After a positive 2021 for European asset management driven by the recovery and strong risk appetite, the analysts of Bank of America think 2022 will be more challenging given conflicting messages on markets, growth, inflation, rates and COVID. In their last report, they reveal that they are taking a defensive approach at this stage in the cycle.
Sector valuation of 14x 2022 PE is optimistic as it is above the long-term average and implies 2021 trends continuing. The research shows that although a yield of 5% is supportive, there is downside risk to ratings given the long-term correlation between markets, flows and valuation. “We prefer to be defensive at this stage in the cycle and favor stocks benefiting from structural growth (passives, private assets), absolute/total return exposure, stable asset bases (wealth) and proven cost control”, it says.
Structural growth drivers
After rising 45% in 2021, Bank of America expects sector earnings to fall 5% in 2022 as operating margins compress by 1-2pp on cost growth normalization post lockdown, lower performance fees from cyclically high levels, and “slower net new money growth”. In this sense, their strategists forecast 3% net flow growth in 2022 from 4-5% in 2021. “Given the pro-cyclicality of the sector and expected market pressure, there is also downside risk to valuation. We expect a wide valuation range between those with inflows and those without”, they add.
As for the key themes of the year, the report highlights four, starting by the continued structural growth for private assets as rates remain near historically low levels and investors seek higher returns through an illiquidity premium. The second one is increasing demand for absolute/total return through hedge funds to preserve capital and diversify in light of market risks.
The last trends into 2022 would be a rotation back to passive funds (including ESG) after a strong year for active; and importance of cost management to maintain operating margins given top-line pressures.
The analysts of Bank of America don’t forecast a negative scenario, but expect structural growth drivers to outweigh cyclical in 2022 as macro uncertainty rises and market beta comes under pressure. In this sense, they favor high quality, defensive stocks; and highlight that their buy ratings have average 27% total return potential.
“Our top picks are alternative & private asset managers, Italian asset gatherers and diversified firms with leading passive exposure. Our underperform ratings are ABDN, JUP and ASHM which face outflow pressure. We think their multiples are capped until flows inflect. We have Neutral ratings on SDR, DWS, N91 and Baer”, they conclude.