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Answering Its Own Call


BlackRock became the world's largest asset manager by astute investing in bonds. The first securities it offered to investors back in 1988 were in fact fixed-income products.

Now, its fixed-income business is fairly flat. In the first quarter, it pulled in $16.6 billion of new assets under management. But that's only about 1% on the $1.2 trillion of fixed-income assets it has under management.

And revenue in its "active" fixed-income business only gained $1 billion. Revenue in the first quarter reached $279 billion. In the December quarter, it was $278 billion.

''We're in a perfect storm right now: aging population, deleveraging economies, shifting jobs, income inequality wrapped up in low growth and low yields-just when people need better returns and a better economic opportunity,'' said BlackRock chairman Laurence D. Fink.

In a move that should boost its bond business and play to its strength, Fink and BlackRock say they are going to adapt their internally developed Aladdin system for managing investments in bonds to a new purpose.

The Aladdin Trading Network. A new bond-trading venue that likely caters to the interests of other large institutions, like BlackRock.

The great thing about Aladdin is that BlackRock tried, long before the 2008 credit crisis, to tie the results of every fancy or fanciful "structured" fixed-income product back to the performance of each underlying bond that results might depend upon. Granularity matters. As other investment houses suddenly found out, in the month Lehman Brothers disappeared.

Whether Aladdin proves to be the genie that puts new life into BlackRock's bond business remains to be seen.

Trading in bonds is very illiquid, compared to stocks. And trading directly between institutions, without dealer involvement, is not likely to change that.

That is one of the downsides of the BlackRock approach, according to Raymond James & Associates analyst Patrick O'Shaughnessy. Hit rates in a given trading session for crosses between institutions are likely to be less than 5%. Hit rates on a platform that involves dealers range between 64% and 79%, by comparison, he says.

But you can't fault Fink for trying. He's answering his own call, for restoring interest in investing.