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Industry Voices

Commentary: Bridging the GAAP with insurers and alternative investments

Given the last decade of depressed interest rates, low-yielding bonds and increasing liabilities, insurers around the world have sought solace in their asset management arms, setting their sights on an investment strategy that is fast becoming a perfect match: alternative investments.

Having grown rapidly in the last decade, the popularity of alternative investments is expected to continue to rise. Preqin estimates that half of all investors committed to private equity, hedge funds or real estate now allocate a minimum 10% or more of total assets.

As with any investment category, the challenge for insurers where alternatives are concerned is to achieve a finely tuned balance among satisfying investor transparency, remaining cost-effective, reaping the highest returns and minimizing operational risk. The reality, however, is very different.

In a WBR Insights report surveying 100 North American buy-side heads of operations, alternative investments were among the most costly and challenging asset classes to manage (62%).The findings mirrored those in a similar report conducted in Europe (51%). A large part of the associated cost is related to outdated technology, as well as third-party outsourcing, which many insurance firms currently use. The expense can be easily avoided with the use of a multiasset-class approach deployed in-house.

These findings are particularly worrying, considering they impact the ability to retain and attract new clients amid the allure of cheaper passive investment vehicles. To address the challenge,insurers should keep in mind three operational concerns if they are to fully reap the rewards of alternative investments.

Achieving operational efficiency

Achieving operational efficiency for a portfolio that includes alternative investments requires a different approach, particularly when it comes to risk management, because alternatives are often opaque in nature. As StrategyAnd and PricewaterhouseCoopers noted in a report, most private equity funds report information only quarterly, while the lack of mark-to-market valuations in commodities contracts can create pricing ambiguity. A consolidated operating model plays a key role in enhancing transparency, by bringing together all data points throughout the entire investment lifecycle into one system. In adopting a multiasset-class approach, where alternative investments are run together with cash and equities, insurers can eliminate the operational risk associated with harboring important data in siloed applications and the painstaking manual processes undertaken to make it accessible across the investment chain.

Additionally, gaining automation through consolidation is a key advantage. In the current asset management landscape, while many asset managers can achieve relatively high straight-through processing in the management of traditional asset classes, finding that same level of automation and integration for growing illiquid, alternative investments has proved difficult. Asset managers, including those of insurers, have tried to overcome the fragmented, legacy and best-of-breed systems by spending significant money on niche systems to automate workflows between the front and back offices. The reality is that this has simply served to create a complex medley of expensive systems, resulting in heavy manual reconciliation to bridge data gaps and ensure accuracy. Simplifying this tangled infrastructure and gaining automated front-to-back investment management is essential to reducing operational cost and risk but also in delivering the innovation that is vital in the search for investment returns.

Data and analysis

Data and more specifically data management are becoming a key concern for investments operations teams given the burgeoning volumes, sources and uses of investment data on already overburdened legacy infrastructures. Data aggregation, for example, has become an almost impossible task. Accurate measurements of firmwide limits and counterparty exposures was one of the top front-office challenges for heads of operations in both North America, according to the WBR Insights report. It's not hard to see why, when to do so firms must aggregate data that are not only split across multiple sources, systems and interfaces but may also need scrubbing or cleansing to gain any meaningful analysis.

To overcome this challenge, firms must address the discrepancy between data available in the back office and front office. Empowering the front office with greater transparency, through integrated solutions that deliver accounting analytics and functionality, will ultimately better inform the decision-making process and enrich simulations for portfolio management. By bringing together the data in all these disparate systems into one single investment book of record, insurers can leverage firmwide data for superior analytics, which provides a distinct competitive advantage. Given that one of the hardest elements in managing alternative investments is the data itself, this is a notable advantage, indeed.

Advanced accounting

Like their peers, insurance asset management arms will now have to contend not only with multiple accounting and tax frameworks, supporting local generally accepted accounting principles such statutory accounting principle or international standards like IFRS, across multiple currencies, but also comply with growing global regulations and compliance standards. Recent regulations such as Europe's Alternative Investment Fund Managers Directive and the U.S.'s Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act, which have recently come into play, are already causing a stir.

In their report, StrategyAnd and PwC said that managing regulatory compliance is now becoming one of the largest challenges where the back office is concerned. As this regulatory compliance evolves, it will demand more from a firm's accounting support than ever before. Bridging the GAAP has never been more important.

If this was not enough, insurance firms also have a distinct complexity to deal with compared to the rest of the buy side, with multitier legal and company structures that require reporting to authorities across different jurisdictions and geographies. While many of these institutions have traditionally turned to outsourcing to address this mammoth task, increasing obligations have caused a shift where many asset managers are finding themselves running a shadow book of record to ensure data received back from their outsourcers are indeed the same data that are being sent out to regulators. Operating on a single source of truth for accounting and regulatory reporting in-house will not only cut down on costly duplication and arduous reconciliation, but also deliver further control and advanced accounting analytics capability, relieving in-house talent to focus on more high-value tasks.

Given the attraction between insurers and alternative investments, insurance asset management arms, particularly those operating on a global scale, will need to assess what it takes to close the gap on returns, while managing the balance between transparency to its investors and keeping operational cost and risk low. Though it may be tempting to forge ahead without much adjustment to existing infrastructure, those that adopt a consolidated infrastructure, with an investment book of record at the heart of operations, and standardize workflows that integrate to the firm's accounting book of record, will be the best model for sustained growth. With the same support for alternative and traditional asset classes in one system, insurance asset management can deliver new investment strategies and products quickly, manage data and decommission costly systems and interfaces, making alternative investments a relationship that will stand the test of time.

Hugues Chabanis is the Paris-based alternative investments product manager at SimCorp. This content represents the views of the author. It was submitted and edited under P&I guidelines but is not a product of P&I's editorial team.