2021 CIO

Sentiment survey

The 2021 Top1000funds.com / Casey Quirk CIO Sentiment Survey seeks to understand whether the long-term outlook held by the world’s largest asset owners has materially shifted since the Covid-19 pandemic upended the global landscape, specifically examining how risk and return expectations may have changed from previous years’ surveys.

The results show to what degree the tumultuous period has impacted investment expectations and allocations, operations and technology, and relationships with providers.

Key Themes

How CIOs plan to meet expectations outside of traditional strategies

The effects of recent tumultuous market conditions on current risk-return profiles and how economic uncertainty will impact investment decision making in the future

Future of work as it pertains to both internal operations and engagement with external providers

Asset owners are on track to hit return targets as risk on and active strategies reap rewards

The latest annual CIO Sentiment Survey, a collaboration between   Top1000funds.com and Casey Quirk, part of Deloitte Consulting, finds asset owners are on track to hit return targets as risk on and active strategies reap rewards. Elsewhere, after consecutive years of cutting back on fund manager and consultant relationships, investors want more partners in 2021.

As the world emerges from the grips of the pandemic, the annual CIO Sentiment Survey, a collaboration between Top1000funds.com and Casey Quirk, part of Deloitte Consulting, finds CIOs increasingly confident in meeting their return targets. Despite last year’s market turbulence and some enduringly high return hurdles, a suite of healthy recent results and rosier funding levels is putting asset owners on track for a good year.

The survey, which drew comments from global asset owners in 13 countries, finds most CIO respondents increased their allocations to risk assets against the backdrop of surging equity indices, which have hit record highs ever since the deep coronavirus sell off in 2020. Moreover, within these boosted allocations to equity, survey respondents say they increasingly favour active strategies in a reflection of the broader slowdown in growth and demand for passive strategies which had seen meteoric inflows in recent years. Growing market volatility since the outbreak, along with forecasts of more pronounced volatility once government stimulus is removed, creates new alpha opportunities and a favourable environment for active management.

Other investment strategies have remained constant over the last two years, however. In keeping with previous years’ analysis, allocations to alternatives remain steady. The inherent risk in the increased correlation between equities and bonds as well as correlation between particular market sectors (witness how value shares recently correlated with momentum) makes alternatives like private debt, infrastructure and private equity and the diversification they offer keenly sought.

Asset owners want more managers

Away from asset allocation, this year’s CIO Sentiment Survey respondents reveal other, important trends. Asset owners are hiring more managers and consultants than previous years, attributable to the spike in active equity allocations for sure, but also other pressing priorities - like asset owners’ need for support when it comes to integrating digital tools and their broader, more complex portfolio needs in today’s challenging investment climate. 

A boost in the number of managers and consultants on the rota is one factor fuelling the spike in respondents’ operating costs, with 80 per cent of CIOs citing reducing costs as “important” compared to 61 per cent in 2020.  Other, new costs creeping in include higher fees related to investment products and the costs attached to introducing new technology. 

Indeed, technology and its cost but also its importance and priority, crops up repeatedly in 2021 respondents’ answers. Installing the right digital tools is crucial to ensure the continued smooth evolution to the new hybrid model of working that combines remote and face-to-face management of investment and governance processes, as well as key relationships in the years ahead.

Elsewhere, survey respondents show ESG integration is front of mind. However, while many asset owners have announced bold targets towards carbon neutrality in their portfolio, the annual CIO Sentiment Survey shows strong regional differences exist. On one hand, institutional investors in EMEA continue to lead, integrating sustainability via strategies like portfolio exclusions and sustainability labelled and impact investment. On the other, US investors are still trailing when it comes to integrating ESG, with 41.4 per cent of North American respondents saying they still have no ESG integration at all in their portfolios.

"Market volatility and equity risk are our two key risks going forward"

Stephen Gilmore, chief investment officer,
New Zealand Super

"Most CIO respondents increased their allocations to risk assets in 2020-21"

The Challenges

Asset owners may be confident in hitting their return targets this year, but the annual CIO Sentiment Survey highlights other challenges ahead.  Respondents cite volatility, which always tends to accompany high valuations in equities and bonds, as a key risk ahead.

“Market volatility and equity risk are our two key risks going forward,” comments survey respondent Stephen Gilmore, chief investment officer of New Zealand Super, the NZ$43.8 billion sovereign wealth fund.

Elsewhere respondents list the prospect of rising interest rates plus the return of inflation, and its harmful erosion of fixed income valuations, as important risks ahead. Inflation is just one of the unravelling, warily eyed consequences of central banks’ policy responses to the pandemic which has seen governments unleash unprecedented fiscal and monetary stimulus.

This year’s annual CIO Sentiment Survey flags important investor trends underway, concludes Anthony Skriba, senior consultant at Casey Quirk in his summary of its key findings.

“Asset owners are becoming more confident in meeting returns,” he reflects. This could mean return targets become even more aggressive, triggering a ripple in other consequences too.

“This will lead to more complex portfolios, allocations into higher-fee product classes, and less concentration among partnerships,” he says.

See how investor sentiment compares to 2017

The results of the CIO Sentiment Survey broken down into investment impact and themes

↓Click to explore


In a marked shift from recent years, CIOs have boosted their allocations to risk assets with 38 per cent of respondents in the annual Top1000funds.com / Casey Quirk CIO Sentiment Survey saying they are taking on more risk. By way of comparison 28 per cent of respondents said they were taking on more risk in 2020.

Elsewhere, 40 per cent of survey respondents said they planned to increase their allocation to equity in 2021 compared to 28 per cent in 2020.

Within that equity mix, asset owners are investing in emerging market, global and regional equities – all of which saw sharp pandemic-induced outflows in 2020.

Positively, the shift to risk-on as equity markets have soared back to life has helped boost asset owners’ confidence in their ability to hit return targets alongside swelling funded levels. Around 100 of the largest US public pension plans have seen their aggregate funded level surge through 2020.

"33 per cent list market volatility as their most watched risk"

"38 per cent said they are taking on more risk compared to 28 per cent the year before"

Biggest expected future portfolio risks

% of respondents, 2020 vs 2021

Market Volatility
Interest Rates
Macro Risk
Climate Risk
Credit Risk
Regulatory Risk



"33 per cent list market volatility as their most watched risk"

Plans taking more risks to achieve return targets

% of respondents, 2020 vs 2021




This year 60 per cent of respondents said they are confident they will meet return targets versus 44 per cent or respondents saying the same in the year prior.

Nevertheless, 2021 respondents acknowledge the perils inherent in the latest shift to risk-on with 33 per cent of survey respondents listing market volatility, an inevitable consequence of high asset prices, as their most-watched risk.

Next comes interest rate risk, with 18 per cent of respondents citing a spike in interest rates from today’s record lows as a key portfolio concern compared to 8 per cent listing the same concern last year.

Sufficient liquidity on hand, either to pay pensions or take advantage of market opportunities, remains another key portfolio concern. While inflation and its recent surge with potentially damaging consequences for fixed income valuations, also remains on the watch list.

In perhaps one of the most surprising findings, the percentage of respondents citing climate change as their top risk in the next three years - above all other risks like volatility, rising interest rates or inflation - jumped from 3 per cent in 2020 to 5 per cent in 2021. The consequences of climate change, heightened by important signs of change in 2021 like US President Joe Biden re-joining the Paris Accord, is climbing up the risk agenda once again.

See how taking on more risk translated to investors’ asset allocation preferences

Plans taking more risks to achieve return targets

By asset class, % of respondents, 2020 vs. 2021



Fixed Income


No change