Categories Earnings Call Transcripts, Finance

FactSet Research Systems Inc. (FDS) Q4 2020 Earnings Call Transcript

FDS Earnings Call - Final Transcript

FactSet Research Systems Inc  (NYSE: FDS) Q4 2020 earnings call dated Sep. 24, 2020

Corporate Participants:

Rima Hyder — Vice President, External Communications

Philip Snow — Chief Executive Officer

Helen Shan — Chief Financial Officer

Analysts:

Kevin McVeigh — Credit Suisse — Analyst

Shlomo Rosenbaum — Stifel Nicolaus & Company, Inc. — Analyst

Hamzah Mazari — Jefferies — Analyst

Toni Kaplan — Morgan Stanley — Analyst

Owen Lau — Oppenheimer & Co. — Analyst

Bill Warmington — Wells Fargo Securities, LLC — Analyst

Manav Patnaik — Barclays — Analyst

Alex Kramm — UBS — Analyst

Andrew Nicholas — William Blair & Company, LLC — Analyst

David Chu — Bank of America — Analyst

Ashish Sabadra — Deutsche Bank — Analyst

George Tong — Goldman Sachs & Co. — Analyst

Keith Housum — Northcoast Research Holdings, LLC — Analyst

Presentation:

Operator

Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for standing by and welcome to the FactSet Fourth Quarter 2020 Earnings Call. [Operator Instructions] I would now like to introduce host of this conference call, Ms. Rima Hyder, Vice President, Investor Relations. You may begin.

Rima Hyder — Vice President, External Communications

Thank you, Kevin, and good morning, everyone. Welcome to FactSet’s fourth quarter 2020 earnings call. We continue to be in various remote locations today. And if we have any audio quality issues, we certainly appreciate your patience, should we experience a disruption.

Before we begin, I would like to point out that the slides we will reference during this presentation can be accessed via the website on the Investor Relations section of our website at factset.com. The slides will be posted on our website at the conclusion of this call. A replay of today’s call will be available via phone and on our website. After our prepared remarks, we will open the call to questions to investors. To be fair to everyone, please limit yourself to one plus one follow-up.

Before we discuss our results, I encourage all listeners to review the legal notice on Slide 2, which explains the risks of forward-looking statements and the use of non-GAAP financial measures. Additionally, please refer to our Forms 10-K and 10-Q for a discussion of risk factors that could cause actual results to differ materially from these forward-looking statements. Our slide presentation and discussions on this call will include certain non-GAAP financial measures. For such measures, reconciliation to the most directly comparable GAAP measures are in the appendix to the presentation and in our earnings release issued earlier today.

Joining me today are Phil Snow, Chief Executive Officer; and Helen Shan, Chief Financial Officer. I would now like to turn the discussion over to Phil Snow.

Philip Snow — Chief Executive Officer

Thanks Rima, and good morning and good afternoon, everyone. First, I hope everyone is healthy and continuing to do well. And when we started this fiscal year, none of us I think could have anticipated what we’d be faced with over the last six months. And I really couldn’t be proud of our team’s performance, and as a result, to be there for our clients as we all quickly adapted to new ways of working. Our resilience and ability to execute over the last three months meant our client-facing teams, armed with an expanding suite of products, achieved the highest quarter of incremental ASV in our history.

We finished our fiscal year having delivered 40 consecutive years of top line growth and 24 years of adjusted EPS growth. I am pleased with how our digital transformation efforts are supporting this growth and increasing our ability to build personalized solutions for our expanding client base. Earlier this year, we partnered with Forbes Insights to survey 200 asset managers and asset owners from around the globe to better understand where they stood with their digital transformation programs and how they’re leveraging next-generation technologies. And according to the results, 75% of executives believe their firms need to invest more in technology initiatives, and also 69% of executives believe that businesses are facing more competitive pressure than in the past, as customers expect higher and more personalized levels of service.

A successful digital strategy includes having a scalable cloud foundation, a modern data layer with best-of-breed content, streamlined processes, the use of cognitive computing, and a personalized client experience. This is the journey we ourselves are on as an organization. It makes us stronger, and more importantly, it will help our clients get to where they too are going. We believe we’re making tremendous progress on our initiatives, and we were widely recognized by the industry in 2020 with numerous product awards for solutions that cross every aspect of our business, including best data providers of the buy and sell sides and best buy-side analytics tool from WatersTechnology.

This past year, we executed well against the first year of the investment plan we laid out back in September of 2019. On the technology front, we’ve made significant progress on our move to the public cloud, and we have announced plans to migrate our real-time ticker plant to Amazon Web Services. This migration will create the first global ticker plant of its kind in the cloud. We also opened up many more APIs, creating new ways for clients to ingest process and program against our data and analytics. We added more industries to our deep sector program, made progress on our private market strategy and executed on our wealth investments, expanding coverage of our StreetAccount offering in both Asia-Pac and Canada. We remain committed to our multi-year investment plan for both content and technology and believe continue to invest now is the best long-term strategy.

Turning to our results, we continued to execute well against our second half pipeline, resulting in a strong fourth quarter. Our ASV growth rate accelerated 45 basis points to over 5%, and we maintained our margins, as well as grew EPS for the quarter. Both the Americas’ and EMEA’s growth rates accelerated with both regions seeing strong contributions from our largest institutional asset management clients. Private equity venture capital and hedge fund clients also drove growth in the quarter, helped in large part by our increasing private market content. Asia-Pac continues to be our fastest growing region, even though our business in the region saw a fair amount of challenges this year due to the effects of the pandemic. We saw some bright spots in Australia and Singapore, particularly with sovereign wealth funds. And we believe we have good opportunities next year as the recovery proceeds, especially with our premium products such as reporting and trading solutions.

