Embracing a New Technology for Productive Meetings
At the start of 2020, who could have predicted that the somewhat staid world of investments, with its love of in-person meetings and on-site due diligence, would have to wholeheartedly embrace remote work, and with them, remote meetings?
Several months into the year, our team at Alpha Capital Management has logged hundreds of hours on Zoom, BlueJeans, WebEx, and their remote meeting brethren. We’ve used them for everything from OCIO search finals to informal team meetings. And in that time, we’ve not only learned how to maximize this video platform, but we’ve gathered feedback from a wide variety of institutional investors, OCIOs, asset managers, and consultants on how to make the most of remote meetings.
Remote meetings have their downsides, to be sure. Following Murphy’s Law, internet connections seem to be at their most unstable in the middle of important finals presentations. It is difficult to build rapport and impossible to make eye contact. And almost every meeting gives us a new opportunity to experience what Russell Investments dubbed the “Top 5 Most Painful Phrases in a Virtual Meeting.” (For more on that, see Additional Resources).
But remote meetings also have plenty of benefits. They are easier to schedule and don’t require eight hours of travel for a one-hour meeting. This makes it easier for senior leaders to attend finals they would otherwise miss, and allows clients to meet with a broader group of professionals at any given firm than is practical to fly in for a meeting.
It’s hard to say how long any of us can expect to interact with clients solely through video conferencing. We may as well make the most of it. In this research paper, Alpha Capital Management offers our best practices for successful video conferencing. Here are our top tips:
Tip 1: It Takes a Village
Remote meetings can quickly descend into chaos, with parties constantly interrupting each other (“No, you go…”) and participants trying to troubleshoot technology issues live (“Can you hear me now?”). While one extremely organized person can manage a meeting, the best meetings involve more than one organizer in key roles. Here are three to consider:
The Super Moderator is tasked with starting the meeting, giving the (virtual) floor to the appropriate party, setting the procedure for questions (whether that is using the chat function, speaking up, using a virtual icon to raise hands), and ensuring that all participants have a chance to ask questions. Make sure Super Moderator is well versed in your virtual meeting technology. He or she should know (at a minimum) how to set up a meeting, use “waiting room” or “admit to meeting” functions, mute and unmute participants, and allow participants to screen-share.
No one wants to delay a meeting for ten minutes while one participant provides live technical support to another. Hand that responsibility off to someone who isn’t an active meeting participant. Make sure each meeting participant knows how to reach Technical Support, too. Provide a day-of contact number and email for any last-minute troubleshooting.
If your firm intends to share your screen and display live content, appoint one person to manage the presentation. Ideally, this is someone who has a low-to-moderate speaking role—and it certainly should be someone with a strong internet connection. Screen Sharer should disable pop-up notifications such as email alerts that might distract from the meeting or display confidential information. The presentation to be shared should be ready to go on the screen (no fumbling through personal files and vacation photos live, please!). Lastly, Screen Sharer should be well versed in the technology, especially using special features such as annotate or pause screen share (useful for pulling up another document or file without everyone watching you click around).
Tip 2: Back Up Your Backups
In a remote meeting, it is much harder to control the variables for participants than for an in-person meeting. Don’t try to eliminate the variables— embrace them. For one example, let’s think about sharing a live presentation on screen. This works for participants who log onto the meeting using a device with a screen, but not for participants joining by phone. Send out all presentations in advance to participants via email or through the calendar invitation, so everyone has the material at their fingertips. Provide multiple ways for participants to join the meeting as well. Most video conferencing systems allow for computer, tablet, or phone access with or without video connectivity. And if you follow our first tip and appoint a Screen Sharer, back up this role too! Make sure more than one participant is ready to share the deck in case of last-minute challenges
Tip 3: Brevity is the Soul of Video Conferencing
The culmination of the Alpha search process is the finals presentation. OCIOs and consultants who have cleared months of due diligence present in person to the Committee. Our typical finals schedule takes about 5 hours: 3 one-hour presentations by finalist candidates with brief 10-15 minute breaks in between, bookended by 30-minute (or longer) discussions to kick off and wrap up the meeting. This is a tried-and-true formula for in-person meetings but is extremely taxing over video. The human brain is wired for in-person connection. Research shows that sitting at a kitchen table interacting with a computer is much different than sitting at a conference table interacting with peers. This phenomenon even has its own name, Zoom fatigue. Keep this in mind while scheduling video meetings, and try to break them up more than you would an in-person meeting. We suggest that no video meeting last longer than 2.5 hours, including breaks. If scheduling difficulties don’t permit multi-day finals, try to schedule longer-than-normal breaks in between presentations to give participants a chance to stretch and walk around.
This tip also applies to the presentations themselves. Video conferencing has a few key disadvantages over in-person meetings. A good presenter watches the audience for non-verbal cues and adjusts the presentation accordingly, understanding when to belabor a point and when to skip ahead to more interesting material. In the absence of non-verbal feedback, it is easy to ramble. Be very deliberate in your presentation. Pause often, allowing participants enough time to jump in with a question or a prompt to move ahead. Allow time for technical difficulties and for plenty of questions. Organization is important for any presentation; remotely, it is crucial.
Tip 4: Easy on the Eyes
No one expects your video meeting to resemble a Hollywood movie (or even Saturday Night Live from Home). But there are a few simple ways to improve the quality of video meetings without buying a green screen or taking acting lessons from Brad Pitt. First, try to avoid the meeting opening with a blank, dark screen. Your participants should have visual cues that they have joined the meeting successfully, and that they have joined the right meeting. If the meeting participants are using video, the Brady Bunch view of familiar faces can provide that cue. Another option is to share a welcome screen at the beginning of the meeting, displaying the meeting name and perhaps a brief agenda.
