Business World

Sunday 22 April 2018

Share watch: Standard Life's mega-merger deal brings realism to fund management

'Irish investors have a fondness for Standard Life because it was the last of the big British insurers to facilitate the ‘carpet-bagging’ that was such a feature of the early years of the new millennium.' Photo: GETTY
'Irish investors have a fondness for Standard Life because it was the last of the big British insurers to facilitate the ‘carpet-bagging’ that was such a feature of the early years of the new millennium.' Photo: GETTY

John Lynch

Fund management used to be such a sturdy element of the financial services sector that most observers felt it'd take a tsunami to shake it out of its smug certainty.

But the crash that started nearly a decade ago, along with the pace of technology, has threatened to knock the asset management ball out of the playing field.

The message that the ­sector must think afresh became crystal clear recently when the mighty Standard Life and its Scottish rival Aberdeen Asset Management chose to embark on an £11bn (€12.7bn) merger.

Despite the positive spin of the instigators, they had to admit it was a defensive ploy due to both the uncertainty of emerging markets and the cheapness of the index-tracking alternatives in modern fund management.

Brexit has also been a major concern for both companies, as it threatens to throw up barriers, some still unknown, to accessing European clients.

The hopes behind the ­merger are that it will achieve the ­required scale to compete internationally - but there is a price.

Thousands of jobs will go as the merged entity takes a predicted £200m (€185m) worth of costs out of the business. There is also a very good chance that the Standard Life/Aberdeen deal will be the first of many asset management mega mergers because the sector needs that scale to compete with rivals on the other side of the Atlantic.

Irish investors have a fondness for Standard Life because it was the last of the big British insurers to facilitate the 'carpet-bagging' that was such a feature of the early years of the new millennium.

Then, demutualising was the fashion. Lucky punters who had an insurance policy in the firms planning to 'float' were offered free shares. So when Standard Life floated in 2006, it ended up with 50,000-plus Irish shareholders and probably still has most of them.

The shareholders are now part of a company which has operations in the UK, Europe, and North America, and alliances in India and China. It also has 6,500 employees worldwide, 4.5 million customers from its own operations, and 25 million from its India and China alliances.

Standard Life operates through three main divisions; investments, pensions and savings, India and China. Its investment arm, which is the focus of the current merger, has among its clients pension schemes, sovereign wealth funds and financial intermediaries as well as a wealth fund management business for charities and private clients.

The investment arm contributed £383m last year; more than half of the group's operating profits.

The company has strategic ­alliances in both India and China. However, this Far Eastern operation contributes only £36m to group operating profits.

Up to the last few years, 80pc of Standard Life profits came from its Canadian and UK markets, but the Canadian operation was offloaded and the shape of the business changed. Around that time the group purchased Ignis Asset Management which changed the scale of its investment arm and resulted in Standard Life becoming a powerhouse in investment management. The new merged entity will seek to capitalise on this structure.

Despite volatile global ­markets and a shifting ­landscape in the UK, the company has performed well. Today the shares trade at 353p with a modest P/E of 11 and a market cap of £7bn. Operating profits increased to £723m, cash generation was positive, and earnings per share jumped 13pc to 29.5p.

Investors, before the early March announcement, were chuffed with the unbroken 10-year record of progressive dividends. The merger gives them something a bit more meaty to chew over. ­Whatever complementary aspects are found in the enlarged business will have to be capitalised upon. There is no doubt that interesting days lie ahead.

Nothing in this section should be taken as a recommendation, either explicit or implicit to buy any of the shares mentioned.

Irish Independent

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