Looking at things globally, I’m happy to say that all our businesses contributed to the fourth quarter growth. The greatest contributions year-on-year were from wealth and analytics. Analytics grew 7% and was the biggest contributor to overall ASV. This business saw strength in our performance, reporting, fixed income and risk solutions, and we believe these products will continue to benefit us as we go into 2021. CTS, the second biggest contributor, grew at 13%, thanks to continuing demand for core data feeds. And we are confident that this business will maintain its high growth rate as we head into 2021, especially as we develop new content and broaden our distribution channels.

Wealth continued to execute well on its pipeline with a well-distributed number of wins across various client segments and sizes, resulting in a 9% growth rate. And research saw increased retention this year and benefited from our investments in our industry-specific or deep sector content. We are particularly pleased to see the growth in this business remain stable at 1% with a well-balanced client base that includes asset managers, asset owners, sell-side research, corporates and portfolio managers.

In summary, I’m pleased with our performance in fiscal ’20. I’m proud of our team, which has executed well across all areas of our company. Our business model, combined with our strong liquidity and balance sheet, position us well to continue to manage through uncertain markets. We believe our focus on providing solutions aimed at our clients’ own digital transformations and an unwavering commitment to expanding our library of smart connected content is a winning strategy that is delivering results. As our survey showed, digital transformation efforts are an increasingly integral part of our clients’ businesses. And FactSet is supporting its own growth by accelerating our clients’ journeys through technology innovation.

We also have a strong and experienced sales team, focused on deepening client relationships and further diversifying our client bases — our client base. For these reasons, we remain confident that the execution of our investment plan, along with continued product innovation, open and flexible solutions, and retooling our workforce to adapt to a virtual environment will help us return to a higher growth rate over time. Having said that, we approach our 2021 guidance and future higher targeted growth with necessary caution. We do not yet know the full extent of the impact to our clients as it relates to the pandemic. And we acknowledge risks remain such as delays in completing complex deals and challenges in client retention as budgets tighten. We are therefore viewing the new fiscal year carefully with projected ASV plus professional services growth anticipated to be in the range of $55 million to $85 million. Helen will take you through the details of our 2021 guidance in a few moments.

Just to wrap up, we enter fiscal 2021 with a sense of excitement. We’re in a period of accelerated innovation within our industry as clients look to differentiate themselves and be ever more efficient. There is a great opportunity for us to work in new ways and create new products to improve the experience of both our clients and FactSeters around the globe.

You will now hear from Helen, who will take you through the specifics of our fourth quarter and full year performance for 2020.

Helen Shan — Chief Financial Officer

Thank you, Phil, and hello, everyone. I’m happy to be speaking with you today, and I hope you and your loved ones are safe and healthy. I wanted to echo Phil’s sentiment on the strong performance by the FactSet team. Their efforts are clearly reflected in our full year results. Our financial results in 2020 proved the strength and resilience of our business model, the critical value of our content and the strength of our client relationships. At the start of the lockdown in March, our team quickly pivoted to focus on helping clients and ensure they were able to operate productively from remote locations. We were rewarded with continued loyalty as reflected in our client and ASV retention rates.

Since the first quarter of 2020, we accelerated our growth rate in ASV plus professional services through solid execution of our second half pipeline, crossing over the $1.5 billion mark and exceeding our most recent guidance for the year. Building upon our operational improvements in 2019, we continued greater productivity through workforce mix and disciplined expense management. We executed on our investment plan, adding needed talent and technology. Savings in costs related to the pandemic contributed to our results, as we managed deliberately to keep our employees safe and productive while working remotely.

Our team’s notable efforts led to an adjusted operating income improvement of 6% and adjusted operating margin expansion of 40 basis points to 33.6%, and an adjusted EPS growth of 9% to $10.87, primarily driven by higher operating earnings and supported by a decrease in our tax rate. We are really pleased with our full year results, especially amid the unexpected challenges of the coronavirus pandemic.

Let me now walk you through the specifics of our fourth quarter. As noted on the previous slide, we increased ASV by more than 5% year-over-year, reflecting strong retention across our client base and continued realization of cross-selling opportunities. Before I explain the quarterly results, please note that our fourth quarter GAAP results were impacted by a one-time non-cash charge, impairment of an investment in a third-party of approximately $17 million. GAAP and organic revenue increased by 5% to $384 million and $383 million respectively. Growth was driven primarily by analytics, CTS and wealth. For our geographic segments, Americas and Asia-Pacific revenue each grew 6% and EMEA grew 5%. The regions primarily benefited from increases in analytics, wealth and CTS.

GAAP operating expenses for the fourth quarter totaled $285 million, a 13% uptick over the previous year, mainly impacted by the one-time charge. Our GAAP operating margin decreased 490 basis points to 26%. Without this charge, our margin would have largely been in line with last year at 30%. Adjusted operating margin decreased by 70 basis points to 33% versus last year. These results also reflect a positive impact of 34 basis points due to favorable foreign exchange rates. Aside from the one-time charge, GAAP expenses for the quarter include our planned investments in technology and in new talent and capabilities, and were offset by net savings from continued workforce mix, productivity and a reduction in discretionary expenses, mainly due to pandemic-related savings.

As a percentage of revenue, our cost of sales was 180 basis points higher than last year on a GAAP basis. On an adjusted basis, our cost of sales was 260 basis points higher, driven by technology spend, which includes our shift to the public cloud, as well as our multi-year investment plan. This total was partially offset by lower data cost spend.