Next, put some thought into your video setup. As noted in the previous tip, non-verbal cues are an important part of human communication. Although cues like body positioning, hand gestures, and eye contact are limited on video call, having a well-lit shot that shows your facial expressions adds back something that is otherwise lost. Putting a little thought into your video setup goes a long way. An ideal spot would have lots of light (both in front and behind you) and a good head-on view of you with little else in the foreground. Don’t forget a comfortable chair.
Lastly, put some thought into your wardrobe. Video conferences can have a casual air about them, with participants joining in from home environments and often dressed down. We recommend that presenters dress up to add that little bit of extra professionalism. And please, wear pants. We’ll know if you don’t.
Tip 5: Roll With the Punches
This tip was initially called “Practice Makes Perfect.” After three and a half months of virtual meetings, however, the entire planet has had plenty of practice. We should all be expert-level virtual meeting participants at this point. And yet, very few video conferences go off without a hitch, even today. It may not surprise you to hear that our most successful virtual meetings have this in common: participants are comfortable with the technology. The proliferation of video platforms, settings, and features can make it a challenge for participants to know the ins and outs of each technology—and that’s putting aside the fact that some participants are not as skilled as others with technology in general.
By all means, work with your participants to get them comfortable with your video platform of choice. Encourage them to test-drive the technology on their own or with Technical Support (see Tip 1), offer quick-start guides that highlight key features (see Additional Resources, below), and practice, practice, practice. That being said, a little bit of grace goes a long way. Accept that technical issues might crop up. Kids might make a cameo, the doorbell might ring in the middle of a meeting, or the mute function just might not work like it should. Address them, work around them, and move on. It doesn’t have to be perfect. We’re all in this together
Want to Learn More? Additional Resources
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If you haven’t taken our OCIO 101 class, you may wish to start there. It covers what OCIO stands for (outsourced Chief Investment Officer), what its namesake Chief Investment Officer does, and what kinds of investment firms offer OCIO services.
Today, we’re diving a little deeper into the OCIO landscape. Deciding to hire an OCIO is one important decision an Investment Committee can make, but it is not the only one. Once an organization has chosen to move to an OCIO model, it must select between the myriad options that bear the “OCIO” label. The three OCIO models we will discuss today, which we think of as a spectrum, are:
This class, OCIO 102, is dedicated to helping you make sense of those labels to find the OCIO model that best fits your organization’s needs. We also offer some tips to organizations embarking on a search for each model.
At one end of the spectrum are one-fund OCIOs (at least, this is what we call them at Alpha Capital Management).
These are complete solutions, primarily for endowments and foundations, and they are typically managed by spin-outs of large endowment teams like college universities. When an institutional investor engages a one-fund OCIO, the institution’s assets are combined with all the firm’s other clients in a pool and invested in the same asset allocation with the same managers. One-fund OCIOs typically invest in a version of the Endowment Model, with heavy allocations to illiquid alternative investments.
Alpha Capital's Search Tips for One-Fund OCIOs:
At the opposite end of the spectrum from one-funds are custom OCIOs.
This model looks and feels very similar to legacy investment consulting relationships. Custom OCIOs take a collaborative approach to many of the high-level portfolio decisions that one-fund OCIOs make on their own – liquidity, return objectives and risk tolerance, asset class weights, and idiosyncratic portfolio decisions like values-based investing. On these big-picture topics, there is no functional difference between a custom OCIO and a traditional non-discretionary investment consultant. The line in the sand that separates custom OCIO from non-discretionary consulting is the ability to hire and fire investment managers without approval from the organization. Once the Investment Policy Statement has been collaboratively created and agreed upon, the custom OCIO has discretion to make day-to-day portfolio decisions, and it has the operational authority to do so.
Alpha Capital's Search Tips for Custom OCIOs:
Hybrid OCIO is another term that is used by Alpha Capital but not necessarily across the industry. These solutions lie somewhere between custom and one-fund OCIOs on the spectrum.
The distinguishing characteristics of this model are the ability of the client to customize asset allocation (shared with custom OCIOs), and the pooling of some (but not necessary all) client assets (shared with one-fund OCIOs). Hybrid OCIOs often pool client assets within asset classes (e.g. all clients own the same Global Equity vehicle, but the allocation to Global Equity varies based on the individual client’s asset allocation). Some of the earliest OCIOs in the industry use this model.
Alpha Capital's Search Tips for Hybrid OCIOs:
Other Models Exist
You should now have a solid understanding of the main OCIO models available today. Unfortunately, life isn’t quite as simple as our charming illustration makes it seem. The OCIO industry is in a state of growth and evolution, and there are many variations between custom OCIOs, between custom and hybrid OCIOs, and even between one-fund OCIOs.
One example involves a client veto. Some OCIOs offer clients a defined window of time (e.g. 72 hours) to veto an investment manager change. You may question whether this is truly an OCIO model (remember, the line in the sand is whether an OCIO can make changes in the portfolio without the organization's approval), but it is often sold as such.
Another example involves a fund-of-one at a one-fund (yes, you read that right). As one-fund OCIOs mature, some have started offering clients the ability to customize at the margin. For example, a client with significant illiquid legacy positions may not be able to fully invest in a one-fund’s illiquid portfolio while staying within the liquidity requirements of the organization. This client can get a fund-of-one where the liquid assets of the portfolio are invested like the one-fund but the illiquids are the client’s legacy assets rather than the one-fund’s illiquid portfolio.
Therefore, it is important that your organization looks carefully at each OCIO provider (even if they appear to use the same model) to understand key parameters around discretion, consent, liquidity, fees, investment experience, portfolio management, trading, and other criteria before you hire one. The better designed your RFP is, the easier this process will be for you.
