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US: BlackRock ETF flows fall 46 percent as global markets in turmoil

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Even as BlackRock Inc.’s growth appears unstoppable, there are signs the firm isn’t invincible.

The world’s largest money manager saw net flows for its global iShares exchange-traded funds decline 46 percent in the first quarter to $34.6 billion from a year earlier. Even with the fall in flows, BlackRock beat quarterly earnings estimates and saw total assets under management rise to $6.3 trillion.

Choppy markets spurred traders to devote less cash to ETFs. And with good reason given that the S&P 500 index ended the quarter down 0.76 percent. ETFs charging 0.2 percent or less have accounted for 82 percent of the industry’s net flows this year, up from 77 percent in the fourth quarter, according to research from Bloomberg Intelligence.

Laurence D. Fink, BlackRock’s chief executive officer, said investors moved money in the quarter because of a spike in market volatility and changes in U.S. tax law.

“Institutional investors, in particular, reacted to these factors, by de-risking and re-balancing,” Fink said in a statement Thursday. “At the same time, we also saw many corporate clients adapting to U.S. tax reform by seeking liquidity to fund future capital investment or more aggressive share repurchases. As a result of these various crosscurrents, BlackRock experienced a significant number of both large inflows and large outflows from institutional clients in the first quarter.”

ETF Business

Growth in BlackRock’s ETF business will likely be more subdued compared to the last several years. The money manager came to dominate the market as brokers poured cash into ETFs in anticipation of a rule requiring them to put clients’ interests ahead of their own when handling retirement investments.

“Sustaining growth at double-digits in terms of asset flows will be really tough to do” for BlackRock, said Kyle Sanders, an analyst at Edward Jones & Co.

Still, analysts say that BlackRock’s ETFs held up well given the circumstances of the markets. Advisers continued to allocate money to the products.

“It shows that these passive structures are here to stay and people will buy them whether the market is good or bad,” said Sanders.

As BlackRock’s less expensive ETFs continue to capture most of the money, that could put pressure on revenue. In October 2016, the firm reduced prices on 15 core ETFs aimed at price sensitive retail clients and financial advisers. The money manager is betting that it can offset any fee cuts with greater volume.

“I think that is why in the short-term seeing money go to this low-cost stuff might be tough, but it sets them up better for the future,” said Bloomberg Intelligence analyst Eric Balchunas.

With a good chunk of its in assets sitting in passive, BlackRock is trying to diversify into higher-fee alternative offerings and building out its technology business. The firm is depending on its risk-management system, known as Aladdin, to help with its technology push.

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