Higher SG&A expenses are largely responsible for the decrease in our GAAP operating margin, as investment impacted the SG&A and GAAP margins. When expressed as a percentage of revenue, SG&A increased 310 basis points over the prior year period on a GAAP basis. On an adjusted basis, the SG&A expenses decreased by 180 basis points year-over-year. The drivers include materially-reduced travel and entertainment costs, as well as office-related spend due to office closures and restricted travel. As some of our offices have started to open, we expect a portion of the spend to resume.

Moving on, our tax rate for the quarter was 7% compared to last year’s 16%. This unusually low tax rate was primarily due to higher exercises of stock options, resulting in a tax benefit. Excluding these exercises and one-time items, our tax rate would have been 18%. We have estimated an amount for stock option benefit in our tax rate guidance for fiscal 2021. But as you have seen this year, timing and the amount of stock option exercises can cause large variances versus our estimates.

GAAP EPS decreased 2% to $2.29 this quarter versus $2.34 in the prior year. Without the one-time charge, our GAAP EPS would have increased 16% to $2.71. Adjusted diluted EPS grew 10% to $2.88. Both EPS figures were primarily driven by the lower tax rate and improved operating results. A reconciliation of our adjustments to GAAP EPS is disclosed at the end of our press release.

Free cash flow, which we define as cash generated from operations less capital spending, was $145 million for the quarter, an increase of 52% over the same period last year. This increase is primarily due to the timing of certain tax payments and lower capex on facilities spend. On a full year basis, free cash flow grew by 16% despite higher capital expenditures on facilities.

For the fourth quarter, our ASV retention continued to be above 95%. We grew the total number of clients by 5% compared to our prior year, reflecting the addition of more wealth and corporate clients. Due in part to the focused and successful efforts of our sales team, our client retention improved to 90%.

For the fourth quarter, we repurchased 82,000 shares for a total of $27 million at the average share price of $349. We remain disciplined in our buyback program, and the amount repurchased in part reflects the high performance of our share price this year. For the full year, we repurchased $200 million of our shares and increased our dividend for the 15th consecutive year. We remain committed to returning long-term value to our shareholders.

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Turning now to our outlook for fiscal year 2021, we operate in an environment that is in need of greater digital capabilities and differentiating solutions, which presents numerous opportunities for FactSet. For that reason and given the solid progress we have already made, we remain confident in our strategy of investing in content and technology and in our ability to drive growth with our clients and to operate efficiently. The current environment also gives us less visibility due to pandemic, economic and political factors that may well have an impact on our clients’ budgets for next year. Therefore, we remain cautious as we start our new fiscal year. As Phil mentioned and as you can see in our press release from this morning, we expect ASV plus professional services for the year to increase between $55 million and $85 million over fiscal 2020. The remaining metrics listed on this slide all stem from our ASV ranges and reflect our planned investments. We will continue to execute at the same pace in content and technology as outlined last September.

We believe momentum in our businesses from fiscal 2020 will carry us into fiscal 2021 with a number of tailwinds, including the strength in our analytics business, as clients add our front office solutions, performance and risk and APIs to their workflows, as well as continuing demand for our core data feeds and wealth tools. Additionally, we expect high client retention to continue and will serve as a solid base for research, buoyed by the continued demand for expanded content coverage in deep sector and private markets.

As highlighted earlier in the year, I want to give you some details of the external factors we think may impact our top line growth for 2021. First, delays in decision making could cause longer sales cycle. While we built a strong pipeline and converted it with solid execution in 2020, we did experience situations in which larger and more complex deals required additional reviews, lengthening the time to close, especially in this virtual environment. We expect this may continue in 2021. Second, client budget may tighten. The majority of our clients will finalize their 2021 budgets toward the end of this calendar year. Depending on the speed of a vaccine and economic recovery, clients may be cautious in their outlook and reduce or delay their spend. And third, a prolonged pandemic and virtual environment may slow new business growth. The strength of our sales force and our value proposition converted into key wins this year, proving that we can sell virtually. However, as pandemic-related uncertainty blunts decision making, we acknowledge that clients may take longer to switch providers and it may take more time to build new relationships virtually.

These same factors impact our visibility when we consider the 2022 targets laid out last September as part of a multi-year investment plan. While we maintain strong conviction in our ability and — to achieve our milestones in solutions, capabilities and savings, we would need greater visibility in order to reaffirm our 2022 targets, which we are unable to do so today. We have modeled multiple scenarios, including one with an economic recovery that supports our 2022 growth objectives. We believe that we have the right team and right products to see our growth objectives materialize. However, we must continue to weigh the factors I just mentioned, and as time goes on, to see the timeline of our growth targets that may shift from 2022 to beyond.

In closing, our team rose to the many challenges that our industry, our clients and our world faced this year. We posted our highest ASV quarter ever amid a global pandemic and marked 40 years of consecutive growth. Our core strengths served us well: stable business model, strong liquidity, valued solutions and laser focused client service. The results are top line and earnings growth, increasing retention, commitment to investments and growth in our client and employee base. I’m confident that our strategy and team will continue to help us manage successfully through the challenging environment and generate long-term value for our shareholders.

With that, we are now ready for your questions. Over to you, Kevin.

Questions and Answers:

Operator

[Operator Instructions] Our first question comes from Kevin McVeigh with Credit Suisse.

Kevin McVeigh — Credit Suisse — Analyst

Great. Thanks. Hey, so you had made a comment — you said the highest quarter incremental ASV growth in the Company history. Can you kind of just frame the puts and takes around that? And specifically, it looks like on the research side, that’s seen a little bit more momentum. Is that just structural change around COVID or some of the early benefit of the multi-year investments? Just any thoughts on that would be helpful.