Have you ever attended a networking event with people from different industries who all introduce themselves in industry jargon? “I’m a PLP at EMC in charge of implementing ERP solutions.” That’s usually a good cue to head off in another direction.
The investment industry is no different – we may even be the worst offenders. When Alpha Capital Management performs investment consultant searches or OCIO searches for our clients, we generally work directly with finance staff and investment committee members. It may sound obvious, but even in these circles, we’re not speaking directly to investment professionals on a daily basis. Diversity of thought is valuable to investment committees, and members without investment experience play an important role by asking questions, checking assumptions, and approaching decisions from different backgrounds. Studies show that 70% of the members on a typical volunteer non-profit investment committee have investment experience – so on average, at least 1-2 people in the room with us on any given engagement are not investment experts (nor do they play one on TV). We try our best not to use a lot of industry lingo, but we aren’t always successful.
Here’s a great example: OCIO. This is a term we use constantly – in fact, it is at the heart of many of our client engagements. The first decision that an investment committee needs to make is whether to “go OCIO” – that is, whether to outsource any of the investment decision-making functions that currently rest with the committee. But before a committee can make that decision, each of the members need to know what we mean when we use the acronym OCIO.
With that in mind, school is now in session. Welcome to OCIO 101.
What is OCIO?
“OCIO” is an acronym for Outsourced Chief Investment Officer.
Many large organizations, especially in the non-profit world, have Chief Investment Officers (often shorted to “CIOs”) who oversee their investments. A well-known example is David Swensen, who has been Chief Investment Officer of Yale University’s $30B Endowment since 1985. Organizations can also choose to outsource this job to an external firm, hence, an outsourced CIO or OCIO.
To understand what an OCIO does, it helps to first understand two things:
What does a Chief Investment Officer (CIO) do?
At Yale, CIO David Swensen’s ultimate job is to earn Yale strong returns on its investment portfolio. His and other CIO’s typical job responsibilities are a mix of portfolio management, people management, and investment operations. A university’s CIO might:
But not every institution is as big as Yale and can dedicate a salaried position (let alone several) to investments. Many institutions (especially those with less than $500M in assets) do not have a dedicated Chief Investment Officer and find ways to split up these duties across other staff members (the Chief Financial Officer is a common choice) and volunteer Investment Committee or Board members. Often, the Investment Committee will hire one or more experts to assist them. Enter the Investment Consultant.
What does an Investment Consultant do?
The most common arrangement in the industry, for a long time, looked like this:
Under this arrangement, everything rests on the shoulders of the volunteer Investment Committee. As we learned earlier, most Investment Committees are not comprised entirely of investment experts, nor do they have the time and resources to perform the heavy lifting on investment due diligence. These Committees need advice and analytical firepower to help them make the big decisions they are tasked with – namely, how to prudently invest the assets under their care so that those assets can meet the organization’s needs, and hopefully also grow over time. This is the role that the Investment Consultant plays – an outside firm hired by the Investment Committee to provide advice, do the heavy lifting on asset allocation studies and investment manager due diligence, and to help the Committee discharge its fiduciary duty.
Under this model, the Investment Committee makes portfolio decisions based on the advice of the Investment Consultant, and the Chief Financial Officer or other staff implemented those decisions by performing tasks such as signing documents and moving assets.
What does an OCIO do?
The traditional arrangement we described above still exists, but it can be a heavy burden for an Investment Committee, and it is becoming more so over time. As investment consulting firm Callan wrote in their 2019 paper, "Risky Business Update: Challenges Remain for Today's Investors," an institution could expect to earn an annualized 7.5% return in 1989 just by investing in bonds and cash. In 2019, to earn the same expected return requires a diversified portfolio with stocks, real estate, and even private equity. It has become harder for Investment Committees to oversee these portfolios as they grow in complexity.
It is no surprise, therefore, that OCIO (outsourced Chief Investment Officer) has taken off like a rocket in the past ten (really the past five) years. It shifts some of the Investment Committee responsibilities and some of the Chief Financial Officer responsibilities onto a new player, the OCIO, who replaces the old Consultant. Like this:
Under this model, the Investment Committee oversees portfolio strategy. The OCIO makes portfolio decisions based on the strategy the Investment Committee has outlined in its Investment Policy Statement. The OCIO is also empowered to implement many of those decisions, including signing documents and moving assets. The Chief Financial Officer or other staff serve in a supporting role.
What Kinds of Firms Act as OCIOs?
Based on what you've learned so far in this course, you may have already guessed that two of most popular types of OCIOs are:
These two groups aren’t the only ones with the right skill set to offer OCIO solutions to institutions. Other OCIO providers who have leveraged existing services to build discretionary solutions are:
Are All OCIO Models the Same?
Let us repeat, NO!
Just as OCIOs evolved from a variety of different firms, there are a wide number of potential OCIO models to choose from. Here are three main groups of OCIOs (noting that real life does not conform nicely to these groups, so there is plenty of variation. The value of a well-written OCIO RFP to suss out these nuances cannot be overstated):
Alpha Capital Joins with Nasdaq to Create OCIO Tools to Increase Transparency
New suite of indices provide valuable tools for institutional investors to measure outsourced Chief Investment Officers
Alpha Capital Management, a best-in-class OCIO search provider, announced the Alpha Nasdaq OCIO Indices, a suite of tools that empower institutional investors with valuable insights for assessing Outsourced Chief Investment Officer (OCIO) services. Alpha Capital collaborated with Nasdaq in developing the product suite, which provides much-needed transparency to a traditionally opaque industry.
The indices give institutional investors and OCIO firms the ability to objectively measure their performance against peers across different risk profiles, client types and asset mixes. Alpha Capital developed the indices along with Nasdaq and leading OCIOs.
