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The Uber-Rich Have as Much Trouble Investing as You

Real estate in 'Gateway Cities' like London has been a favorite asset class for the last few years, but even that is struggling to generate returns now.Loop Images UIG via Getty Images

Having trouble deciding where to put your money now that everything seems expensive? Well, that’s something you have in common with the uber-rich.

New research out Thursday shows that so-called ‘family offices’ that manage the personal fortunes of what the banking community calls ‘Ultra-High Net Worth Individuals’ are struggling every bit as much as Joe Average to come to terms with a financial market landscape distorted by interest rates near or even below zero.

But unlike the many, who view the compression of interest rates as a sign of “secular stagnation,” the UHNWs are taking the “glass half-full” view and are upping their bets on growth.

According to the figures, compiled by Campden Wealth for UBS, family offices are planning a clear shift into growth assets next year, making higher allocations for equity investing and cutting exposure to low-yielding cash and bonds.

But there’s optimism, and there’s over-optimism. As Philip Higson, the vice-chairman of UBS’s Family Office Group, points out, those who have made rapid fortunes find it tough to believe that they can’t keep making money at the same rate, even when the global economy has clearly shifted into a lower gear.

“Expected returns haven’t come down, even though actual ones have,” Higson told Fortune. Even perennial success stories like high-end real estate in “Gateway Cities” like London, Singapore, and Vancouver are starting to slow down as governments around the world take a dimmer view of inequality and become more sensitive to issues such as housing shortages. The last leg of the rally has been driven more by rising capital values than by the rents that ultimately justify those values, he notes.

According to UBS and Campden, the average return on family office holdings dropped to only 0.3% last year from 6.1% the year before and 8.5% in 2013.

In response, the UHNW crowd are doubling down on the things they feel they know best—private equity and real estate—and cutting their allocations to asset classes like hedge funds. “Family offices are very clearly chasing growth in their asset allocations and exposures are being reinforced rather than diversified,” the report says.

With private equity, “You better understand where your money is invested, the industry and the business model, and can be closer to the operation or the management team,” one board-level member at a family office is quoted as saying. While family offices have “a long-term love affair with private equity (due to its) proximity to the roots of a family business,” Higson says, that affair is heating up again in the short term.

By contrast, UHNWs have lost their love for hedge funds, many of which have lost their knack of outperforming more passively-managed investments.

“There are too many hedge funds doing the same thing or too many big funds and not enough small ones,” one executive told Campden.

Shifting trends in this niche segment are more than enough to move the dial in most asset classes. In London alone, there are over 1,000 family offices managing over $1 trillion of assets, many of them having sprung up as UHNWs took back control of family fortunes after unhappy experiences with their private banks during the financial crisis.

While the family offices surveyed by Campden differ widely by region, structure and size, some secular trends stand out: cost consciousness is rising—expenses fell to 0.76% of assets under management from 0.794% a year earlier—and succession planning is seen as the biggest challenge over the next two years by most.

Fewer than half of those surveyed said they had actually experienced a successful transition from one generation to the next, perhaps unsurprisingly given the list of preconditions (“a willing and able next generation, an older generation prepared to give up control, and a flexible and trustworthy family office,” according to the report).