Philip Snow — Chief Executive Officer

Sure. Hey, Kevin. So, yeah, it was broad based across all of the businesses in Q4. It was very strong. Research I think was comparable to what we did in Q4 of last year. We did see decent hiring in the banks. I think many people were concerned that that was going to be significantly lower, but we saw pretty good strength there. Analytics had a particularly strong quarter. We saw — we talked about that earlier in the year where some of the investments we’ve made previously around the portfolio life cycle were really starting to gain momentum. So we did great with our performance system, which was really the result of the acquisition of BI-SAM, integrated with PA, and also our reporting system, which was the Vermilion acquisition. So, a great quarter from analytics. CTS had a very good quarter, better than Q4 of last year. Our hopes were to grow CTS a little bit faster this year, but we did have less sales people, I think, than we needed at the beginning of the year going into ’20, which we’ve corrected going into ’21. And wealth had a really good quarter relative to last Q4. So, all businesses grew, firing on all cylinders. And the sales team did a tremendous job of executing on the pipeline that we had laid out at the beginning of the second half.

Kevin McVeigh — Credit Suisse — Analyst

That’s helpful. And then, Helen, real quick, the expense management continues to be really, really effective. Any thoughts on just any structural savings maybe on the travel side or occupancy? Does that allow you to share more with the market or accelerate product development? Just any thoughts around that? I know it’s still early, but you’ve got a couple of quarters here.

Helen Shan — Chief Financial Officer

Yeah. Thank you for that question. And it’s definitely an important one. Right now, given our fiscal year-end, we have the situation where we have half a year of non-COVID, half a year of COVID, right? And so, as we think about the go-forward, we have, A, proven that we’ve been able to sell virtually very effectively; and B, we have to obviously take into account how our clients behavior is. And so, when we think about the go-forward, we do assume that we are going to go back to the offices sometime in the second half for us, but also that there will be some level of change, and that is built into our numbers. Now, that is in part, we are, I’ll say, reinvesting some of that back into the business, not all of it, but that is part of what, when we gave our guidance for FY ’21, built in. So we do think that there are some, you were calling it, structural change, but there will be some level of difference of how we just operate as a business that is taking into consideration.

Kevin McVeigh — Credit Suisse — Analyst

Thank you. Nice job [Phonetic].

Helen Shan — Chief Financial Officer

You’re welcome. Thank you.

Operator

Our next question comes from Shlomo Rosenbaum with Stifel.

Shlomo Rosenbaum — Stifel Nicolaus & Company, Inc. — Analyst

Hi, good morning. Thank you for taking my questions. Hey, Helen, can you talk a little bit about the pipeline and what you’re seeing just as you’re — as you — kind of the cadence of sales running through the quarter and into the first quarter just to give a little bit more color on the support for kind of the accelerating organic growth rate that you’re expecting over the course of the year?

Helen Shan — Chief Financial Officer

Sure. Happy to touch on that. So I think, as mentioned by Phil, if we think about our different businesses, in particular for analytics, one of the benefits we’ve seen over the course of ’20, which we think will continue into ’21, will be along the lines of expansion, for example, with the reporting and risk and performance. We have found that those who have our core analytics solution within a certain period of time to have those add on. So that expansion is happening. And so, we think that will just continue to build as we go forward. From the CCS perspective, as Phil mentioned, we have additional sales resources, for example, so we think that positions us better, and that will reflect itself into ’21. And then, what we’re really building into our minds here as it relates to both research and wealth is that solid retention. It is in part buoyed by the investments that we’ve made, and we would expect that to continue. And we’re not looking for any of large deal to necessarily be part of what’s going to help us succeed in ’21.

Shlomo Rosenbaum — Stifel Nicolaus & Company, Inc. — Analyst

Okay, great. And then, can you just give me a little color as to — the ASV growth rate seems to be — the expectation at least for the year is lower than the revenue growth rate. And usually, I would look at that as kind of a leading indicator. ASV grows faster in an improving environment and it would decline faster in a slowing environment. Why is that different now?

Helen Shan — Chief Financial Officer

Sure. So there’s a little bit of the nature of ASV and revenue, which you hit upon. But when you have a very strong, say, Q4, right, so you’re not really recognizing that revenue in the year. You recognize it really in the following, let’s say, the next 12 months. So there’s a little bit of a lag effect that can occur because you’re not going to see that all in there. So, that’s really what we’re seeing here when we’re talking about the growth rates, the impact from the previous year, that’s showing through into the subsequent year.

Shlomo Rosenbaum — Stifel Nicolaus & Company, Inc. — Analyst

Okay, thank you.

Helen Shan — Chief Financial Officer

You’re welcome.

Operator

Our next question comes from Hamzah Mazari with Jefferies.

Hamzah Mazari — Jefferies — Analyst

Hey, good morning. Thank you. My question was just on Asia-Pac. It’s been continuing to outperform. I know you mentioned sovereign funds, but maybe anything you can touch on in terms of the mix of that business or execution? I guess it’s a small base. Do you envision that business being as big as the US over time? Just sort of any thoughts there would be helpful.

Philip Snow — Chief Executive Officer

Sure. Hey, Hamzah, it’s Phil. So, yeah, Asia-Pac had a slower year of growth than we were expecting, but we do think that it will return to a higher growth rate this year. It was the first region to get affected by the pandemic. We did see particular strength in a couple of different countries, and we see a lot of good momentum going into next year. So I don’t think that’s sort of a longer-term trend in terms of Asia Pac not growing at rates that it used to grow at. In terms of it getting back to over time to the size of the US, it is only around 10% of our business today. So it’s certainly has a lot of potential. I think Asia-Pac is a great market if you are an active manager. There’s a lot of opportunity on the wealth side there. So, we’re very bullish on it, but it would take obviously a long time, I afraid, to get to the size of the US. But I think we’ve been consistent over time saying we think our EMEA plus Asia-Pac business could be 50% of our ongoing revenue at some point, and I think we’re beginning to get close to that now.