Outsourced Chief Investment Officers are third-party service providers that serve as chief investment officers for institutional investors. They assume the legal and fiduciary responsibilities of a Chief Investment officer but provide the services externally. A report by Charles Skorina & Company estimated OCIO assets under management grew to $2.38 trillion this year.
The Alpha Nasdaq OCIO Indices provide a reliable framework for institutions to objectively measure the performance data of these providers, which has traditionally been difficult to assess. The tools are a meaningful step towards establishing an industry-wide standard for OCIO performance evaluation.
The indices are based on account-level return streams, asset allocation and metadata anonymously reported directly by OCIO firms. The Alpha Nasdaq OCIO indices compile this anonymously reported data to construct a family of indices that represent the broad OCIO market along with variations of the OCIO market to more appropriately reflect the nuances across sub-categories, such as client type and risk profile.
“For too long, outsourced CIOs were measured by a wide variety of metrics that didn’t suit every player,” says Brad Alford, of Alpha Capital Management. “The Alpha Nasdaq OCIO Indices help create a level playing field and bring some transparency and uniformity to how OCIOs are measured. This is a game changer for institutional investors looking into outsourcing CIO functions and for OCIOs.”
“Market access and transparency are two of Nasdaq’s key missions,” said Terry Wade, Senior Vice President of Business and Product Development with Nasdaq’s Global Information Services. “Our work with Alpha Capital Management brings much-needed transparency and makes the OCIO space more accessible.”
For more information, please visit www.AlphaNasdaqOCIO.com.
The outsourced Chief Investment Officer ("OCIO") service model has a lot to recommend it. Institutional portfolios grow more and more complex, putting strain on corporate benefits departments and non-profit volunteer boards. Institutional clients need more help, and the marketplace is busily coming up with solutions to meet strong client demand. Investment consultants have been very successful in offering OCIO solutions to clients. Indeed, three of the five largest OCIOs globally are investment consultants. The OCIO model offers several attractive features to investment consultants, but it also comes with challenges. We address three such challenges in this blog post: performance, conflicts of interest, and operational capabilities.
Challenge #1: Performance
A constant source of frustration at our firm during our searches is trying to get an investment consultant to quantify the value of their advice (one reason we think they can’t charge as much as they should). Who is responsible for returns in a non-discretionary investment relationship where a board of directors makes decisions based on the advice of their investment consultant? The board selected the asset allocation, but the consultant did the asset allocation study. The board picked the managers, but the consultant recommended them. It’s hard to parse out who is responsible for performance in an advisory relationship.
With OCIO though, performance responsibility rests squarely on the consultant-turned-OCIO, good or bad. Take a look at this statistic from Cerulli’s most recent OCIO research study: 100% of non-profit respondents list investment performance as the #1 thing an OCIO must deliver.
We don’t believe that consultants have fully embraced responsibility for performance yet. When prospective clients ask for performance, a common refrain from consulting firms is, “we cannot show an OCIO track record because every client is different.” Clients may have different goals, but relative performance or composites of clients with similar goals should capture these. (As a side note, without an industry standard like Global Investment Performance Standards (GIPS) being used, even composite returns must be viewed with suspicion. But it is still a step in the right direction! For more on GIPS, see our 2018 blog post).
Institutions must be able to see a track record in order to judge whether an OCIO is likely to deliver their #1 expectation, investment performance. OCIOs must accept responsibility for investment performance.
Challenge #2: Operations
One reason OCIO is so popular for non-profits under $250M (who, as a rule, are chronically understaffed) is operations. Investment portfolios have gotten extremely complex. Paperwork can be a nightmare, especially for alternatives with partnership agreements, side pockets, capital calls, distributions, and everything else to manage. Operational efficiency is a big selling point for OCIO solutions, but it’s also one where consultants don’t have a natural skill set - they must build it or buy it.
It also presents an interesting conundrum for consultants selling OCIO solutions to investment committees. Investment committees make the investment decisions, but they usually don’t know how the sausage is made. Operations staff handle portfolio implementation, but they don’t sit on investment committees. Consultants tie investment discretion and operational authority together into one OCIO package, but committees may view these as completely separate decisions. And committees may not want their consultant to sell them new and expensive investment solutions, which brings us to our third challenge.
Challenge #3: Conflicts of Interest
One thing the institutional investment consulting community does exceptionally well is align their interests with their clients. These long-term relationships are built on the client’s ability to trust their consultant. Serious conflicts of interest (like accepting money or Masters tickets from asset managers, earning 12b-1 fees and other commissions in addition to advisory fees, or selling proprietary products) are rare in the consulting industry these days, and those that exist are typically well disclosed and well managed.
Offering OCIO services alongside non-discretionary services, however, opens the door to brand new, serious conflicts of interest that must be managed. Now consultants have something to sell non-discretionary clients, OCIO, that increases revenue. Consultants are building proprietary products in an attempt to scale OCIO solutions – another potential conflict. Consultants are held wholly responsible for OCIO track records but not for non-discretionary client performance, incentivizing them to allocate top quartile, limited capacity managers to OCIO clients in the hopes of improving their performance record. The fee differential between non-discretionary and OCIO clients incentivizes firms to allocate their best resources to the line of business with higher revenue potential. These are just a few examples.
The OCIO industry is just beginning to grapple with these serious conflicts. Consulting firms must find a way to offer OCIO services without breaking the trust of their clients. We encourage consulting firms to think carefully about the potential conflicts of interest inherent in offering OCIO alongside traditional non-discretionary services, and to proactively and transparently address those issues with well-designed policies. December performance woes may be forgotten by mid-January, but clients have a long memory for bad behavior. It is time for the OCIO industry to evolve.
This blog post is adapted from our research report, "Clients Give Consultants a Green Light for OCIO."
