The transcript from this week’s, MiB: Edwin Conway, BlackRock Alternative Investors, is below.
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BARRY RITHOLTZ, HOST, MASTERS IN BUSINESS: This week on the podcast, man, I have an extra special guest. Edwin Conway runs all of alternatives for BlackRocks. His title is Global Head of Alternative Investors and he covers everything from structured credit to real estate hedge funds to you name it. The group runs over $300 billion and he has been a driving force into making this a substantial portion of Blackrock’s $9 trillion in total assets.
The opportunity set that exists for alternatives even for a firm like Blackrock that specializes in public markets is potentially huge and Blackrock wants a big piece of it. I found this conversation to be absolutely fascinating and I think you will also. So with no further ado, my conversation with Blackrock’s Head of Alternatives, Edwin Conway.
MALE VOICEOVER: This is Masters in Business with Barry Ritholtz on Bloomberg Radio.
RITHOLTZ: My extra special guest this week is Edwin Conway. He is the Global Head of Blackrock’s Alternative Investors which runs about $300 billion in assets. He is a team of over 1,100 professionals to help him manage those assets. Blackrock’s Global alternatives include businesses that cover real estate infrastructure, hedge funds private equity, and credit. He is a senior managing director for BlackRock. Edwin Conway, welcome to Bloomberg.
EDWIN CONWAY, GLOBAL HEAD OF ALTERNATIVE INVESTORS, BLACKROCK: Barry, thank you for having me.
RITHOLTZ: So, you’ve been in the financial services industry for a long time. You were at Credit Suisse and Blackstone and now you’re at BlackRock. Tell us what the process was like breaking into the industry?
CONWAY: It’s an interesting on, Barry. I grew up in a very small town in the middle of Ireland. And the breakthrough to the industry was one of more coincident as opposed to purpose. I enjoyed the game of rugby for many years and through an introduction while at the University, in University College Dublin in Ireland, had a chance to play rugby at a quite a – quite a decent level and get to know people that were across the industry. It was really through and internship and the suggestion, I’ve given my focus on business and financing things that the financial services sector may be a great place to traverse and get to know.
And literally through rugby connections, been part of a good school, I had an opportunity to really understand what the service sector, in many respects, could provide to clients and became absolutely intrigued with it. And what – was it my primary ambition in life to be in the financial services sector? I can definitively say no, but through the circumstance of a game that I love to play and be part of, I was introduced to, through an internship, and actually fell in love with it.
RITHOLTZ: Quite interesting. And alternative investments at Blackrock almost seems like a contradiction in terms. Most of us tend to think of Blackrock as the giant $9 trillion public markets firm best known for ETFs and indices. Alternatives seems to be one of the fastest-growing groups within the firm. This was $50 billion just a few years ago, it’s now over 300 billion. How has this become such a fast-growing part of BlackRock?
CONWAY: When you look at the various facets which you introduced at the start, Barry, we’ve actually been an alternatives – will be of 30 years now. Now, the scale, as you know, which you can operate on the beta side of business, far surpasses that on the alpha side.
For us, throughout the years, this was very much about how can we deliver investment excellence to our clients and performance? Therefore, going an opportunity somewhere else to explore an alpha opportunity in alternatives. And I think being so connected to our clients understanding, that this pivots was absolutely taking place at only 30 years ago but in a very pronounced way today, you know, we continue to invest in this business to support those ambitions.
They’re clearly seeing this as the world of going through a tremendous amount of transformation and with some of the challenges, quite frankly, in the traditional asset classes, being able to leverage at BlackRock, the Blackrock muscle to really explore these alpha opportunities across the various alternative asset classes that in our mind wasn’t imperative.
And the imperative, really, is from the firm’s perspective and if you look at our purpose, it’s to serve the client. So the need was coming from them. The necessity to have alternatives and their whole portfolio was very – was very much growing in prominence. And it’s taken us 30 years to build this journey and I think, Barry, quite frankly, we’re far from being done.
As you look at the industry, the demand is going to continue to grow. So, I think you could expect to see from us a continued investment in the space because we don’t believe you can live without alternatives in today’s world.
RITHOLTZ: That’s really – that’s really interesting. So let’s dive a little deeper into the product strategy for alternatives which you are responsible for at BlackRock. Our audiences is filled with potential investors. Tell them a little bit about what that strategy is.
CONWAY: So we’re – I think as you mentioned, we’re in excess of 300 billion today and when we started this business, it was less about building a moat around private equity or real estate. I think Larry Fink’s and Rob Kapito’s vision was how do we build a platform to allow us to be relevant to our clients across the various alternative asset classes but also within the – within the confines of what they are permitted to do on a year-by-year basis.
So, to always be relevant irrespective of where they are in their journey from respect of liabilities, demand for liquidity, demand for returns, so we took a different approach. I think, Barry, to most, it was around how do we scale into the business across, like you said, real estate equity and debt, infrastructure equity and debt. I mean, we think of that as the real assets platform of our business.
Then you take our private equity capabilities both in primary investing, secondary et cetera, and then you have private credits and a very significant hedge fund platforms. So we think all of these have a real role and depending on clients liquidities and risk appetite, our goal was, to over the years, really build in to this to allow ourselves for this challenging needs that our clients have.
I think as an industry, right, and over the many years alternatives have been in existence, this is been about return enhancement initially. I think, fundamentally, the changes around the receptivity to the role of alternatives in a client’s portfolio has really changed.
So, we’ve watched it, Barry, from this is we’re in the pursuit of a very total return or absolute return type of an objective to now resilience in our portfolio, yield an income. And so things that probably weren’t perceived as valuable in the past because the traditional asset classes were playing a more profound role, alternatives have stepped up in – in many respects in the need to provide more than just total return.