Hamzah Mazari — Jefferies — Analyst

Got it. And then, maybe if you could just update us on — you laid out the multi-year investment plan. Just in terms of timeline of that initiative, clearly we’re looking at ASV bounce back, which is sort of a milestone to judge success maybe of that program. But just maybe just update us on the timeline of that initiative and if there’s been any change sort of due to COVID. I know you mentioned the sales cycle, but any thoughts there would be helpful. Thank you.

Philip Snow — Chief Executive Officer

Sure. So, we’re on track. We have not changed our plans. So the three-year plan that we laid out, we’re still committed to. So the broad buckets which were digital transformation, which include a move to the public cloud, opening up the platform through APIs and more personalization, all of that continues to do well. On the content side, we committed to deep sector private markets and some investments for the wealth clients. We did really well this year with the deep sector strategy. So we had significant releases in three sectors, and we believe that that led to some very good retention at some clients, the work that we’re doing there. We’ve secured a lot more content providers to kind of fill out new sectors that we’re working on, and we have a full team of sector specialists for each of the different sectors that we had for the three-year plan. So like any plan, you’ll make some tweaks here and there. So — but the plant itself, the overall strategy, the pace at which we’re investing, none of that has really changed.

Hamzah Mazari — Jefferies — Analyst

Got it. Thank you.

Operator

Our next question comes from Toni Kaplan with Morgan Stanley.

Toni Kaplan — Morgan Stanley — Analyst

Thank you. First, actually, I just want to confirm the ASV guidance range because I think the press release, at the low end, had $55 million. But on this slide, I think it said $65 million. So I just wanted to make sure I have a good handle on what the bottom end is. But my main question, though, is really, you had a pretty nice acceleration in ASV last quarter to 5%; this quarter, again, to 5.3%. So, so far, you’re really not seeing the COVID impacts that I think I would have thought. And — but then, on the guidance being lower, it sounds like maybe just it hasn’t happened yet. So, I just wanted to understand, is it really conservatism or is it something that you’re seeing in your data, maybe in the retention rates or in something that’s leading to sort of the slowdown? Thank you.

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Philip Snow — Chief Executive Officer

So yes, the low-end should be $55 million, and I believe that’s already been corrected in the deck, so we’ll get that posted. So the range here is $55 million to $85 million.

Toni Kaplan — Morgan Stanley — Analyst

Okay.

Philip Snow — Chief Executive Officer

So yeah, we’ve been very successful, Toni, at selling virtually. So I’m very proud of the team, and I think we’re very confident that we can sell FactSet [Phonetic] and support it and implement it virtually, and we’re not sure how long that’s going to go on. I think there’s a couple of things here. We are always very back-end loaded in terms of ASV, and sometimes it’s hard to have visibility into the second half of the year. And this is a year where I think we would all agree that there is a little — there is more uncertainty, more things that could happen. So we’re trying to put a good number out that for you. If we need to adjust it in the second half, we can as we get more visibility.

The one area that I think we’re a little bit just not worried about but thinking carefully about is, how do we get the much larger deals teed up over the year? Like can we do as many of those as we did in fiscal year ’20? We’re able to do that, and it’s just a question of are the clients themselves and the end markets going to be willing to make those large decisions? So, as we get closer to the end of the year, we’ll understand how clients are looking at their budgets. Because we’re an August company, that’s a little bit different. But I think we’re going into the first full budget cycle for clients since COVID began. So we’re just not sure how that’s going to play out exactly. What I can tell you is that we have a comparable pipeline going into FY ’21 as we had going into FY ’20. And like I said, if we need to revise our guidance at the mid-year mark, we will. But this is, I think, the range that we felt was appropriate to us, given what we know today.

Toni Kaplan — Morgan Stanley — Analyst

Okay, that’s helpful. And I wanted like to ask about CTS. Obviously, it’s still double-digit growth rate, but it is down from the 15% last year, 20% in prior years. I think just trend in terms of expanding need for data and things like that, I thought, were sort of positive tailwinds for that segment. And so, just wanted to understand — it’s a good number, but can you get back to 20% range on that line? And were there any specific drivers of the slowdown this year to get to that number?

Philip Snow — Chief Executive Officer

Yeah, I believe we can certainly grow this at a faster rate. And as you mentioned, all the trends in the market there really is a tailwind. This — I believe we’re growing this business faster than most of the competitors offer the type of data that we’re selling. So I think we’re doing well and taking market share. And we sold a lot of our core content. So, as more of our — as we develop more of these content sets, and we’ve made a significant investment in content recently, we’re going to be able to have more SKUs on the shelf to sell to our clients. One area that didn’t come in as quickly as we thought it might this year was the APIs. So, traditionally, clients have consumed FactSet content through feeds, really just files. We have built a lot of APIs for clients to sort of pull the data in and program [Indecipherable] directly. We believe that is a winning strategy. It just didn’t come to fruition as quickly as we thought it might. And we’ve built out a lot more sales channels through other enterprise software providers and through our strategic partnerships and alliances team. So I believe it will be our fastest-growing segment for some time. And we’ve got a lot more specialists selling CTS going into FY ’21 than we had going into FY ’20. I do think that was — that somewhat limited us that it’s a very specialized sale. And if you don’t have enough people to sell it, it can slow down the growth rate.

Toni Kaplan — Morgan Stanley — Analyst

Great, thank you.

Philip Snow — Chief Executive Officer

Sure.

Operator

Your next question comes from Owen Lau with Oppenheimer.

