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Race to harness AI dominates as digital tidal wave washes over fund management

  • "Adapt or die" sentiment dominates fund management talks on digital
  • Asset managers each deciding how far to incorporate artificial intelligence into systems
  • Improved communication methods being explored as millennials' wealth grows

The more than 1,800 attendees who flocked to this week's FundForum International summit in Berlin could not escape the keen focus on digitalization and the growing pressure on managers to harness its anticipated benefits.

Given the tremendous potential for artificial intelligence (AI) to improve systemic efficiency and optimize client communications, the pervading sentiment was very much "adapt or die".

Swiss fund house Unigestion has incorporated machine learning techniques into its systems since 1995 and views its embrace of digital as a continual work-in-progress.

The latest focus is on machine learning skills which learn from the market rather than humans, according to its Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Fiona Frick, speaking to CNBC on Monday.

"The idea will be more to ask the machine a question and see what the machine will answer rather than tell the machine what to do," explained Frick, asserting that this methodology will be the next stage of the relationship between man and machine in asset management.

As fund houses strive to dismantle punitive legacy cost structures at a time when fees are being decimated, Lawrence Wintermeyer, CEO of U.K. fintech association Innovate Finance, told CNBC that the potential for active managers in particular to improve on their sums is substantial if they can augment their decision making with AI.

"That extends not just into helping deliver better alpha or better investment returns but how to give better oversight of compliance - that's called RegTech - and drive down compliance and oversight costs. I'd watch that space," he advised.

The asset management industry is still playing digital catch-up, according to Jamie Hammond, European CEO of Alliance Bernstein, speaking to CNBC in Berlin on Tuesday.

In Hammond's view, asset managers should not only focus on robo-advisers (systems which provide financial advice with minimum human intervention) but also robo-servicers which can cost-effectively respond to intermediaries' and end investors' needs more satisfactorily.

"The industry talks a lot about the rise of millennials and unfortunately at the moment, people have ignored the millennials, the under-35s, because they don't have the money. But if you look at what's forecast, I think in the next 15 - 20 years, in the U.S. the millennials will inherit about $15 trillion worth of wealth and I think in Europe it's about $12 trillion," highlighted Hammond.

"So if the industry doesn't wake up and get its digital act together in a way to engage with these clients, then I think it will suffer," the industry veteran warned.

Blockchain has been top of mind for many recently given the vertiginous growth of certain cryptocurrencies, such as ethereum, which has swelled in value by over 5,000 percent during 2017.

Yet enthusiasm for these investments, which are reliant on blockchain's distributed database, has not been followed by a willingness within many fund houses to embrace the technology which promises substantial potential efficiency benefits but still faces high levels of skepticism over the security of its platform.

"Blockchain promised to be a great solution for many things," observed Wintermeyer, listing cross-border payments, "Know Your Customer" systems and trade finance as three salient examples.

However, its pick up has been underwhelming to date.

"It's been slow out of the blocks…We haven't seen any provable scale of concepts come to market yet and I think we could be a few years away from that," he opined.

Unigestion once again has been at the forefront of embracing a new technology, with the fund house recently experimenting with blockchain on a very restricted scale as part of its private equity systems.

"The goal now is to expand to other parts of our operational processes," says CEO Frick, affirming that the results to date have been sufficiently encouraging as to warrant further experimentation.

Double exposure of abstract financial graphs, business person in office using smartphone and laptop computer with stock market dashboard, and buildings
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Double exposure of abstract financial graphs, business person in office using smartphone and laptop computer with stock market dashboard, and buildings

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