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Big brokerage advisers in the US long had an edge over their independent rivals: the ability to bring high-end private equity and hedge fund options to wealthy clients.

They could rely on the chiefs at the “wirehouses” — such as Merrill Lynch and Morgan Stanley — to vet strategies, negotiate access to top managers at lower investment minimums, build feeder structures and back-office connections, and help with heavy private fund paperwork and tax reporting. For most independents, such tasks proved onerous, leaving elite private funds beyond reach.

But technology platforms offering alternative investments — known as “alts” — have come online in recent years to serve the independent market, with CAIS, iCapital Network, Artivest, and Guggenheim Partners all now jostling for business.

And they are especially linking up with growing hubs that acquire independent advisers or deliver services to them, such as HighTower Advisors, Focus Financial, and Dynasty Financial Partners.

These new platforms close the gap for advisers who previously could not go independent without losing most private fund access, says Stephen Rosen, partner at HighTower.

“Platforms like CAIS and iCapital help you get established as an independent, and we’ve continued to use them because they have very good [manager] relationships,” says Mr Rosen, who left Morgan Stanley in 2013 to join a HighTower team in Bethesda, Maryland that now runs $800m, about a quarter of which is in hedge funds and private equity.

He says without such platforms, many independent advisers might not get into hedge funds such as Millennium Management, D.E. Shaw Group, and Third Point.

The vehicles can also smooth access for advisers new to alternatives, says Tom Manning, chief executive at F.L. Putnam Investment Management, a $1.4bn independent advisory firm in Massachusetts. “The advent of these platforms definitely makes it easier for [independent advisers] to offer alternative investments to their clients,” he adds.

But as these platforms gain ground, many early adopters are not using them as mere substitutes to big brokerage offerings. Instead, many relationships are starting with tailored aspects, and the platforms are already evolving with flexible models to appeal to a wider audience.

Abby Barlow, Crestone Capital © Crestone

The platforms may never match up well with some outfits. Crestone Capital Advisors, a $1.5bn independent adviser in Colorado, has spent 25 years for example developing alts expertise on a path akin to institutional investors, first using funds of funds, and then building operational systems. A seven-person team meets 700 private equity, real estate, and hedge fund managers annually, says Abby Barlow, Crestone’s director of investment research.

Over that period Crestone has formed close ties with like-minded university endowments and deep relationships with top fund managers — both categories that may covet its wealthy business founder, chief executive, and entrepreneur clients. But few independent advisers today would be able to undertake that costly, years-long approach, making new alts platforms a good substitute, Ms Barlow says.

“For an adviser starting from scratch with no [alts] exposure, this would be a way to ingrain [these products] into their ecosystems,” she adds.

Other advisers that have built alts expertise on their own still are finding ways to team up with the platforms. One of them is Lori Van Dusen, who runs the $2.1bn LVW Advisors, part of Focus Financial’s network. While her team has long conducted research and invested directly with hedge fund and private equity managers — with recent emphasis on long-short equity and private credit strategies — it has plans to develop a private equity vehicle for LVW clients and other advisers.

To build the strategy — which would blend direct funds, co-investments, and secondaries — LVW is aiming for partnerships with platforms such as CAIS and Artivest for operations technology and administrative support.

Even advisers tapping the platforms for funds are not likely to use them exclusively, Mr Manning says. For instance, many independent advisers seek smaller, more nimble private fund managers that they believe can deliver outsized returns — options in limited supply on these platforms, which often list bigger alts brands, he says.

“You’ll see advisers doing some on their own, and some on the platforms,” he says. “We’ll be one of those firms that aims for a differentiated offering.”

Advisors also say they will use the platforms for hedge funds but not private equity, or vice versa. And some larger independent adviser networks — such as HighTower and Fidelity — that partner with multiple alts platforms will even enable their advisers to comparison shop for the best price or for more investment capacity, especially for hedge funds, Rosen says.

The platforms appear to know simple fund menus may not suffice, and are accordingly expanding product suites and crafting new partnerships across the market.

For instance, CAIS last year added private equity exposure, and Artivest and iCapital have in recent months boosted hedge fund capabilities. And each has announced partnerships in recent months to develop customised programs for independent adviser networks such as Hightower, Focus, Dynasty, and Fidelity Investments.

While further evolution may be ahead, the early platform players appear to have carved out a market advantage, Manning says.

But regardless of where these platforms go, advisers must view them as an entry point, Ms Van Dusen says. “The onus is still on you to do your own homework,” she says. “You can’t just layer in these investments and automatically get good returns and lower risk.”

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.
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