Owen Lau — Oppenheimer & Co. — Analyst

Good morning, and thank you for taking my question. Could you please give us an update on your wins in some non-traditional sectors for FactSet like insurance and real estate? And also, could you please talk about the value prop of them and why they’re switching over to FactSet? Thank you.

Philip Snow — Chief Executive Officer

Sure. Thanks for the question, Owen. Let me talk about insurance. So we do very well in the asset owners space. We grew that type of client this year, I believe, in high-single digits. And we did have a lot of success with insurance companies, particularly in the fourth quarter. And usually, the insurance companies are going to be using our analytics suite. So we’ll be selling into the general funds. Typically, they will be subscribing to our multi-asset class risk solutions. So, as we continued to build out our capabilities there, that’s resonated greatly with the insurance companies. So, that is the space we’re very bullish about.

We don’t do a lot with real estate companies today. That is an area that we’re investing in. So maybe that’s something we can talk about at a future call.

Owen Lau — Oppenheimer & Co. — Analyst

That’s great, very helpful. And then the follow-up question is, you talked about Asia Pacific decelerated a little bit. But I also realize that EMEA accelerated from 3.7% to 5.7% linked quarter. Any color you can provide any — what’s the driver for that? Thank you.

Philip Snow — Chief Executive Officer

Yeah, we had a great quarter and great year in the EMEA region. Analytics and CTS were big drivers there. We did very well in some of the very largest accounts in the region. And the UK sales team actually really crushed it this year. So we had a very good performance out of the UK. And we did well with redistributors as well. So we do have a segment of our business that goes out to other FinTech companies or other consumers of financial data other than the buy side and sell side. And that team had a very strong year.

Owen Lau — Oppenheimer & Co. — Analyst

That’s very helpful. Thank you very much.

Philip Snow — Chief Executive Officer

Sure. Yeah.

Operator

Our next question comes from Bill Warmington with Wells Fargo.

Bill Warmington — Wells Fargo Securities, LLC — Analyst

Good morning, everyone.

Helen Shan — Chief Financial Officer

Good morning.

Bill Warmington — Wells Fargo Securities, LLC — Analyst

So, I know that the contracts can vary from client to client. But, could you talk about how, for the majority of your revenue, potential seat reductions could impact or wouldn’t impact your revenue?

Helen Shan — Chief Financial Officer

Sure. I’ll take that one. Oh, go ahead, Phil.

Philip Snow — Chief Executive Officer

No, you go ahead, Helen. It’s fine.

Helen Shan — Chief Financial Officer

So, just to address it quickly, which is, when we think about our contracts, like you said, they all varied and they’re multi-year in nature. So, that’s point one. The second point will be that many of them, especially the larger ones, which is probably where your question is focused on, we have minimums and then we also have tiers. So, I think from the perspective of a number of users, yes, that may change over time. But it would have to be something more material for any kind of impact more specifically as it relates to how our contracts were set up. Now, I’m giving you a general answer, Bill. But that is how we would think about it and probably the way it would play out.

Bill Warmington — Wells Fargo Securities, LLC — Analyst

That’s helpful. The other question I have for you is really one where I was just doing some — we were doing some calculations earlier today. And if we take the ASV segment, as you have them now, and we take the growth rates that you have done this past quarter — sorry, this past year, and you just run those out for the next three years, the challenge is, it doesn’t move the ASV growth very much. It takes it from like the 5.2%, 5.3% growth to about 6%. And the challenge I’m facing is I’m trying to figure out like how you get it to the upper-single digit, which is where that 40% is — sorry, that 60% is growing now. How do you get the whole Company up to that level?

Philip Snow — Chief Executive Officer

The big movers or us, Bill, are CTS and analytics. So we have to execute on those two in particular. And I think, it’s seat count as well. So, how well do we do in capturing more seats in the wealth and research space? So, when we laid out a plan, we have a theory where we can move each of these pieces of our business to a higher level and some have more opportunity than others. But, that’s really the theory is, how quickly can each of them get to the growth rates that we think that they can attain, so as a group gets to the high-single digit number that we outlined for you last year.

Bill Warmington — Wells Fargo Securities, LLC — Analyst

Got it. All right. Well, thank you very much.

Helen Shan — Chief Financial Officer

Thank you.

Operator

The next question comes from Manav Patnaik with Barclays.

Manav Patnaik — Barclays — Analyst

Good morning, guys. Phil, maybe somewhat tied to this prior question, you talked about there was no pace in the change of your investments. And early in the call, you talked about how all the clients and almost everyone we listened to is going through this accelerated digital transformation and so on and so forth. And I was just curious, your thought process and perhaps why maybe you guys didn’t decide to accelerate, given all the trends that we’re seeing there?

Philip Snow — Chief Executive Officer

You mean, investing more than…

Manav Patnaik — Barclays — Analyst

Yeah, investing more and faster or so forth.

Philip Snow — Chief Executive Officer

Yeah, we certainly could do that. I think, we have — this is an ambitious investment plan that we have, and it’s I think good to I think see how it goes essentially. So, I think we’re very encouraged with the investment that we’ve made so far. And, if it proves that some of these things produce higher growth rates than we originally imagined, we could certainly consider that. So, we have tweaked some things, and there also is — there’s only so much capacity I think we have to execute on some of this stuff at a certain rate. So, that’s another potential limiting factor.

Manav Patnaik — Barclays — Analyst

Okay. Fair enough. And then, just to follow up, on the content side, the private sector expertise you’re talking about, could you just remind us or give us a flavor of where you’re sourcing that data or how you’re collecting that data and how much of it is more proprietary versus just a partnership to resell the data and so forth?