Virtually unheard of a decade ago, the outsourced Chief Investment Officer (“OCIO”) marketplace has exploded. OCIO providers had more than $1.7 trillion in fully discretionary or partial discretionary assets under management (“AUM”) in early 2018, on a projected base of over $6 trillion total “outsourceable assets.” OCIO assets in the US have grown significantly over the past decade, and OCIO assets under management are expected to continue to grow at low double-digit rates for the foreseeable future, according to projections from Cerulli Associates and Pensions & Investments. In fact, Cerulli projects that US OCIO assets will increase by $671 billion over the next five years alone.
With such attractive growth prospects, it is no surprise that all sorts of firms are entering the market to offer institutional OCIO solutions. Alpha Capital Management tracks nearly 100 different firms offering OCIO services. Many of the OCIOs who have been most successful in attracting clients are consultants.
In this blog post, Alpha Capital Management offers our thoughts on the three primary reasons investment consultants are embracing OCIO. Our next blog post will cover three challenges that consultants-turned-OCIOs face.
Reason #1: Clients Want It
OCIO is growing because clients demand it. Why now? Let’s look at a few real-life examples from Alpha Capital Management’s search clients.
A $200M frozen pension plan finally saw their funded status top 90%. The CFO was thrilled. But by the time they went to lock it in, the markets moved against them. When we were called in to do a search, the funded status was back in the mid-80s. This number was so important to the CFO that he asked finalists if it could be pushed to him daily via text message. They went OCIO.
Pensions like our search client are a huge part of the OCIO market. This was true five years ago, and it is still true today. As Pensions & Investments reported in June 2018: “Large managers of discretionary OCIO assets said one of their biggest sources of new business in the past year and expected to be going forward is from corporations contemplating the fate of their defined benefit plans.” Defined benefit plans have kept pace with the massive growth of OCIO and still represent a third of the global OCIO marketplace, as shown below:
Here’s another example. We worked with a non-profit with about $500M in assets. Their returns weren’t awful, but they were below their peer group median and trailing public market benchmarks over the past 3, 5, and 10 years. “We must be terrible at managing money,” thought the board. They went OCIO.
It has been a tough market cycle for diversified investors like our non-profit client. The S&P 500 has beaten InvestmentMetric’s entire institutional universe, as shown here:
Of course, we are not arguing that the S&P 500 Index is a fair comparison, or even a reasonable one, for a diversified portfolio. But it is undeniably a visible, well understood, and highly discussed benchmark. Even against the simple blended index shown above, institutional portfolios have not kept up with the US market. Broad index returns may not mean as much as meeting client-specific goals and objectives, but these comparisons still matter to clients.
We believe that OCIO has benefited from two massive tailwinds: pension plan sponsors who seek an improved governance model, and clients struggling with underperformance issues who seek stronger returns.
Reason #2: Increased Revenue Potential
The marketing pitch we hear for OCIO goes like this: “it leads to stronger governance and an improved decision-making process, and it allows investment committees to focus on strategic decisions rather than getting bogged down in the details of running a complex portfolio. The service model bears an increased cost to compensate for the additional fiduciary liability of the OCIO.”
Consultants may not charge enough for advisory work (although our clients disagree). Try going to your advisory clients and asking for a 100% fee increase – you’re more likely to get fired than to get a client to agree. OCIO, though, has given consultants the opportunity to reset the market perception of value. An institution may be willing to pay twice as much for OCIO. This is an important factor in the explosion of OCIO offerings by consultants.
Reason #3: Scalability
OCIO also offers an attractive opportunity for consultants to grow more quickly using scalable solutions. Traditional investment consulting services are hard to scale. Portfolio management can be simpler and more scalable under an OCIO model. Instead of a consultant with 10 clients performing 10 individual asset allocation projects and 10 manager searches with 3 candidates per search, an OCIO does one asset allocation project and hires one manager per slot and then pushes it out to all 10 clients. It can be an attractive model from a business management perspective while offering clients a strong investment solution (and it ties back into the second point, as scalable solutions allow for higher client loads and therefore more revenue).
No Wonder Consultants are Embracing OCIO
The relationship between a client and an investment consultant is a long-lasting one, and clients place a great deal of trust in their consultants. It is no wonder that clients are approaching their investment consultant as they try to navigate increasingly complex governance considerations in a challenging market environment. Consultants are well placed to offer OCIO solutions to these clients seeking more help, and indeed, we see that they are successfully doing so.
Still, we believe consultants are finding OCIO to be a two-edged sword. With the benefits of higher fees and a more scalable service model come several key challenges.
In our next blog post, we will focus on three main ones: performance, operations, and conflicts of interest.
This blog post is adapted from our research report, "Clients Give Consultants a Green Light for OCIO."
As outsourced Chief Investment Officer (“OCIO”) solutions become more popular with institutional clients, the need to compare firms on a quantitative basis grows greater. If you’ve spent any time talking about the OCIO model with Alpha Capital Management, you’ve likely heard us mention GIPS compliance as an issue.
Performance is one important way to draw clear comparisons between investment managers (though, of course, it is not the only factor to consider). Most investment managers in traditional asset classes, especially those who work with institutional clients, claim compliance with Global Investment Performance Standards (GIPS), a globally accepted methodology for calculating and presenting performance information. Prospective clients are able to directly compare investment manager results to measure skill (i.e. alpha). GIPS is not as common yet in the alternative investment space, although that is expected to change in the near future with many hedge funds working toward GIPS compliance. The CFA Institute has been working on a project called GIPS 2020 aimed at improving the standard and increasing adoption, and it is expected to propel adoption of GIPS among alternatives managers. We hope it does the same with OCIOs.
