanks for sharing those tips.
Before we get into what you do day-to-day, can you tell us more generally what the asset management market looks like and what the different sectors are?
A: At a high level, “asset management” just means “Large institutional investors like Fidelity are managing funds for huge numbers of people and Limited Partners and need to decide where to invest – how do they allocate assets and earn high returns?”
Unlike hedge funds or trading or other areas where the goal is to earn as high a return as possible, in asset management your performance is measured against the index for the sector you cover or a custom benchmark… so in that sense it’s more conservative.
And in asset management sales specifically, our job is to go to these institutional investors, figure out what they’re interested in, sell them the relevant products, and maintain long-term relationships.
Just like trading, the basic division consists of debt (fixed income) and equity.
The debt market is dominated by BlackRock and PIMCO (Pacific Investment Management Company). These two firms do a huge proportion of the debt investing compared to everyone else.
The equity markets are more fragmented, with various investment banks trying to gain market share and win clients from others.
At most banks, asset management is divided into:
- Portfolio Management
I work at a pure-play asset management firm, which is different since we have a more specialized array of resources compared to the massive banks – but then, we don’t have the conflicts of interest either.
You’ve already covered hedge funds vs. institutional asset management – the descriptions there much match the portfolio management aspect of the business.
But in addition to managing money and making investment decisions, you also need to do the research in the first place and win clients, which is what research and sales are for.
Q: That sounds very similar to the division in private banking – I’m assuming it’s different because of the clients you work with?
A: Yeah, pretty much. You would think that the work in private banking is incredibly similar to what I would do, but it’s not that close at all.
Private banking / private wealth management tends to be much more about schmoozing with clients, playing the relationship / politics game, and there’s little fast-paced / quantitative work.
And you already know that asset management = institutional clients and private banking = high-net-worth individuals, so the work is also quite different as well.
I guess I’m biased, but overall I think that you set yourself up for more and better exit opportunities in asset management because there’s more market / analytical work.
Q: Thanks for clarifying that one.
Since the purpose of this site is to confuse readers as much as possible (I’m only half kidding), how do investment consulting firms fit into all of this?
A: It’s simple, actually.
A large bank has senior institutional sales relationship management professionals, and they’re divided between covering the client itself and covering an investment consulting firm that covers the same client.
To be clear, investment consulting firms themselves are separate and banks don’t really do that type of work.
But they do like to take a “multi-pronged approach” and sell to both the institutional client and the consultants advising them, because it increases the chances of winning the mandate. It’s sort of like creating a close relationship with your partner and strong rapport with your partner’s family.
This process is more discreet in mergers and acquisitions: the same firm may both represent the buyer and the seller, but the individual deal teams are separate and cannot access one another’s data rooms.
If you’re pitching to investment consulting firms, you also need to be more technical because you must understand the firm’s approaches and strategies in-depth.
A Day in the Life
Q: Interesting analogy there… but in a really competitive market, it makes perfect sense that banks would act that way.
So what’s an average day in your life like? I’m assuming you spend a lot more time talking to clients since it’s sales?
A: At a traditional investment bank, day-to-day work in asset management institutional sales consists of drawing up profiles (sound familiar?), internal reporting, attending teach-ins, and learning about the various approaches to investing.
I’m describing it like this because even though the role is called “sales,” you actually spend a lot of time on other tasks, especially at the junior levels.
Profiles: The profiles themselves consist of a list of current positions in various portfolio strategies, as well as the types of securities the prospect/client is interested in (think “pie chart”).
I learned that most portfolios can be plotted on a two-dimensional Cartesian plane; the horizontal axis reflects market cap, and the vertical axis reflects the extent the portfolio provides growth or provides value.
Here, “value” means a stock that pays out regular dividends. Congratulations – you’ve just learned how to create a Zephyr Chart!
Internal Reporting: In this role, you keep track of how well your group is performing compared to prior quarters or years. This “business management” assignment is about punching in data and formatting it nicely.
Don’t worry, you won’t stay up all night formatting it or torturing people in the presentations center as you would in investment banking.
Teach-ins: A teach-in may consist of gathering a group of portfolio managers or decision makers at the prospect/client institutions, and following up with an invitation and a phone call to encourage attendance.
At the events themselves, you just need to be yourself and keep a smart presence in the room.
As shown in this set of materials prepared by JPMorgan, the pitch discussion materials are kept pretty broad.
A teach-in focuses on promoting a particular investment approach (read: product offered by your firm) and gives a chance for the relationship managers to speak intelligently and gain mind share.