So, we’re taking the approach of how do you have a more holistic approach to this? How do we really build a global multi-alternatives capability and try to partner and I think that’s the important work for us. Try to partner with our clients in a way that we can deliver that outperformance but delivered in a way that probably our clients haven’t been used to in this industry before.
Because unfortunately, as we know, it has had its challenges with regard to secrecy, transparency, and so many other aspects. We need to help the industry mature. And really that was our ambition. Put our client’s needs first, build around that and really be relevant in all aspects of what we’re doing or trying to accomplish on behalf of the people that they support and represent.
RITHOLTZ: So, we’ll talk a little bit about transparency and secrecy and those sorts of things later. But right now, I have to ask what I guess is kind of an obvious question. This growth that you’ve achieved within Blackrock for nonpublic asset allocation within a portfolio, what is this coming at expense of? Are these dollars that are being moved from public assets into private assets or you just competing with other private investors?
CONWAY: It’s really both. What – what you are seeing from our clients – if I take a step back, today, the institutional client community and you think about the – the retirement conundrum we’re all facing around the world. It’s such an awful challenge when you think how ill-prepared people are for that eventual stepping back from the workplace and then you know longevity is your friend, but can also be a very, very difficult thing to obviously live with if you’re not prepared for retirement.
The typical pension plan today are allocating about 25 percent to 28 percent in alternatives. Predominantly private market. What they’re telling us is that’s increasing quite substantially going forward. But you know, the funding for that alpha pursue for that diversification and that yield is coming from fixed-income assets. It’s coming from equity assets.
So there’s a real rebalancing that’s been taking place over the past number of years. And quite frankly, the evolution, and I think the innovation that’s taken place particularly in the past 10 years, alternatives has been really profound. So the days where you just invest in any global funds still exist. But now you can concentrate your efforts on sector exposure, industry exposures, geographic exposures, and I think the – the menu of things our clients can now have access to has just been so greatly enhanced at and the benefit is that but I think in some – in some respects, Barry, the next question is with all of those choices, how do you build the right portfolio for our client’s needs knowing that each one of our client’s needs are different?
So, I would say it absolutely coming from the public side. We’re very thankful. Those that had a multiyear journey with us in the public side are now allocating capital to is now the private side to because I do think the – the industry given that change, given that it evolution and given the complexity of these private assets, our clients are looking to, quite frankly, do more with fewer managers because of the complexion of the industry and complexity that comes with it.
RITHOLTZ: Quite – quite interesting.
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RITHOLTZ: And I – it’s pretty easy to see why large institutions might be rotating away from things like treasuries or tips because there’s just no yield there. Are you seeing inflows coming in from the public equity side also? The markets put together a pretty good string of years.
CONWAY: Yes. It absolutely has. And many respects, I think, we’ve had a multiyear where there was big questions around the alpha that can be generated, for example, from active equities? The question was active or passive?
I think what we’ve all realized is that at times when volatility introduces itself which is frequent even independent of what’s been done from a fiscal and monetary standpoint, that these Alpha speaking strategies on the traditional side still make a lot of sense.
And so, as we think about what – what’s happening here, the transition of assets from both passive and active strategies to alternative, it – it’s really to create better balance. It’s not that there’s – there’s a lack of relevance anymore in the public side. It’s just quite frankly the growth of the private asset base has grown so substantially. I moved, Barry, to the U.S. in 1998.
And it’s interesting, when you look back at 1998 to today, you start to recognize the equity markets and what was available to invest in. The number of investable opportunities has shrunk by 40 plus percent which that compression is extraordinarily high. But yet you’ve seen, obviously, the equity markets grow in stature and significance and prominence but you’re having more concentration risk with some of the big public entities.
The converse is true, though on the – on the private side. There’s this explosion of enterprise and innovation, employment creation, and then I believe opportunities has been real. So, I look at the public side, the investable universe is measured in the thousands and the private side is measured in the millions.
CONWAY: And I think part of the – part of the part of the thing our clients are not struggling with but what we’re really recognizing with – with enterprises staying private for longer, if not forever, and with his growth of the opportunities that open debt and equity in the private market side, you really can’t forgo this opportunity. It has to be part of your going forward concerns and asset allocation.
And I think this is why we’re seeing that transformation. And it’s not because equities on fixed income just aren’t relevant anymore. They’re very relevant but they’re relevant now in a total portfolio or a whole portfolio context beside alternatives.
RITHOLTZ: So, let’s discuss this opportunity set of alternatives where you guys at Blackrock scene demand what sectors and from what sorts of clients? Is this demand increasing?
CONWAY: We’re very fortunate, Barry. Today, there isn’t a single piece of our business within – within Blackrock alternatives that isn’t growing. And quite frankly too, it’s really up to us to deliver on the investment objectives that are set forth for those clients.
I think in the back of strong absolute and relative performance, thankfully, our clients look to us to – to help them as – as they think about what they’re doing and as they’re exploring more in the alternatives areas.
So, as you know, certainly, the private equity and real estate allocations are quite mature in many of our client’s portfolios but they’ve been around for many decades. I think that the areas where we’re seeing – that’s called an outside demand and opportunity set, just but virtue of the small allocations on a relative basis that exist today is really around infrastructure, Barry, and its around private credits.
So, to caveat that, I think all of the areas are certainly growing, and thankfully, for us that’s true. We’re looking at clients who we believe are underinvested, we believe they’re underinvested in those asset classes infrastructure both debt and equity and in private credit.
And as you think about why that is, the attributes that they bring to our client is really important and in a world where your correlation and understanding those correlations is important that these are definitely diversifying assets. In a world where you’re seeing trillions of dollars, quite frankly, you’re providing little to no or even there’s negative yield. Those short falls are real and people need yield than need income.