We request performance information in our RFPs, but it is a highly imperfect metric. Traditional investment consultants are not usually compliant with GIPS, and performance varies widely between clients due to varying investment policy restrictions, use of alternative assets, individual investment managers, and whether the client implements the consultant’s advice. Many firms provide us with representative account data, which may or may not be relevant to our client. Although some OCIOs invest client assets as a pool where it is very easy to show audited performance, customized OCIO providers face the same issues that traditional consulting firms do: clients have different investment restrictions, different managers, and different objectives.
That being said, as OCIO Strategic Investment Group recently said “Yes, OCIOs Can Be GIPS Compliant!”
What is GIPS Compliance?
GIPS is an established set of principles that standardize the calculation and reporting of investment performance. The GIPS standards are voluntary and based on the fundamental principles of full disclosure and fair representation of performance results. GIPS allows investment management firms to quantify and communicate their performance without misrepresentation. Reference the Global Investment Performance Standards Handbook from the CFA Institute for more information on the standards, which is available for download at the CFA website.
Any investment management firm can follow the guidelines set forth by GIPS when calculating its track record, but only firms that manage discretionary assets can claim compliance with GIPS. Compliance cannot be attained by a single product. A firm must follow all requirements of the GIPS standards across all of the firm’s products, or else it may not claim compliance. Moreover, each and every client must be included in one of the composites. The CFA Institute’s GIPS Standards website lists more than 1,500 firms who claim compliance. To date, few OCIOs are among them.
Why is GIPS Compliance Useful for OCIO Searches?
Simply put, an institution’s ability to judge the OCIO’s ability to beat their benchmark over time, with comfort that the numbers are not cherry-picked or massaged, is paramount in selecting a qualified OCIO. There are several complicating factors to consider, however.
Some OCIOs use “building blocks,” where they establish track records for asset class composites like global equity. Examining those records helps gauge skill in manager selection (and to some extent, the ability to combine managers). But what about asset allocation? Unfortunately, looking at building block records doesn’t show if an OCIO has skill in asset allocation, either strategic or tactical. A true GIPS composite gives the institution valuable insight into the ability of an OCIO to manage a total portfolio.
GIPS compliance also helps to compare firms on an “apples to apples” basis. In the searches Alpha Capital Management runs for large institutions, we receive performance information that is all over the map. Some firms send us gross numbers, many send us gross of their fee but net of the underlying manager fees, and very occasionally, we get “net-net” numbers (meaning net of underlying management fees AND net of any OCIO fees, representing the end client performance). GIPS would simplify this greatly.
Exhibit 1 shows a sample GIPS compliant presentation. It is clear why this is valuable. Not only does the recipient have performance information, but he also has key information necessary to verify the quality of the data going into that calculation.
There are some caveats. As discussed earlier, a firm claims compliance with GIPS. An individual strategy cannot be GIPS compliant; every strategy at the firm must be assessed and calculated in line with GIPS, and every account must be put into a composite. For OCIOs with asset management divisions, claiming GIPS compliance can be a very complicated, time consuming, and expensive endeavor. It also reduces a firm’s ability to be flexible in regards to how it shows performance, as it locks the firm into one set method of calculation (even for issues where GIPS allows some leeway, such as in the treatment of legacy client assets, the firm must choose a path and stick to it).
There are also many flavors of OCIOs. Some OCIOs offer significantly customized solutions across their client base, while others offer a single pooled investment strategy that all of their clients use. For the latter, GIPS compliance is much more straightforward than the former.
What are the Market Trends?
We’ve been loudly complaining about the lack of GIPS compliance by OCIOs for quite a long time. For reference, we wrote a piece last summer in which we remark, “it’s ironic that consultants who would never hire an investment manager without a track record ask to be hired without providing their own” (Outsourced CIO: Not a Silver Bullet). We can also point to a recent survey conducted by eVestment and ACA Compliance Group, which showed that three quarters of investment consultants will not consider managers that don’t claim compliance with GIPS for their performance data some or all of the time. (see FundFire's "No GIPS? No Mandate for Most Managers: Report" by Mariana Lemann from August 16, 2018)
In our own OCIO searches, our institutional clients have been focused on performance as a differentiator between firms, and they have been frustrated by the complexity of analyzing the data they receive. This issue matters to the institutional investors who allocate to OCIOs and have the power to demand transparency.
We believe that the client demand for transparency and comparability between providers will lead to GIPS standards being more widely adopted by OCIOs. We’re happy to see already that more OCIO firms are talking about GIPS compliance or making progress toward claiming compliance. Strategic Investment Group was an early adopter, as was Angeles Investment Advisors. Highland Associates and Aon recently announced GIPS compliance, and we have spoken to several other OCIOs or consulting firms who are in various stages of reviewing, calculating, or claiming compliance with GIPS.
We firmly believe that the industry will reach a “tipping point” where the major players are GIPS compliant, and competitors must follow their example to stay relevant. The move toward transparent, verifiable performance calculations is a great thing for investors, and we highly encourage it.
We applaud OCIO and consulting firms who have recognized this and are taking action. We hope to be able to exclude firms who do not claim compliance with GIPS or have audited numbers from our OCIO searches, but right now, there are not enough compliant firms to do so. As the OCIO industry develops, institutionalizes, and evolves, we think that adopting clear, verified standards of performance is the best possible way for institutions to differentiate between OCIO providers’ performance. We will do all we can to usher in this new era of transparency.
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Why Hire a Search Consultant
Are you thinking of engaging a search firm to help you run a consultant search or OCIO search? You’re not alone. Although practically unheard of five years ago, the outsourced CIO (“OCIO”) model, in which a committee hires an investment manager to oversee the portfolio rather than soliciting advice from an investment consultant, has exploded onto the institutional landscape and has garnered significant interest from a wide range of institutions. The investment world has gotten increasingly complex, and more and more boards, committees, and organizations are unsure of their ability to truly fulfill their fiduciary obligation to the assets they oversee (at a time when fiduciary lawsuits are on the rise). OCIO models offer a solution for organizations struggling with a lack of internal resources, a desire to improve governance process, and the need to improve risk-adjusted returns. The traditional investment consulting model has evolved to fill these needs, but at the same time, it has complicated the investment advice landscape.
