2019 All Stars

Jim Vos

Title: CEO
Firm: Aksia
Assets under advisement: $85 billion
Number of consultants at firm: 172 professionals, including 33 portfolio advisory professionals
Client type: Corporate and public pension plans, insurance companies, government-related

To Jim Vos, CEO of Aksia, the fable of “The Three Little Pigs” is instructive. One pig builds his house with straw, another goes for sticks, and a third uses bricks. The Big Bad Wolf has no trouble blowing down the first two, yet the brick house is impervious. “You need to be ready for when things don’t go well,” Vos says.

That’s one way that Aksia, the research and portfolio advisory firm that specializes in alternative investments for institutional clients, brings added value: anticipating possible future scenarios, both for tailwinds and headwinds.

And with so much uncertainty about what the future holds, the challenge is doubly hard. “When the world’s going crazy, it’s difficult for institutions to set up new processes and workflows to take advantage of things,” he says.

The solution, he feels, is to establish the governance and staffing procedures with a cross-disciplinary framework, as well as structural arrangements with trusted GPs, to be ready for opportunities. “You don’t want to be caught performing triage when everything is finally cheap,” he admonishes.

Vos founded Aksia in 2006, to provide clients with expertise on alts, which are increasingly vital for portfolios long used to the traditional asset classes. Fixed income pays meager interest nowadays, and stocks are in an aging bull market prone to skittishness. His 75-member client list features premier names such as Hartford HealthCare, the New Mexico State Investment Council, State of Wisconsin Investment Board, and Australia’s Sunsuper.

The ethos at Aksia is to work quickly to support clients in actionable timeframes. “We can put together a cross-disciplinary team in 24 hours and get going,” he says. Aksia staff has deep expertise in the different alt strategies and is encouraged to pursue messy opportunities that do not fall neatly into asset class buckets. His staff of 172 professionals, with 33 advising clients on their portfolios and 91 researchers, has maintained a comfortable staff-to-client ratio better than 2-to-1.

And these close relationships with clients pay off, in Vos’ view. “Clients are sharp and are a key part of the team,” he says. Vos uses the metaphor of the jellybean jar at the fairground to show how this works: “The decision of the crowd usually turns out to be pretty accurate about how many jellybeans are in the jar, especially when people are looking at it from different perspectives.”

Opportunities He Sees

Where does Vos see the opportunities up ahead? Asia. Amid the ongoing Sino-American trade war, that seems like an odd notion. A few years ago, American companies were clamoring to get into the huge and expanding Chinese market. Now, many US companies view the world’s No. 2 economic power warily.

“There has been a lot of angst about China,” Vos says. “But a large asset owner can’t ignore the growing Asian economies. These are less mature capital markets whose structure is evolving. When I try to imagine what might be the biggest regret of asset owners 10 years from now, I keep coming back to being overallocated to US and UK asset managers.”

Passive management has been quite tough on active managers in North America and Europe, he notes. “ETFs and index funds are like a fence around retail investors, leaving active markets overly dominated by well-informed and skilled professionals,” he says.

Vos contrasts that to Asia, where on some exchanges “retail trading can be over 75% of the volumes, and valuation swings can be huge and emotional. It won’t always be that way, but for now it’s a nice environment for active managers in both public and some private markets.” 

That’s the sort of outside-the-box thinking that has brought Vos his current prominence in the world of knowledge brokers. 

By Larry Light

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