These assets tend to provide that. So the diversification, it comes from these assets. The yield can come from these assets and because of the immaturity of the asset classes, independence of the capital is flowing in, we still consider them relatively white space. You’re not crowded out. There’s much room for development in the market and with our client’s portfolios. And to us, that’s exciting because it presents opportunities. So, at the highest level, they’re the areas where I believe are most underdeveloped in our clients.
RITHOLTZ: So let’s talk about both of those areas. We’ll talk about structured credit in a few minutes. I think everybody kind of understands what – what that is. What – when you see infrastructure as a sector, how does that show up as an investment are – and obviously, I have infrastructure on the brink because we’re recording this not too long after the giant infrastructure bill has been passed, tell us a little bit about what alternative investments in infrastructure looks like?
CONWAY: Yes. It’s really in its infancy and what the underlying investments look like. I think traditionally, you would consider it as – and part of the bill that has just been announced, roads, bridges, airports. Some of these hard assets, some of the core infrastructure investments that have been around for actually some time.
The interesting thing is the industry has evolved so much and put the need for infrastructure. It’s so great across both developed and emerging economies. It’s become something that if done the right way, the attributes we just spoke of can really have a very strong effect on our client’s portfolios.
So, beyond the core that we just mentioned, well, we’ve seen a tremendous demand as a result of this energy transition. You’re really seeing a spike in activity and the necessity transition industry to cleaner technologies, a movement, not away completely from fossil fuel but integrating new types of clean energy.
And as a result, you’ve seen a lot of demand on a global basis for wind and solar. And quite frankly, that’s why even us at BlackRock, albeit, 10-12 years ago, we really established a capability there to help with that transition to think about how do we use these technologies, solar panels, wind farms, to generate clean forms of energy for utilities where in some cases they’re mandated to procure this type of this type of – this type of power.
And when you think about pre-contracting with utilities for long duration, that to me spells, Barry, good risk mitigation and management and ability to get access to clean forms of energy that throw off yield that can be very complementary to your traditional asset classes but for very long periods of time.
And so, the benefits for us of these – these assets is that they are long in duration, they are yield enhancing, they’re definitely diversifying. And so, for us, where – we’ve got about, let’s call this 280 assets around the world that we’re managing that literally generate this – this clean electricity. I think to give the relevance of how much, I believe today, it’s enough to power the country of Spain.
CONWAY: And that’s really that’s really changing. So you’re seeing governments – so from a policy standpoint, you’re seeing governments really embracing new forms of energy, transitioning out of bunker fuels, for example, you know, burning diesels which really spew omissions into the – into the into the environment.
But it’s really around modernizing for the future. So, developed and emerging economies alike, want to retain capital. They want to attract new capital and by having the proper infrastructure to support industry, it’s a really, really important thing.
Now, on the back of that too, one things we’ve learned from COVID is that the necessity to really bring e-commerce into how you conduct your business is so important and I think from the theme of digitalization within infrastructure to is a huge part. So, it’s not just the energy transition that you’re seeing, it’s not just roads and bridges, but by allowing businesses to connect to a global consumer, allowing children be educated from home, allowing experiences that expand geographies and boundaries in a digital form is so important not just for commerce but in so many other aspects.
And so, you think about cable, fiber optics, if you think about all the other things even outside of power, that enable us to conduct commerce to educate, there are many examples where, Barry, you can build resilience into your portfolio because that need is not measured in years.
Actually, the shortfall of capital is measured in the trillions so which means this is – this is a multi-decade opportunity set from our vantage point and one of which our clients should really avail of.
RITHOLTZ: Quite interesting. And I mentioned in passing, structured credit, tell us a little bit about what that opportunity looks like. I think of this as a space that is too big for local banks but too small for Wall Street to finance. Is that an oversimplification? What is going on in that space.
CONWAY: I probably couldn’t have set it better, Barry. It’s – if we go back to just the even the investable universe, in the tens of thousands of companies, just if we take North America that are private, that have great leadership that really have strategic vision under – at the – in some cases, at the start of their growth lifecycles are even if they maintain, they have a very credible and viable business for the future they still need capital.
And you’re absolutely right. With the retreat of the banks from the space to various regulations that have come after the global financial crisis, you’re seeing the asset managers in many respects working behalf of our clients both wealth and institutional becoming the new lenders of choice.
And – and when we – when we think about that opportunity set, that is really understanding the client’s desire for risk or something maybe in a lower risk side from middle-market lending or midmarket enterprises where you can support that organization through its growth cycle all the way to some higher-yielding, obviously, with more risk assets on the opportunistic or even the special situations side.
But it – it expands many things. And going back of the commentary around the evolution of the space, private credit today and what you can do has changed so profoundly, it expands the liquidity spectrum, it expands the risk spectrum. And the great news is, with the number of companies both here and abroad, the opportunities that is – it’s being enriched every single day.
And were certainly seeing, particularly going back to the question are some of these assets coming from the traditional side, the public side. When we think of private credit, you are seeing private credit now been incorporated in fixed-income allocations.
This is a – it’s a yelling asset. This is – these are debt instruments, these are structures that we’re creating. We’re trying to flexible and dynamic with these clients. But it really is an area where we think – it really is still at its – at its infancy relevant to where it can potentially be.
RITHOLTZ: That’s really quite – quite interesting.
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RITHOLTZ: Let’s stick with that concept of money rotating away from fixed income. I have to imagine clients are starved for yields. So what are the popular substitutes for this? Is it primarily structured credit? Is it real estate? How do you respond to an institution that says, hey, I’m not getting any sort of realistic coupon on my bonds, I need a substitute?