This added complexity has led to a new niche service provider: the consultant or OCIO search firm. These are sometimes referred to as “OCIO Search Consultants,” but we believe this terminology is confusing as consultants historically provide investment advice while OCIO search firms provide very targeted services to enable organizations to vet investment advice and implementation providers. We like to say, “don’t call us a consultant!” OCIO search firms exist to guide organizations through the search process, everything from designing the RFP and developing search criteria to identifying candidates and analyzing the responses. More than one-third (34%) of providers polled in a recent industry survey by Cerulli used a search firm, and this number continues to grow. They manage the entire project from start to finish, greatly simplifying this important fiduciary process for institutions.
Our Keys to a High Quality Search Firm
Ten Questions to Ask Search Consultants
It may seem silly to go through an RFP process to hire a firm to run your RFP process, but as a leading search firm, we often receive “mini-RFPs” with a handful of questions designed to compare us against our competitors. As RFP architects, it makes sense to us from a due diligence perspective. We encourage firms to consider this exercise, and to help, we compiled 10 sample questions that organizations can use to learn more about search firms.
With outsourced investment options (commonly called OCIO, which is how we’ll refer to these in the remainder of this report) becoming more popular in the institutional investment community, we have considered what types of governance issues an OCIO might be able to solve for organizations and investment committees.
This is not to say that OCIO is only useful for dysfunctional committees, but it is true that we usually get calls when something is broken. Sometimes this is related to the consultant: performance hasn’t met expectations, or the client feels that the consultant isn’t proactively managing the relationship, or perhaps there has been turnover on the account. But governance is also a key concern, and many of our clients and prospective clients have wondered if OCIO could solve a nagging problem: absentee investment committees.
Absentee committee member archetype
Having served on the boards of non-profits and having worked with many more as consultants and endowment directors, we understand this particular governance problem intimately. It can take many forms.
The serial volunteer: Bob’s biography proudly lists his participation on the boards of several well-known non-profits, but he rarely attends scheduled investment committee meetings and does not participate in most discussions or decisions.
The dog ate my homework member: Susan attends scheduled committee meetings but has not done the background reading and preparation needed to add value to investment discussions; valuable meeting time is spent answering her questions.
The one whose cousin is a broker: Anita loves to bring new investment ideas to the table – unfortunately, most are either too expensive or too esoteric for the committee to invest in. They also have not been vetted by an independent consultant. Valuable time is wasted both for the committee and the investment consultant researching and rejecting these investments.
The pillar of the community: Anything Randall says goes, even if most of the investment committee thinks it is the wrong decision. After all, no one argues with Randall. He has been on the board for over ten years.
What all of these archetypical volunteers have in common is a tendency to distract the investment committee from its purpose. Too much time is wasted in valuable committee meetings, time that is needed to set the broad direction of the investment portfolio and monitor the service providers. You can’t force grown-ups to do their homework, especially not volunteers, but political considerations usually mean that organizations also cannot simply replace problem members.
Solutions for a thorny issue
There are several potential ways to handle this thorny issue, including:
Exploring Option 4 - OCIO
We’ve been asked, is there really a difference between effectively rubber stamping a consultant’s every recommendation and simply giving them discretion to make the decision?
In our minds, there are three primary differences:
1. The level of oversight
As with any industry and any firm, some investment consultants are more skilled than others. OCIOs should have policies and procedures in place where investment decisions are vetted and approved. This ensures that one consultant doesn’t “go rogue” or make decisions that don’t reflect the best thinking of the firm.
In the case of a traditional investment consultant relationship, there may not be the same level of consulting firm oversight – after all, the committee members are the additional level of oversight in the latter case. If the committee is not performing that level of oversight and simply takes all of the consultant’s recommendations on faith, a committee had better hope they have an A-team consultant guiding the portfolio!
2. The fiduciary liability
You cannot pay someone to completely absorb your fiduciary liability. Full stop.
The investment advisor, whether a non-discretionary consultant or OCIO, acts as a fiduciary alongside the investment committee, but the level of fiduciary responsibility differs. In an OCIO relationship, the committee does shift its fiduciary liability from evaluating the investments themselves to evaluating the advisor, but they must still fulfill this duty. The buck always stops with the committee.
3. The feeling of personal responsibility
At the end of the day, a consultant who only provides advice may not feel personally responsible for the assets he or she advises on - especially if performance suffers when the consultant's recommendation is not taken. The level of responsibility is vastly higher for a named investment manager than it is for an advice provider. An investment manager lives or dies based on the results of his or her portfolio. A consultant, put simply, does not.
These distinctions tilt the scale in favor of absentee committees seriously considering OCIO solutions. However, it’s important to note that ultimately, this does NOT solve the tricky problem of a checked-out investment committee in our minds. Why not?
Who oversees the OCIO?
The committee retains the fiduciary duty to evaluate the OCIO provider, both initially and on an ongoing basis.
To evaluate investment managers (and we include OCIOs here, as they effectively act as multi-asset managers for the portfolio) requires a specialized skill set. In fact, that’s one of the main services that an investment consultant provides in a traditional, non-discretionary consulting relationship.
Most investment committees include members with financial services experience or investment knowledge, often enough to set big-picture investment policy decisions and to weigh in on the long-term asset allocation of the portfolio. Investment committees are usually responsible for these tasks in either traditional non-discretionary or OCIO relationships, so we agree that this is the appropriate skill set to look for when selecting investment committee members. Unfortunately, this is not the same skill set required to perform in-depth due diligence on managers.