Learning: A colleague of mine focuses on endowments, pension funds, and insurance companies. Depending on who your client is, you might see a more aggressive or conservative approach.
So you’ll need to read up on all those asset classes and make sure you know everything going on in the market all the time.
Just like coming up with ideas at hedge funds, you need to be out there researching new areas and thinking of strategies that make sense for your clients – otherwise, why would they continue buying from you?
Q: It’s interesting to see that although the role is called “institutional sales,” it seems that you don’t actually spend the majority of your time on winning clients or up-selling them on more products, at least at the entry-level.
You mentioned in the beginning that asset management sales is more “stable” as well, and I’m curious what you mean by that and how it relates.
A: Most of our clients are very risk-averse and are all about capital preservation. You see hedge funds and prop trading firms blowing up all the time because they can pursue crazy, risky strategies, but that’s the opposite of how these firms think.
Since some of them have been around for decades and will be around for decades, there’s always going to be a demand for our products from asset management firms.
And unlike, say, prop trading or working in a front-office investing role at a hedge fund or other firm, you don’t make investment decisions directly in sales so you can’t be fired if a client happens to screw up and lose money on an investment (or at least, your chances of being fired are lower).
Q: So are the hours are also better?
A: Yes, way better than investment banking / private equity / hedge funds in general – I’ve seen 9 AM to 5:30 PM at a competing firm, so it’s literally almost a 9-to-5 job.
At some places and maybe at large banks, the hours will be worse, but in general this is not a “you will never have a life and must sacrifice all friends/family”-type job.
Q: So then the pay must be worse, right?
A: I can’t comment on pay, but you can take a look at Glass Door for salary information.
For more reliable numbers, you can take a look at the Greenwich Reports that are published each year – they’re not cheap, but they do give a comprehensive breakout of pay by title, years of experience, and more, at these firms.
Bonuses are in line with your performance at the group level. As a more senior professional, bonuses are contingent on how many mandates you win for the company.
Asset Management Drivers
Q: That sounds appealing, though I’m not sure of this whole get-more-free-time-but-don’t-make-as-much-money trade-off.
So what do your clients care about here? What’s important for the different sectors in asset management?
A: (Laughs) any institutional client needs to keep a macro perspective. If you look at the JPMorgan Guide to Markets, you’ll notice that it’s covering a ton of different economic indicators.
Similarly, BlackRock makes research available for several asset classes under their investment commentary.
So it’s a matter of following what clients are interested in, though the focus varies by sector:
Equity: The market definitely follows the economy, but not exactly in lock step. As a sort of representative barometer, you can look at the formula for GDP = Net Exports + Government Expenditures + Fixed Asset Investment + Domestic Consumption.
Anything that changes that formula will influence economic health. I know, not exactly rocket science, but the formula is often brought up when discussing the overall economy and where equities might be heading.
Debt: Naturally all bonds are measured against some sort of floor – such as the US Treasury market. LIBOR or EURIBOR influence the interest rates for some bonds as well. A sector’s ability to pay back the debt will influence bond prices there.
Governments can also compete against private companies for bond investments, which may make the cost of bonds favorable for buyers of bonds.
Q: Any trade publications that you would recommend if you want to get up to speed?
A: Absolutely. I recommend Institutional Investor, which you’ve probably heard of because it features an annual award (really important for equity research analysts).
And then there are all the usual sources you already know of from the coverage of sales and trading here, so I won’t repeat all of those.
Aside from that, just keep in mind how these news stories or macroeconomic conditions may influence how you make an investment decision.
The Exit Stage…
Q: You’ve made the job sound very appealing, but I’m assuming not everyone stays in it… what are the most common exit opportunities?
A: Depending on the firm, you can go to business school, move into a managerial role, or move to another firm in a similar capacity.
I’ve seen previous asset management sales analysts move into both types of relationship manager roles mentioned above, with the investment consulting path slightly more technical.
Sometimes, success in this sector depends on whether you can predict what area a prospect/client might be interested in and deliver that product before competitors can – or on the flip-side, offer a product that can undo what a competitor did. :-)
Asset management attracts a different crowd than investment banking; it’s not the traditional pre-private equity / pre-hedge funds type of role.
You might find someone who worked in investment banking before working in corporate development at an asset management firm, but it’s not particularly common.
The other way around is even more difficult: moving from asset management to IB/PE is close to impossible because the skill sets are so different. You would need to do a lot more than networking there to make that kind of transition.
Q: Thanks so much for your time!
A: Happy to help.
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