CONWAY: Yes. It’s all of those in many respects. And I think to the role, even around now a time where people have questions around inflation, how do substitute this yield efficiency or certainly make up for that shortfall, how do you think about a world where increasingly seeing inflation, not of the transitory thing it feels certainly quasi-permanent. These are a lot of questions we’re getting.
And certainly, real estate is an is important part of how they think about inflation protection, how client think about yield, but quite frankly too, we’ve – we’ve gone through something none of us really had thought about a global pandemic. And as I think about real estate, just how you allocate to the sector, what was very heavily influenced with retail assets, high street, our shopping behaviors and habits have changed.
We all occupied offices for obviously many, many years pre the pandemic. The shape of how we operate and how we do that has changed. So, I think some of the underlying investment – investments have changed where you’ve seen heavily weighted towards office space to leisure, travel in the past. Actually, now using a rotation in some respects out of those, just given some of the uncertainties around what the future holds as we come – come through a really difficult time.
But the great thing about this sector is between senior living, between student housing, between logistics and so many other parts, there are ways in real estate to capture where there’s – where there’s demand. So still a robust opportunity set and it – and we do think it can absolutely be yield enhancing.
We mentioned infrastructure. Even if you think about – and we mention OECD and non-OECD, emerging and developed, when I think about Asia, in particular, just as a subset of the world in which we’re living in, that is a $2.6 trillion alternative market today growing at a 15 percent CAGR.
And quite frankly, the old-growth is driven by the large economic growth in the region. So, even from a regional perspective, if we pivot, it houses 57 percent of the world’s population and yet delivers 47 percent of the world’s economic growth.
So, think of that and then with regard to infrastructure and goes back to that, this is truly a global phenomenon. So if we just even take that sector, Barry, you’ll realize that the way to maintain that type of growth, to attract capital, to keep capital, it really requires an investment of significant amount of money to be able to sustain that.
And when you have 42 million people in a APAC migrating to cities in the year going back to digitalization, that’s an important thing. So, when I say we’re so much at the infancy in infrastructure, I really mean it. It can be water, it can be sewer systems, it can be digital, it can be roads, there’s so much to this. And then even down to the regional perspective, it’s a – it’s a need that doesn’t just exist in the U.S.
So, for these assets, this tend to be long in duration. There’s both equity and debt. And on the debt side, quite frankly, very few outside of our insurance clients and their general account are taking advantage of the debt opportunity. And – and as we both know, to finance these projects that are becoming more plentiful every single day, across the world, including like, I said, in APAC in scale, there’s an opportunity in both sides.
And I think that’s where the acid mix change happen. It’s recognizing that the attributes of these assets can have a role, the attributes of these assets can potentially replace some of these traditional assets and I think you’re going to see it grow. So, infrastructure to us, it’s really equity and debt.
And then on the credit side, like I mentioned, again, too, it’s a very, very big and growing market. And certainly, the biggest area today from our vantage point is middle-market lending from a scale opportunity standpoint. So, we think much more to come in all of those spaces.
RITHOLTZ: Really interesting. And let’s just stay with the concept of public versus private. That line is kind of getting blurred and the secondary markets is liquidity coming to, for lack of a better phrase, pre-public equities, tells little bit about that space. Is that an area that is ripe for growth for BlackRock?
CONWAY: Yes. We absolutely think it is and you’re absolutely correct. The secondary market is – has grown quite substantial. If you even look at just the private equity secondary market and what will transact this year, I think it will be potentially in excess of 100 billion. And that’s what were clear, not to mention what will be visible and what will be analyzed.
And that speaks to me what’s really happening and the innovation that we mentioned earlier. It’s no longer about just primary exposure. It’s secondary exposure. When we see all sort of interest and co-investment opportunities as well, I think the available sources of alpha and the flexibility you can now have, albeit if directed and advised, I believe the right way, Barry, can be very helpful and in the portfolio.
So, your pre-IPO, it is a big part of actually what we do and we think about growth equity. There is – it’s a significant amount of capital following that space. Now, from our vantage point, as one of the largest investors in the public equity market and now obviously one of the largest investors and they in the private side, the bridge between – between private to public – there’s a real need.
IPOs are not going away. And I think smart, informed capital to help with this journey, this journey is really – is really a necessity and a need.
RITHOLTZ: So let’s talk a little bit about this recent restructuring. You are first named Global Head of Blackrock Alternative Investors in April 2019, the entire alternatives business was restructured, tell us a little bit about how that restructuring is going?
CONWAY: Continues to go really well, Barry. When you look at the flow of acid from our clients, I think, hopefully, that’s speaks to the performance we’ve been generating.
I joined the firm, as you know, albeit, 11 years ago and being very close to the alternative franchise as a critical thing for me and running the institutional platform. To me, when you watched this migration of asset towards alternatives, it was obviously very evident for decades now that this is a critical leg of the stool as our clients are thinking about their portfolios.
We’re continuing to innovate. We’re continuing to invest, and thankfully, we’re continuing to deliver strong performance. We’re growing at about high double digits on an annual basis but we’re trying to purposeful too around where that growth is coming from. I think the reality is when you look at the competitive universe, I think the last number I saw, it was about 38,000 alternative asset managers out there today, obviously, coming from hedge funds all the way to private credits and private equity.
So, competition is real and I do think the outcomes for our clients are starting to really grow. Unfortunately, some – in some cases, obviously, very good, and in some cases, actually not great. So our focus, Barry, is really much on how can we deliver performance, how can we be a partner? And I think we been rewarded with a trust and the faith our clients have in us because they’re seeing something different, I think, from us.
