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BlackRock Said to Cut Jobs, Fees in Revamp of Active-Equity Unit

BlackRock is shifting money from its stock-picking business into a new Advantage series run by the $74 billion quant group.

By Sabrina Willmer

(Bloomberg) --BlackRock Inc., the world’s largest asset manager, is shaking up its struggling stock-picking unit by cutting jobs, reorganizing funds and lowering fees.

The revamp, which embraces quantitative strategies, moves $8 billion of the $201 billion run by traditional stock pickers into cheaper offerings, with some fees cut by about half in one class of funds, according to a person familiar with the matter. More than 30 employees including fund managers and analysts were let go, the person said.

Chief Executive Officer Laurence D. Fink, who has re-jiggered BlackRock’s active-equity business before, and his rivals face mounting pressure from investors over fees. Clients are moving to cheaper index-tracking exchange-traded funds, which benefits BlackRock’s ETF business while hurting its active managers. The lower fees will reduce annual revenue by about $30 million, the New York-based company, which manages $5.1 trillion, said in a statement Tuesday.

“There is fee compression in the U.S., which is being driven by technological advances and by the successful and continued growth of ETFs," Mark Wiseman, BlackRock’s global head of active equities, said in an interview. "We are in a regulatory environment that is pushing hard on the traditional active-equity model. We want to play offense, not defense.”

Fee Cuts

BlackRock is shifting money from its stock-picking business into a new Advantage series run by the $74 billion quant group. Advantage is expected to include nine mutual funds for U.S. investors that will produce returns with less risk, the company said. Fee reductions on $6 billion in assets range from about 19 percent to 56 percent.

“We can more efficiently deliver alpha at a better cost with automated processes,” Wiseman said.

BlackRock is also moving assets from active-equity funds to an income series that produces higher dividend yields, with $2 billion impacted by fee cuts of as much as 21 percent, the person said. Two other groups of funds -- one that will make higher risk, concentrated bets and another focusing on specific countries and sectors -- round out the reorganization.

The layoffs in the active-equity unit, which has more than 400 employees, will contribute to a $25 million charge for the first quarter, the company said. The firm hired Doug Chow, a former portfolio manager at Fidelity Investments, to run an integration and data platform. He starts in April.

Lackluster Performance

The company’s active-equity funds have lagged behind rivals for years. The funds’ annual average return is 4 percent and 7.3 percent over three and five years, according to data from Morningstar Inc. This compares with the industry average of 5.3 percent and 8.8 percent.

In 2012, BlackRock set out on a five-year plan to boost performance by hiring top stock pickers and adding analysts and other support staff to investment teams. Fink said in 2014 that he’d spent "hundreds of millions of dollars rebooting" the business. The firm has also changed the leadership structure of the active business several times in the past four years.

In September, BlackRock brought in Wiseman, the former head of the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board, to run the quantitative and stock group, which were combined early last year. Wiseman arrived during a tough 2016 for the quant group, which contributed to BlackRock’s first annual decline in revenue since 2009.

Hiring Researchers

Four of BlackRock’s quant hedge funds posted the worst annual returns in their history last year. BlackRock says its quant offerings on average have beaten 43 percent of their benchmarks or a peer-group median over the past year, and 91 percent in the past five years.

BlackRock’s active-equity funds saw $20 billion in net outflows last year, according to a regulatory filing. Meanwhile, the firm’s ETF business has been booming, with record inflows last year.

Wiseman said his group plans over the next 18 months to hire about the same number of employees who were laid off. BlackRock is looking for people with deep research capabilities, technological and data analytics skills, and will put more emphasis on hiring in the emerging markets, especially Asia. 

 

To contact the reporter on this story: Sabrina Willmer in Boston at [email protected] To contact the editors responsible for this story: Margaret Collins at [email protected] Vincent Bielski, Josh Friedman

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