What it takes to be a great fund manager

Nick Westra

A good investment manager may be able to crunch the numbers on your savings plan, but a great one can adapt to your changing needs and expectations.

Aspiring asset managers from local universities received a crash course on this distinction during a three-month virtual, investment competition hosted by JP Morgan Asset Management which concluded last week.

'It was very different from just working with a textbook at school,' said Grace Lai Nga-sum, a third-year student at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

Lai and her CUHK teammates Leo Chan Sun-wing, Jeff Lam Hoi-tung and Victor Ng Chun-ming took first prize in the group category, earning HK$10,000 worth of credit to a JP Morgan account. Their assignment was to create a detailed retirement savings plan for a fictitious 28-year-old marketing manager.

Their proposal received high marks, but evaluators suggested it should have been more flexible. Like most others in the competition, the team made projections into the distant future that assumed trends would be constant in both the market and the client's financial position.

Terry Pan, the head of retail business at JP Morgan, said that as a teacher grading the proposals as a school assignment, he would give some of them 'decent grades. But as the virtual investor, I wouldn't give them my money.'

Asset managers are expected to know their client and operate within the bounds of their risk tolerance and expectations. The participants in the competition did not overlook that obligation, even though the investment case itself was fictional.

'I learned how to put myself in the client's shoes because your investment decision is actually affecting his life,' Chan said. 'It's not the same thing as seeing an investment opportunity and then going for it because you have to really see if your client can bear such a risk.'

The participants may have briefly lived the life of an asset manager but they were reminded by the JP Morgan judges that they needed to better identify with their clients before they could become true professionals.

'When I look back, there is still a large distance between the fund managers and myself,' Lam said. 'We still have a lot to improve on.'

Luke Wang, a first-year student at the University of Hong Kong who won the individual competition, also said he realised he had more to learn.

Pan hopes the experience will be useful in the participants' everyday lives, teaching them the importance of critical thinking. It should also prepare them to become better investment managers, he said.

'Some of them have developed strong technical skills that will be a good foundation,' Pan said. 'But to be honest, good fund managers don't just grow on trees.'

And that is why investors pay them their fees.