Now, the scale of the business that you mentioned earlier really gives us tentacles into the market that I believe allows us to access what I think is the new alpha which is in many respects, given the heft of competition sourcing and originating new investments is certainly harder but for us, sitting in or having alternative team, sitting in 50 offices around the world, really investing in the markets because that – the market they grew up with and have relationships within, I think this network value that we have is something that’s quite special.
And I think in the world that’s becoming increasingly competitive, we’re going to continue to use and harness that network value to pursue opportunities. And thankfully, as a result of the partnership we’ve been pursuing with her clients, like, we’ve – we’re certainly looking for opportunities and investments in our funds. But because of the brand, I think because of the successes, opportunities seeks us as much as we seek opportunity and that has been something that we look at an ongoing basis and feel very privileged to actually have that inbound flow as well.
RITHOLTZ: Really quite interesting.
There was a quote of yours I found while doing some prep for this conversation that I have to have you expand on. Quote, “The relationship between Blackrock’s alternative capabilities and wealth firms marked a large opportunity for growth in the coming years.” This was back in 2019.
So, the first part of the question is, was your expectations correct? Did you – did you see the sort of growth you were hoping for? And more broadly, how large of an opportunity is alternatives, not just for BlackRock but for the entire investment industry?
CONWAY: Yes. It’s been very much an institutional opportunity set up until now. And there’s so much to be done, still, to really democratize alternatives and we certainly joke around making alternatives less alternative. Actually, even the nomenclature we use and how we describe it doesn’t kind of make sense anymore. It’s such a core – an important allocation to our clients, Barry, that just calling it alternative seems wrong.
Just about the institutional clients. It ranges, I think, as I mentioned on our – some of our more conservative clients which would be pension plans which really have liquidity needs on a monthly basis because of the liabilities they have to think about.
At about 25 plus percent in private markets, to endowments, foundations, family offices, going to 50 percent plus. So, it’s a really important part and has been for now many years the institutional client ph communities outcomes. I think the thing that we, as an industry, have to change is alternatives has to be for the many, not for the few. And quite frankly, it’s been for the few.
And as we talked about some of the attributes and the important attributes of these asset classes to think that those who have been less fortunate in their careers can’t access, things they can enrich their future retirement outcomes, to me, is a failing.
And we have to address that. That comes from regulation changes, it comes from structuring of new products, it comes from education and it comes from this knowledge transmission where clients in the wealth segment can understand the role of alternatives and the context of what can do as they invest in equities and fixed income too. And we think that’s a big shortfall.
So, the journey today, just to give you a sense, as we look at her clients in Europe on the wealth side, on average, as you look from what we would call the credited investors all the way through to more ultra-high-net worth individuals, their allocation to alternatives, we believe, stands at around two to three percent of their total portfolio. In the U.S., we believe it stands at three to five.
So, most of those intermediaries, we speak to our partners who were more supporting and serving the wealth channel. They have certainly an ambition to help their clients grow that to 20 percent and potentially beyond that.
So, when I look at that gap of let’s call it two to three to 20 percent in a market that just given the explosion in wealth around the world, I think the last numbers I saw, this is a $65 trillion market.
CONWAY: That speaks to the shortfall relative to the ambition. And how’s it been going? We have a number of things and capabilities we’ve set up to allow for this market to experience, hopefully, private equity, hedge funds, credit, and an infrastructure in ways they haven’t in the past.
We’ve done this in the U.S., we’re doing it now in Europe, but I will say, Barry, this is still very much at the start of the journey. Wealth is a really important part of our future given our business, quite, frankly is 90 plus percent institutional today, but we’re looking to change that by, hopefully, democratizing these asset classes and making it so much more accessible in that of the past.
RITHOLTZ: So, we hinted at this before but I’m going to ask the question outright, how significant is interest rates to client’s risk appetites, how much of the current low rate environment are driving people to move chunks of their assets from fixed income to alternatives?
CONWAY: It’s really significant, Barry. I think the transition of these portfolios is quite profound, So you – and I think the unfortunate thing in some respects as this transition happens that you’re introducing new variables and new risks. The reason I say it’s unfortunate and that I think as an industry, this goes back to the education around the assets you own, understanding the role, understanding the various outcomes. I think it’s so incredibly important and that this the time where complete transparency is needed.
And quite frankly, we’re investing capital that’s not ours. As an industry, we’re investing our client’s assets and they need to know exactly the underlying investments. And in good and bad times, how would those assets behave? So certainly, interest rates are driving a flow of capital away from these traditional assets, fixed-income, and absolutely in towards real estate, infrastructure, private creditors, et cetera, in the pursuit of this – this yield.
But I do – I do think one of the things that’s critically important for the institutional channel, not just the wealth which are newer entrants is this transmission of education, of data because that’s how I think you build a better balanced portfolio and that’s a – that’s a real conundrum, I think, that the industry is facing and certainly your clients too.
RITHOLTZ: Quite interesting. So let’s talk a little bit about the differences between investing in the private side versus the public markets, the most obvious one has to be the illiquidity. When you buy stocks or bonds, you get a print every microsecond, every tick, but most of these investments are only marked quarterly or annually, what does this illiquidity do when you’re interacting with clients? How do you – how do you discuss this with them in and how do perceive some of the challenges of illiquid investments?
CONWAY: Over the – over the past number of decades, I think our clients have largely held too much liquidity in their portfolios. Like, so what we are finding is the ability to take on illiquidity risk. And obviously, in pursuit of that premium above, the traditional markets, I mean, I think the sentiment they are is it an absolute right one. That transition towards private market exposure, we think is an important one just given the return objectives, the majority of our clients’ need but then also again, most importantly now, with geo policy, with uncertainty, with interest rate uncertainty, inflation uncertainty, I mean, the – going back to the resilience point, the characteristics now by introducing these assets into the mix is important.