Philip Snow — Chief Executive Officer

Yeah. It’s a combination of partnerships and us collecting data ourselves. So, I don’t know if we’ve been completely public about some of the sources we have, so I want to be a little bit careful there. But it is a very healthy mix. One of the big kind of rocks within our digital transformation strategy is to automate a lot of our own content collection. So, we have a very good machine for collecting content, but if we would have set up our company all over again today, we’d probably do it in a different way. So, we’re making that transition. And as we get further along with that journey, I think we’ll be able to source more of this data ourselves that can come from a wider variety of documents and more unstructured content as well.

Manav Patnaik — Barclays — Analyst

Thank you.

Helen Shan — Chief Financial Officer

And Manav, just to add, part of it is having content and part of it is concordance with everything else that we have, which is a differentiating factor, an important one. So, I wanted to sort of keep that in mind as well.

Manav Patnaik — Barclays — Analyst

Okay. Thank you, both.

Philip Snow — Chief Executive Officer

Thanks Manav.

Operator

The next question comes from Alex Kramm with UBS.

Alex Kramm — UBS — Analyst

Yeah. Hey, hello everyone. I just wanted to put a couple of these pieces together that you talked about. Maybe I may be stating the obvious, but since you took the guidance away for 2022, which is understandable, I think that was mostly an ASV comment, right, in terms of top line growth. But as some people have noticed, you’re also basically saying the investment continues to go forward. So, there was a margin guide that was 33% plus in 2022. And I assume that was predicated on getting to that higher growth and that drives the margin expansion. So, if we’re not getting that growth, I assume those margin targets are off the table for now and we’re staying probably more at these levels. Is that that a fair assumption?

Helen Shan — Chief Financial Officer

Hey, Alex, it’s Helen. Thanks for that question. So, since we’re not commenting specifically on that, I’m going hedge a little bit. But I would say, if you take a look at the trend of what we’ve done in terms of ’19, ’20 and ’21, I would expect us to continue to see some of the productivity and efficiency gains. And yes, for sure, the margin is impacted by the revenue growth. That’s math. But we would still be executing very well against the operational improvements that we’ve done thus far.

Alex Kramm — UBS — Analyst

Okay. And then, maybe just to finish on margin, a little bit more near term on 2021, I know it’s a difficult year to model. But, A, any seasonal stuff you would point out as we should be thinking about it from a quarterly basis? Again, maybe related to when things reopen, but how you would be thinking about it? And then just, I think you said — maybe it was 180 basis points that COVID was a margin benefit, 2020. For 2021, did you say how much of a margin benefit COVID you’re building in to the model today?

Helen Shan — Chief Financial Officer

Yes. So, let me touch on that. So for seasonality, normally, our business isn’t that seasonal per se, so the difference would be savings that comes from some of the continued office close or lower T&E, as you suggested. The back half of the year is where we would see more of that resume. In terms of the impact, keeping in mind that — given our fiscal year, we had half a year in ’20 that are under the situation, and let’s call it a half a year in ’21 that’s under that situation. And the impact in both is roughly around 1% on a net basis for both the savings that we get from office savings as well as T&E, but also offset by some of these expenses we’re going to have to take in terms of business continuity and ensuring that our employees are able to work effectively from home.

Also Read:  Royal Bank of Canada (RY) Q3 2020 Earnings Call Transcript

Alex Kramm — UBS — Analyst

All right. That was clear. Thank you.

Helen Shan — Chief Financial Officer

Thank you.

Operator

Our next question comes from Andrew Nicholas of William Blair.

Andrew Nicholas — William Blair & Company, LLC — Analyst

It seems like you’re particularly successful growing the wealth business in the quarter as a primary driver of ASV growth, user count, client count. I was just hoping you could speak a little bit more to the growth in the period, what type of clients you were able to bring on board, and the extent to which there were any notable wins in the periods that are worth calling out?

Philip Snow — Chief Executive Officer

Well, I would say for the year, we had a very broad-based success with wealth. There were some much larger deals that we were shooting for that unfortunately we weren’t able to capture in the year. But we did capture three significant wins with some marquee names in the three different countries. And we also did very well executing on sort of smaller and medium sized wealth shops. So, we’re really encouraged in terms of the products and the service level. I think we’ve proven that just from the feedback from the marketplace. And we also had a good year with our digital business. So, for those of you that remember, we made an acquisition a few years ago and we had a relatively good year there with our digital solutions. So overall, I think, wealth just continued to execute well throughout the entire year, and in one particular case, I think really took advantage of some of the digital transformation that we’ve been doing, where we were able to unpack different views from FactSet and plug those into a client ecosystem rather than just taking the traditional FactSet experience through the web or through the workstation.

Andrew Nicholas — William Blair & Company, LLC — Analyst

Great, thank you. And then, just as my follow-up, the conversation around ESG and ESG data seems to be growing with every passing quarter. So, I was just kind of hoping you could talk a bit about how you’re capitalizing on that trend at FactSet and how material of an opportunity that could be within content technology solutions. Thanks.

Philip Snow — Chief Executive Officer

Yeah. We view that as a significant future opportunity. Today, we integrate a lot of the best-of-breed ESG content that’s out there, either through the workstation or through the open FactSet marketplace. So, if you go to open factset.com, you can see we’ve got I think over 100 now providers of alternative data grouped by theme and the most popular theme, and I’m guessing the one with the most contributors in it is ESG. So FactSet has always been great about taking everything that’s out there, putting it in one place, providing great analytics and service. That’s the current approach we’re taking with ESG. But we’re certainly taking a very careful look at what we can do ourselves from a proprietary standpoint to take advantage of the trend that’s out there.

Andrew Nicholas — William Blair & Company, LLC — Analyst

Great. Thank you.

Operator

Our next question comes from David Chu with Bank of America.

