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Top asset owners’ US$23 trillion the real key to unlocking net zero

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November 23, 2021

  • Over $23 trillion is concentrated with the top 100 asset owners, making it some of the most influential capital on the planet.
  • Leading asset owners have the power to drive change in the investments industry and hold the keys and pathways to net zero.
  • By thinking about the investment ecosystem* as a whole and collaborating across it, this group can have even greater impact than their large asset size implies.

ARLINGTON, VA, November 23, 2021 — The world’s 100 largest asset owners (AO100) grew by 15.7% last year to reach $23.5 trillion as of year-end 2020, according to new research from Willis Towers Watson’s Thinking Ahead Institute. Pension funds remain the single biggest group of asset owners globally accounting for 58.1% of assets, followed by sovereign wealth funds (34.7%) and outsourced chief investment officers (OCIOs) and master trusts combined (7.2%).

According to Roger Urwin, co-founder of the Thinking Ahead Institute, “This relatively small group of investors are right on the front line of the investment community’s fight to become net zero, and their power is even more concentrated among the top 20, which are responsible for nearly $13 trillion.”

As the research shows, there are three accredited net zero committed organizations in the top 20 and only 14 in the top 100. 

“While the pledges from Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero (GFANZ) organizations are critical, the largest asset owners hold the ‘keys to the castle,’ said Urwin. “Their allocations, ownership muscle and trickle-down influence will be important in opening the door to net zero pathways.

“But to successfully manage the complexity and challenges of sustainable investment and net zero pathways, asset owners will need to develop enhanced governance and investment sophistication.

“The Glasgow COP26 summit has highlighted how asset owners can work together as part of a wider collaboration framework to produce better long-term outcomes for the whole system.”

According to the research, the development of systems leadership** practices — those that acknowledge the size and interconnectedness of the climate challenge — will support much-needed innovation and collective action; however, asset owners will need to face up to and overcome numerous impediments, including narrow interpretations of fiduciary standards, that have pushed them to maintain established practices.

Added Urwin, “The research highlights how some asset owner groups have attempted to overcome these impediments by ‘maturing’ their governance, investment and sustainability models and revamping their organizational purpose. As part of this, they have built their capacity to innovate in readiness for the imminent transformational change, and other asset owners should take note.” 

The new research also covers other key themes for asset owners to address, which include: 

  • Lower future expected return potential driving funds to adapt their investment model
  • Broader stakeholder management becoming a much bigger task to address
  • Diminishing reliance on the networks of external asset managers
  • A rise in regulatory requirements as a factor influencing their practices, particularly in environmental, social and governance as well as stewardship
  • Building more robust technology platforms to transform over-abundant data into value-adding intellectual capital

Samar Khanna, co-author of the research, commented, “The challenges asset owners face are immensely broad and deep. We are concerned that the resources of the sector will be stretched by having so many strands to cover. The need for clear-eyed strategy has never been more important.”

“This is a defining moment for asset owners, and it’s decision time,” added Urwin. “They can stay in their narrow mandates or step up with a systems-leadership mindset to play a galvanizing industry role that unleashes a torrent of net zero aligned capital.”

Notes to editors

*The investment ecosystem is defined by the network of organizations and stakeholders that connect the investment industry and the technologies, forces and value chains that drive their interactions.

**Systems leadership is defined by efforts to collaborate and find joint solutions to common problems based on an understanding that everything connects and that incentives and behaviors matter.


The Thinking Ahead Institute’s Asset Owner 100: The most influential capital on the planet research can be found here.

The Thinking Ahead Institute definition of asset owners is that they:

  • Work directly for a defined group of beneficiaries/savers/investors as the manager of their assets in a fiduciary capacity (upholding loyalty and prudence) under delegated responsibility
  • Work with a sponsoring entity, usually a government or part thereof, company or not-for-profit
  • Work within explicit law and possess an implicit societal license to operate because of their societal trust and legitimacy
  • Deliver mission-specific outcomes to beneficiaries and stakeholders in the form of various payments or benefits

About the Thinking Ahead Institute

The Thinking Ahead Institute was established in January 2015 and is a global not-for-profit investment research and innovation member group made up of engaged institutional asset owners and service providers committed to mobilizing capital for a sustainable future. It has over 50 members around the world and is an outgrowth of the Thinking Ahead Group, which was set up in 2002. Learn more at www.thinkingaheadinstitute.org.

About Willis Towers Watson

Willis Towers Watson (NASDAQ: WLTW) is a leading global advisory, broking and solutions company that helps clients around the world turn risk into a path for growth. With roots dating to 1828, Willis Towers Watson has 45,000 employees serving more than 140 countries and markets. We design and deliver solutions that manage risk, optimize benefits, cultivate talent, and expand the power of capital to protect and strengthen institutions and individuals. Our unique perspective allows us to see the critical intersections between talent, assets and ideas — the dynamic formula that drives business performance. Together, we unlock potential.

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