And I think that’s – that point is maybe what I’ll expand on. As were talking to clients, using the Aladdin systems, and as you know, we bought eFront technologies, albeit a couple of years ago, by allowing, I think, great data and technology to help our clients understand these assets and the context of how they should own them relative to other liquidity needs, their risk tolerances, and the return expectations are really trying to use tech and data to provide a better understanding and comprehension of the outcomes.
And as we continue to introduce these concepts and these approaches, by the way, that there is, as you know, so used to in the traditional side, it – it gives them more comfort around what they should and can expect. And that, to me, is a really important part of what we’re doing.
So, we’ve released recently new technology to the wealth sector because, quite frankly, we mentioned it before, the 60-40 portfolio is a thing of the past. And that introduction of about 20 percent into alternatives, we applaud our partners who are – who are suggesting that to their clients. We think it’s something they have to do.
What we’re doing to support that is really bringing thought leadership, education, but also portfolio construction techniques and data to bear in that conversation. And this goes back to – it’s no longer an alternative, right? This is a core allocation so the comprehension of what it is you own, the behavior of the asset in good and bad times is so necessary.
And that’s become a very big thing with regard to our activities, Barry, because your clients are looking to understand better when you’re talking about assets that are very complex in their nature.
RITHOLTZ: So, 60-40 is now 50-30-20, something along those lines?
RITHOLTZ: Really, really intriguing. So, what are clients really looking for these days? We talked about yield. Are they also looking for downside protection on the equity side or inflation hedges you hinted at? How broad are the demands of clients in the alternative space?
CONWAY: Yes. It ranges the gamut. And even – we didn’t speak to even hedge funds, we’ve had differing levels of interest in the hedge fund world for years and I, quite frankly, think some degree of disappointment too, Barry, with regard to the alpha, the returns that were produced relevant to the cost.
RITHOLTZ: It’s a tough space to say the very least exactly.
CONWAY: Exactly right. But when you start to see volatility introducing itself, you can really see where skill plays a critical factor. So, we are absolutely seeing, in the hedge fund, a resurgence of interest and demand by virtue of those who really have honed in on their scale, who have demonstrated an up-and-down markets and ability to protect and preserve capital, but importantly, in a low uncorrelated way build attractive risk-adjusted returns.
We’re starting to see more activity there again too. I think with an alternatives, you’ve really seen a predominant demand coming from privates. These private markets, like a set of growths so extraordinarily fast and the opportunities that is rich, the reality too on the public side which is where our hedge funds operate, they continue to, in large part, do a really good job.
The issue with our industry now with these 38,000 managers is how do you distill all the information? How do you think about your needs as a client and pick a manager who can deliver the outcomes? And just to give you a sense, the difference now between a top-performing private equity manager, a top quartile versus the bottom quartile, the difference can be measured in tens of percent.
CONWAY: Whereas if you look at the public equity side, for example, a large cap manager, top quartile versus bottom quartile is measured in hundreds of basis points. So, there is definitely a world that has started where the outcomes our clients will experience can be great as they pursue yield, as they pursue diversification, inflation protection, et cetera.
I think the caveat that I would say is outcomes can vary greatly. So manager underwriting and the importance of it now, I think, really is this something to pay attention to because if you do have that bottom performing at the bottom quartile manager, it will affect your outcomes, obviously. And that’s what we collectively have to face.
RITHOLTZ: So, let’s talk a little bit about real estate. There are a couple of different areas of investment on the private side. Rent to own was a very large one and we’ve seen some lesser by the flip algo-driven approaches. Tell us what Blackrock is doing in the real estate space and how many different approaches are you bringing to bear on this?
CONWAY: Yes, we think it’s both equity and debt. Again, no different to the infrastructure side, these projects need to be financed. But on the – as you think about the sectors in which you can avail of the opportunity, you’ve no doubt heard a lot and I mentioned earlier this demand for logistics facilities.
The explosion of shopping online and having, until we obviously have the supply chain disruption, an ability to have nearly immediate satisfaction because the delivery of the good to your home has become so readily available. It’s a very different consumer experience. So the explosion and the need for logistics facilities to support this type of behavior of the consumer is really an area that will continue to be of great interest too.
And then you think about the transformation of business and you think about the aging world. Unfortunately, you can look at various economies where our populations are decreasing. And quite frankly, we’re getting older. And so, were you’re thinking of the context of that senior living facilities, it becomes a really important part, not just as part of the healthcare solution that come with it, but also from living as well.
So, single-family, multifamily, opportunities continue to be something that the world looks at because there is really the shortfall of available properties for people to live in. And as the communities evolve to support the growing age of the population, tremendous opportunity there too.
But we won’t give up on office space. It really isn’t going away. Now, if you even think about our younger generation here in BlackRock, they love being in New York, they love being in London, they love being in Hong Kong. So, the shape and the footprint may change slightly. But the necessity to be in the major financial centers, it still exists.
But how we weighed the risks has definitely changed, certainly, for the – for the short-term and medium-term future. But real estate continues to be, Barry, a critical part of how we express our thought around the investment opportunity set. But clients largely do this themselves too. The direct investing from the clients is quite significant because they too see this as still as a rich investment ground, albeit, one that has changed quite a bit as a result of COVID.
RITHOLTZ: Well, I’m fascinated by the real estate issue especially having seen some massive construction take place in cities pre-pandemic, look over in Manhattan at Hudson Yards and look at what’s taking place in London, not just the center of London but all – but all around it and I’m forced to admit the future is going to look somewhat different than the past with some hybrid combination of collaborative work in the office and remote work from home when it’s convenient, that sort of suggests that we now have an excess of capacity in office space. Do you see it that way or is this just something that we’re going to grow into and just the nature of working in offices is changing but offices are not going away?
