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Had Queen Victoria been able to travel through time, she would probably have found aspects of 21st-century life disconcerting: the brazen flaunting of naked table legs; the reluctance to make mourning an Olympic sport (despite the promise shown by small groups of melancholic black-clad youths loitering by provincial bus shelters); and the downgrading of the Raj from subcontinental jewel of the Empire to a small Tandoori restaurant in Solihull, West Midlands.
However, some fixtures would remain reassuringly familiar: the Rothschild banking dynasty — whose services Her Majesty so valued — can still be found at New Court in the City of London, where it first set up shop in 1809.
Similarly, a parachronistic Jane Austen, if perplexed by the reworking of her novel for kinematograph as Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, would doubtless be relieved that the royalties could still be banked at her branch of Hoare & Co in Fleet Street, some 200 years on.
And, surely Ian Fleming, were he fast-forwarded to 2016, would be pleased to find his family office just a Bentley’s drive from his club in St James’s — even if the actor portraying his James Bond alter ego has, on recent evidence, forgotten the sat nav co-ordinates for Savile Row.
But, for the creator of the spy film franchise, one temporal continuity error might prove harder to accept: the plaque on the office door that now reads “Stonehage Fleming”. While some private banks have remained unchanged for centuries, many wealth managers have been unable to resist the urge to merge.
In 2014, when Fleming Family & Partners combined with Stonehage, a multifamily office business, it continued a wider trend. That year, merger and acquisition activity involving wealth managers saw $461.4bn-worth of assets brought under new control, in 83 deals, according to the consultancy Scorpio Partnership. Already, 2016 has begun in a similar vein, with Société Générale acquiring Kleinwort Benson, and Tilney Bestinvest buying Towry.
For the dealmakers, it is all about upsizing. As Iain Tait, head of the private investment office at London & Capital, explains: “The transactions . . . typically have two characteristics: large financial institutions acquiring wealth managers for product distribution, or private equity bolting multiple firms together to realise synergies.” For clients, though, it means upheaval. “It can be very damaging,” warns Tait. “Less continuity, increased bias towards certain products and no longer an independent outlook.” But, as a partner at an independent company, he would say that, wouldn’t he?
Guy Hudson, partner at Stonehage Fleming would understandably say otherwise. “Change is not necessarily a negative,” he argues. “A merger, which may bring increased resources and good new people, can enhance both investment performance and the other aspects of client service.”
So what should you do if a takeover means you can no longer bank on old certainties? Sunaina Sinha, managing partner of Cebile Capital, suggests leveraging your own capital. “Clients should ask for assurances that the diligence and service will not suffer as a result of the takeover,” she says.
If the people remain the same, it is a reassuring sign, says Rupert Robinson, managing director of Gresham House. “Wealth management is a people-driven business built on establishing trust. As long as these key attributes are preserved then stay with the devil you know.”
Queen Victoria might wish her antecedents had done just that. How amused would “we” be on learning that her great, great granddaughter’s private bank, now part of Royal Bank Scotland, suffered the indignity of a taxpayer bailout in 2008. Not very, I’m guessing.
Matthew Vincent is the FT’s deputy companies editor
Matthew is thinking . . .
There is only one absolute in fund management: most absolute return funds fail, absolutely. These funds, which are supposed to achieve positive returns regardless of market conditions, have just turned in their worst performance since 2008, with 12-month returns to February 29 down by an average of 5.2 per cent. Absolute shower!