Investment committees who choose OCIO as a bandage, therefore, have not solved the initial problem of non-engagement, and they have created a higher bar for themselves in fulfilling their fiduciary duty.
The committee who was not fulfilling its previous fiduciary duty to evaluate investment managers based on advice given by a traditional investment consultant is not likely to suddenly start fulfilling this exact same role when it comes to evaluating the outsourced portfolio manager, the OCIO.
The committee must consider using an additional service provider in these situations: an investment expert who can perform an evaluation of the OCIO.
The value of a third-party OCIO evaluation
As outsourced investment solutions become more popular for institutions such as pension plans, endowments, and non-profit asset pools, so too do third-party evaluation and monitoring services who assist the investment committee in properly selecting and overseeing the OCIO.
These providers act as a “consultant” to the investment committee, assisting the committee in performing its crucial fiduciary responsibility of selecting, overseeing, and evaluating the outsourced investment solution. Typically, this review is performed annually and should be well documented. Just as OCIOs come in many flavors, so too do OCIO evaluation services. They range from truly independent advisors, who offer no institutional investment consulting or OCIO services of their own, to investment consultants and outsourced CIOs who serve in a monitoring capacity for non-investment clients.
We believe that there is great value in selecting a truly independent option, as consulting firms have a baked-in conflict of interest that can color the analysis. Just as the investment consultant should be providing advice independent of relationships with investment managers, monitors should provide advice independent of consultants.
For most institutions, running an investment consultant RFP or OCIO RFP is an occasional (and painful) process. There isn’t much value derived from previous RFPs since the intervals are too far apart. Offering this as a service, we have an opportunity to constantly improve and evolve our search process, including the questions in the RFP themselves. It allows us to pinpoint what works and what doesn’t. With that in mind, here are five of our favorites.
Update: we're pleased to announce that this report was featured in FundFire on December 15! Download your copy here.
1. What percentage of firm revenue comes from institutional consulting activity? Identify other sources (and %) of revenue.
Rationale: The lines have been blurred between investment managers, consultants, and outsourced chief investment officer (OCIO) providers – especially over the past few years. Although we typically include many questions in an RFP designed to identify potential conflicts of interest, this question gives us a birds-eye view of the firm’s revenue. We use it as a way to gauge the firm’s commitment to providing traditional consulting services versus OCIO services and/or investment management services. It also alerts us of existing business lines that we may not have captured in other questions and allows us to clarify this in conversations with the respondent.
2. What is the average client-to-consultant ratio at the firm, and how is it calculated?
Rationale: It was an investment consultant who clued us into the various ways this question can be answered. Some firms simply compare the number of clients to the number of investment professionals to calculate the ratio (thus including dedicated research professionals and support staff along with client-facing consulting professionals). Others only include consulting team members. One firm differentiated between lead (counted as 1 client) vs. co-lead (counted as 0.5 clients) relationships. In order to compare firms on this metric, it is important to get consistent responses and to understand how this metric is being calculated. We ask several questions about the client to consultant ratio, but this is the primary one we use for comparison.
3. Provide comments and suggestions on our current Investment Policy Statement (included with the RFP).
Rationale: What better way to evaluate a new advisor than to ask for advice in the RFP? When a new consultant is brought on board, the first step is often a review (and possibly, an overhaul) of the organization’s existing investment policy statement (IPS). Most of the time, these changes are cosmetic – for instance, a particular consultant may prefer wider bands around target allocations. But we have seen a few cases where prospective consultants identified potentially serious issues in a client’s IPS, including internal inconsistencies. Even if the organization stays with the incumbent, this question gives the organization comfort in the integrity of their IPS and documents a thorough review process with input from some of the best minds in the business.
4. How do you ensure best ideas are shared between consulting and research teams?
Rationale: The bigger the firm, the more likely it is that there are consultants and researchers spread across different departments and different geographic locations. The best research capabilities in the world won’t do a client any good if the consulting team isn’t receiving, processing, and funneling this information to the client. Ensuring that there are strong processes and procedures in place to keep these lines of communication open is a way of ensuring the client benefits from the full capabilities of the firm.
5. How do you measure your success as a consultant? Provide data as support.
Rationale: Much as our firm is constantly evolving and improving our RFP questions, consulting firms are evolving and improving their responses. They have carefully crafted qualitative answers to show off their skill set to the best of their ability. This question is a way for the client to quantify each firm based on the results of their advice (not an easy thing to do with consultants!). It also provides insight into what the consultants themselves think is important, which can be very helpful in setting criteria.
Bonus: Here's one that didn't work
Not all of our questions are successful in helping us to evaluate and differentiate between investment consultants. Here's one we tested out that didn't work very well:
What is the average client to senior consultant ratio for relationships in the following size ranges?
A) Less than $100M
B) $100M to $500M
C) $500M to $1B
D) $1B and greater
Rationale: Where questions are open to interpretation and gamification (such as the client to consultant ratio), we request different data points and ask for the information in different ways. This allows us to cross-reference the responses and ensure that the answers are consistent. We used this question (unsuccessfully) in a recent RFP.
We expected to see a higher client-to-consultant ratio on smaller clients (with AUM representing a crude measure of complexity) and a lower ratio on larger clients. Overall, the measure should be in line with the high-level client-to-consultant ratio.
40% of the firms we asked didn’t track this data and most of the rest didn’t provide consistent information in line with expectations. One firm, for example, came back with 1:1 in every category, which we believe signified one senior consultant assigned to each relationship (i.e. the consultant to client ratio, rather than vice versa).
Rather than try to reengineer this question, we simply removed it and rely on other measures to place the client to consultant ratio in context.
Brad Alford, CFA