CONWAY: Yes. I do think there’s – it’s a very valid point and that in certain cities, you will see access, in others we just don’t, Barry. And quite frankly, as a firm, too, as you know, we have adopted flexibility with our teams that were very fortunate. The technologies in which we created at BlackRock has just become such an amazing enabler, not just to help us as we mention manage the portfolios, help us a better portfolio construction, understand risks, but also to communicate with our clients.
I think we’ve all witnessed and experienced a way to have connectivity that allows them to believe that commerce can exist beyond the boundaries of one building. However, I do look at our property portfolios and even the things that we’re doing. Rent collections still being extraordinarily high, occupancy now getting back up to pre-pandemic levels, not in all cities, but in many of the major ones that have reopened.
And certainly, the demand for people to just socialize, that the demand for human connectivity is really high. It’s palpable, right? We see it here too. The smiles on people’s faces, they’re back in the office, conversing together, innovating together. When people were feeling unsafe, unquestionably, I think the question marks around the role of office space was really brought to bear.
But as were coming through this, as you’ve seen vaccine rates change, as you’ve seen the infection rates fall, as you’ve seen confidence grow, the return to work is really happening and return to work to office work is really happening, albeit, now with degrees of flexibility.
So, going back to the – I do believe in certain areas. You’re seeing a surplus. But in many areas you’re absolutely seeing a deficit and the reason I say that, Barry, is we are seeing occupancy in certain building at such a high level. And frankly, the demand for more space being so high, it’s uneven and this goes back to then where do you invest our client’s capital, making sense of those trends, predicting where you will see resilience versus stress and building that into the portfolio of consequences as you – as you better risk manage and mitigate.
RITHOLTZ: Very interesting. And so, we are seeing this transition across a lot of different segments of investing, are you seeing any products that were or – or investing styles that was once thought of as primarily institutional that are sort of working their way towards the retail side of things? Meaning going from institutional to accredited to mom-and-pop investors?
CONWAY: Well, certainly, in the past, private equity was really an asset class for institutional investors. And I think that’s – that has changed in a very profound way. I mentioned earlier are the regulation has become a more adaptive, but we also have heard, in many respects, in providing this access.
And I think the perception of owning and be part of this illiquid investment opportunity set was hard to stomach because many didn’t understand the attributes and what it could bring and I think we’ve been trying to solve for that and what you’re seeing now with – with regulators, understanding that the difference between if we take it quite simply as DD versus DC, the differences between the options you as a participant in a retirement plan are so vastly different that – and I think there’s a broad recognition now that there needs to be more equity with regard to what happens there.
And private equity been a really established part of the alternatives marketplace was once, I think, really believed to be an institutional asset class, but albeit now has become much more accessible to wealth. We’ve seen it by structuring activities in Europe working with the regulators. Now, we’re able to provide private equity exposure to clients across the continent and really getting access to what was historically very much an institutional asset class. And I do think the receptivity is extraordinarily high just throughout people’s careers, they have seen wealth been created as a result of engineering a great outcome with great management teams integrate business. And I do believe the receptivity towards private equity is high as an example.
In the U.S., too, working with the various intermediaries and being able to wrap now private equity in a ’40 Act fund, for example, is possible. And by being able to deliver that to the many as opposed to the few, we think has been a very good success story. And I think, obviously, appreciated by our clients as well.
So, I would look at that were seeing across private equity as well as private credit and quite frankly infrastructure accuracy. You’re seeing now regulation that’s becoming more appreciative of these asset classes, you’re seeing a more – a greater level of openness and willingness to allow for these assets to be part of many people’s experiences across their investment portfolio. And now, with innovation around structures, as an industry, were able to wrap these investments in a way that our clients can really access them.
So, think across the board, it probably speaks the innovation that’s happening but I do think that accessibility has changed in a very significant way. But you’ve really seen it happen in private equity first and now that’s expanding across these various other asset classes.
RITHOLTZ: Quite intriguing. I know I only have you for a relatively limited period of time, so let’s jump to our favorite questions that we ask all of our guests. Starting with tell us what you’ve been streaming these days. Give us your favorite Netflix or Amazon Prime shows.
CONWAY: That is an interesting question, Barry. I don’t a hell of a lot of TV, I got to tell you. I am – I keep busy with three wonderful children and a beautiful wife and between the sports activities. When I do watch TV, I have to tell you I’m addicted to sports and having – I may have mentioned earlier, growing up playing rugby which is not the most common sport in the U.S., I stream nonstop the Six Nations that happens in Europe where Ireland is one of those six nations that compete against each other on an annual basis.
Right now, they’re playing a lot of sites that are touring for the southern hemisphere. And to me, the free times I have is either enjoying golf or really enjoying rugby because I think it’s an extraordinary sport. Obviously, very physical, but very enjoyable to watch. And that, that truly is my passion outside of family.
RITHOLTZ: Interesting stuff. Tell us a bit about your mentors, who helped to shape your early career?
CONWAY: Well, it even goes back to some of the aspects of sports. Playing on a team and being on a field where you’re working together, there’s a strategy involved with that. Now, I used to really appreciate how we approach playing in the All-Ireland League. How we thought about our opponents, how we thought about the structure, how we thought about each individual with on the rugby field and the team having a role. They’re all different but your role.
And actually, even starting from an early age, Barry, thinking about, I don’t know, it’s sports but how to build a great team with those various skills, perspective, that can be a really, really powerful combination when done well. And certainly, from an early age, that allowed me to appreciate that – actually, in the work environment, it’s not too different. You surround yourself with just really great people that have high integrity that are empathetic and have a degree of humility that when working together, good things can happen. And I will say, it really started at sports.
