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Simple Rules for Creating a Profitable SMA Program

It's the newest "it product." With assets projected to grow annually at 23%, separately managed accounts (SMAs) could quite possibly become the hottest investment product of the decade.

But little has been said about how to penetrate this market, or how mutual fund companies, most of which are third-tier in this space, are going to compete with top-tier asset management firms with an established foothold in separately managed accounts.

"The high cost of entry is prohibitive, except if you distribute someone else's branded product," said Matt Schott, an analyst with Tower Group of Needham, Mass. In addition, SMA profit margins are said to be about half of those of mutual funds.

So, why are so many fund companies scrambling to offer these products when there are so many drawbacks and only an estimated two million accounts with $400 billion in assets?

Fund companies "need this as one of their service offerings," said James S. Greene, VP of financial services of the Americas for Cap Gemini Ernst & Young. Or as Kevin M. Keefe, VP and senior consultant with Financial Research Corp., put it at The Money Management Institute conference in New York earlier this month: "Because that is where the money is."

About 75% of SMA funds are held by five wirehouse powerhouses: Merrill Lynch, Morgan Stanley, UBS PaineWebber, Prudential and Citigroup's Salomon Smith Barney.

Though the road to creating a successful SMA program is littered with hurdles, analysts and bankers interviewed say there are a few key points to remember.

1. Focus on profit by controlling costs.

The key word in SMAs is "profitability." Once an SMA program operates past the breakeven point, gross profit margins hover between 17% and 23% in years six through 10.

Keeping equity turnover low is one way to hold expenses down. The average turnover in separate accounts is 75% and the average security is held for only 16 months.

Moreover, margins are low. Management fees for SMAs have dropped from 3% in the early 1990s to 1.5%, according to Celent Communications, which recommends an SMA return on assets (ROA) of 1.5% to 2.5% and a return on equity (ROE) of 15% to 19%.

Remaining cost-efficient is, therefore, a major priority for any new or existing separately managed account.

2. Set profitable account minimums.

Cerulli estimates the SMA business for all financial institutions is less profitable than the retail mutual fund business. But the larger the account, the higher the profit.

According to Lockwood Financial Services research, the average managed account is $250,0000. While the industrywide account minimum used to be $1 million, many banks, accept accounts of $100,000. But TowerGroup warns that tax savings are attractive only for accounts of at least $250,000. Going further, TowerGroup says at least $750,000 is required to be properly diversified.

3. Determine what to outsource.

Many experts are advising fund companies to choose between manufacturing and distribution.

"If you have no economy of scale and you're starting from scratch, building it isn't the right way to go," said James Paolini, director of investment consulting at Wells Fargo Private Client Services.

More than 40 vendors now offer SMA services, from investment management, to back-office support, to distribution and marketing. Operational functions - account opening and closing, account maintenance, account reconciliation, marketing fulfillment and performance reporting - which make up about one-third of costs, is a logical first outsourcing choice, according to Cerulli Associates.

"Every outsourcing firm has polished and tweaked and tinkered their solutions and has a comprehensive approach to SMAs," said Christopher L. Davis, executive director of The Money Management Institute.

Major vendors in the outsourcing space include FundQuest, BISYS Investment Services, Checkfree, EnvestnetPMC, SEI Investments and Brinker Capital.

Even Wells Fargo, another big-bank name in managed accounts, has outsourced with London Pacific Advisors for an SMA platform.

In fact, banks should outsource SMA accounts 100% of the time - at least at first, said Jim Seuffert, who heads Lockwood Financial Services, the largest provider of individually managed account services to independent financial advisers. With $6.8 billion in SMA assets, the eight-year-old firm in Malvern, Pa., was purchased by Bank of New York in October.

One area where investment firms should retain control is due diligence, due to fiduciary responsibility, Paolini said.

4. Give clients access to a truly wide scope of choices.

There's no excuse for not offering clients a wide breadth of best-of-breed products, according to analysts. And while you're at it, figure out how to encompass multiple investment styles - hedge funds, mutual funds, exchange-traded funds and variable annuities into accounts - and then make it accessible on one platform, because that's what clients expect.

"There is meaningful research that says HNW clients are taking advisers less and less seriously if they're not offering them overarching platforms," Keefe said, pointing to a recent Spectrum Group study indicating 61% of high-net-worth clients believe an adviser can't be objective unless his SMA provider offers outside products.