But I think of today and even in BlackRock, how Larry Fink thinks about the world and I think Larry, truly, is a visionary. And then Rob Kapito who really helps lead the charge across our various businesses. Speaking and conversing with them on a daily basis, getting their perspectives, trying to get inside your head and thinking about the world from their vantage point. To me, it’s a huge thing about my ongoing personal career and development and I really enjoy those moments because I think what you recognize is independent of how much you think you know, there’s so much more to know.
And this journey is an ever evolving one where you have to appreciate that you’ll never know everything and you need to be a student every single day. So, I’d probably cite those, Barry, as certainly the two most important mentors in my life today, professionally and personally quite frankly.
RITHOLTZ: Really. Very interesting. Let’s talk about what you’re reading these days. Tell us about some of your favorite books and what you’re reading currently?
CONWAY: Barry, what I love to read, I love to read history, believe it or not. From a very small country that seems to have exported many, many people, love to understand the history of Ireland. So, there’s so many books. And having three children that have been born in the U.S. and my wife is a New Yorker, trying to help them understand some of their history and what made them what they are. I love delving into Irish history and how the country had moments of greatness and moments of tremendous struggle.
Outside of that, I really don’t enjoy science fiction or any of these books. I love reading, you name any paper and any magazine on a daily basis. Unfortunately, I wake at about 4:30, 5 o’clock every day. I spent my first two hours of the day just consuming as much information as possible. I enjoy it. But it’s all – it’s really investment-related magazines, not books. It’s every paper that you could possibly imagine, Barry, and I just – I have a great appreciation for certainly trying to be a student of the world because that’s what we’re operating in an I find it just a very interesting avenue to get an appreciation to for the, not just the opportunities, but the challenges we’re collectively facing as a society but also as a business.
RITHOLTZ: I’m with you on that mass consumption of investing-related news. It sounds like you and I have the same a morning routine.
Let’s talk about of what sort of advice you would give to a recent college graduate who was interested in a career of alternative investments?
CONWAY: Well, the industry has – it’s just gone through such extraordinary growth and the difference, when I’ve started versus today, the career opportunity set has changed so much. And I think I try to remind anyone of our analysts who come into each one of our annual classes, right, as we bring in the new recruits. I think about how talented they are for us, Barry, and how privileged we all are to be in this industry and work for the clients that we do.
It’s just such an honor to do that. But I kind of – I try to remind them of that. At the end of the day, whether you’re supporting an institution, that institution is the face of many people in the background and alternatives has really now become such an important part of their experience and we talked about earlier just this challenge of retirement, if we do a good job, these institutions that support the many, they can have, hopefully, a retirement that involves dignity and they can have an ability to do things they so wanted to do as they work so hard over their lives.
Getting that that personal connection and allowing for those newbies to understand that that’s the effect that you can have, an alternatives whether it’s private equity, real estate, infrastructure, private credit, hedge funds, all of these now, with the scale at which they’re operating at can allow for a great career. But my advice to them is always don’t forget your career is supporting other people. And that comes directly to how we intersect with wealth channel, it comes indirectly as a result of the institutions.
And it’s such a privilege to do that. I didn’t envision when I grew up, as I mentioned, my first job, milking cows and back in a small town in the middle of Ireland that I would be one day leading an alternatives business within BlackRock. I see that as a great privilege.
So, for those who are joining afresh, hopefully, try to remind them that it is for all of us and show up with empathy, dignity, compassion, and do the best you can, and hopefully, these people be sure will serve them well.
RITHOLTZ: And our final question, what you know about the world of alternative investing today you wish you knew 25 years or so ago when you were first getting started?
CONWAY: I think if we had invested much more heavily as an industry in technology, we would not be in the position we are today. And I say that, Barry, from a number of aspects.
I mentioned in this shortfall of information our clients are dealing with today. They’re making choices to divest from one asset class to invest in another. To do that and do that effectively, they need great transparency, they needed real-time in many respects, it can’t be just a quarterly line basis. And if we had been better prepared as an industry to provide the technology and the data to help our clients really appreciate what it is they own, how we’re managing the assets on their behalf, I think they would be so much better served.
I think we’re very fortunate at this firm to have built a business on the back of technology for albeit 30 plus years and were investing over $1 billion a year in technology as I’m sure you know. But we need to see more of that in the industry. So, the client experience is so important, stop, let’s demystify alternatives. It’s not that alternative. Let’s provide education and data and it’s become so large relative to other asset classes, the need to support, to educate, and transmit information, not data, information, so our client understand it, is at a paramount now.
And I think it certainly as an industry, things have to change there. If I knew how big the growth would have been and how prominent these asset classes were becoming, I would oppose so much harder on that front 30 years ago.
RITHOLTZ: Thank you, Edwin, for being so generous with your time. We’ve been speaking with Edwin Conway. He is the head of Blackrock Investor Alternatives Group.
If you enjoy this conversation, please check out all of our prior discussions. You can find those at iTunes, Spotify, wherever you get your podcast at. We love your comments, feedback and suggestions. Write to us at MIB podcast@Bloomberg.net. You can sign up for my daily reads at ritholtz.com. Check out my weekly column at Bloomberg.com/opinion.
Follow me on Twitter, @ritholtz. I would be remiss if I did not thank the crack team that helps put these conversations together each week. Mohammed ph is my audio engineer. Paris Wald is my producer, Michael Batnick is my head of research, Atika Valbrun is our project manager. I’m Barry Ritholtz, you’ve been listening to Masters in Business on Bloomberg Radio.