David Chu — Bank of America — Analyst

Hi, thank you. So, when you introduced the three-year accelerated investment, the idea was to get roughly like 25% of revenue benefit in fiscal ’21 with the remaining in fiscal ’22. I’m just wondering if that’s what’s embedded into your guide and what that means in dollar terms.

Helen Shan — Chief Financial Officer

Thanks for your question. I think, from the perspective of how we’re looking at that, those 25% and 75% was obviously based off of what we thought we would able to continue to do under the normal conditions. It is some of the benefit that comes through from the investments, that comes through in the form of retention as well as new logos. So, I think from the view of giving an exact dollar, that’s not how we think about that, but rather that it is supporting the overall growth in ’21. I think, the benefits will come across all businesses. But, given where we are in the different investments, research gets some of the earlier benefits from that, and we’ll see that come through on the digital side into analytics and CTS going forward.

David Chu — Bank of America — Analyst

Okay, great. And then, CTS remains quite strong. And just wondering, who are the primary users here? Just wondering if they’re mainly quants and what your thoughts on the sustainability of that user base might be?

Philip Snow — Chief Executive Officer

So, you’re right that a very large percentage of what we’ve traditionally sold was to quants, either through feeds or through other mechanisms. But we do sell a lot of data to — into performance systems, other systems. When clients are doing application development, they need a lot of content to do that. So, there are multiple workflows that we sell to. We also sell real-time feeds. It’s a smaller piece of what we do, but we do have a good offering there. And we’re currently looking at all of the different addressable market for us on the feed side. So, as we enter FY ’21, we’ve sort of taken a fresh look as CTS and where we were pointed. And we’re still going to do very well in quant, but we are ramping up the focus on some areas that we can sell feeds to that traditionally we hadn’t spent as much time focused on.

David Chu — Bank of America — Analyst

Great. That’s very helpful. Thank you.

Philip Snow — Chief Executive Officer

Sure.

Operator

Our next question comes from Ashish Sabadra with Deutsche Bank.

Ashish Sabadra — Deutsche Bank — Analyst

Thanks for taking question. Maybe just a question on the M&A pipeline, how are you thinking about any acquisition opportunity? It’s been a few years since we’ve really seen any acquisition per se. Thanks.

Philip Snow — Chief Executive Officer

Do you want to take that one, Helen?

Helen Shan — Chief Financial Officer

Sure, happy to do that. Thanks for your question. So, we — as you can tell from our solid liquidity and balance sheet, we have the capacity to do so. And we’ve initially chosen to continue to invest in organic as a way of building our growth. But we continue to analyze acquisitions that support our strategy in content and technologies and the ones that have the adequate returns that exceed our hurdle rates. As you can guess, the market is pretty frothy. And from the perspective of evaluation, we continue to look at that in every one of our decisions as we continue to look at many of the opportunities out there. We agree that having some inorganic growth will be very helpful to support our overall longer-term growth, but we are going to remain disciplined in making sure that we get those adequate returns. The positive here is that we have plenty of liquidity to be opportunistic, and we’ll continue to look to do so.

Ashish Sabadra — Deutsche Bank — Analyst

That’s very helpful color. And maybe just to follow up on the question on the 2022 target, where do you see — like in your scenario analysis, where do you see — which segments or which end markets or maybe which geography do you see the biggest variances as you think about the 2022 target, any color that you can provide? Thanks.

Helen Shan — Chief Financial Officer

Sure. I’ll take the first shot on that. So, when we think about the scenarios that help support that and as Phil sort of talked to before of what will happen to help from — even in getting toward upper range in the FY ’21, when we think about the factors, which include the exogenous factors of delayed decisions of new business being done virtually as well as budgets, those all have to work more in the favor of, I’ll call it, a normal environment, although what normal is, is probably still a bit unclear. But having more confidence, just like with the markets, the more confidence there is in the future, the more there are clients who have confidence in their spend. We know that our products are resonating. We know that they fit the trends and the needs of what they need to be productive on their end. But that confidence in the future and their own markets will allow for them to work with us and for us to be able to reach the — in the scenario that I outlined to reach back to where we believe our original strategy is meant to take us in the long term.

Ashish Sabadra — Deutsche Bank — Analyst

That’s helpful. Thanks.

Helen Shan — Chief Financial Officer

You’re welcome. Thank you.

Operator

Our next question comes from George Tong with Goldman Sachs.

George Tong — Goldman Sachs & Co. — Analyst

Hi, thanks. Good morning. You talked about being cautious with your ASV outlook due to potential economic, political and pandemic related risks. Can you elaborate on recent client sentiment and spending intentions and whether you’re actually seeing some of those risks manifest in what clients are saying?

Philip Snow — Chief Executive Officer

Hey, George, it’s Phil. So yeah, we saw a little bit of that in Q4 even. So I believe we would have had an even stronger second half if it hadn’t been for the pandemic. And I’ve been on some calls myself, particularly with the clients that feel like they’re under a lot of cost pressure. So, they’re obviously thinking about their own futures, their own employees and what it is they want to do. So, we’re navigating through it. I think it’s already happening. But again, I think, a lot of companies are — budget towards the end of the calendar year, and that’s the one thing that we think will get sort of more of as we get to the end of the year and as people get more visibility themselves on how they’ve operated during this period and how long they think the pandemic is going to affect them.

George Tong — Goldman Sachs & Co. — Analyst

Got it. That makes sense. And then, switching gears to margins, you’re not reaffirming your fiscal 2022 margin target of 33% because of less operating visibility. Can you talk about whether this reduced visibility comes from unknown ASV growth, which can obviously impact margin flow-through or if it reflects potential changes in what or how much you plan to invest in, since presumably, you have more control over investment levels and more control over margins?

Helen Shan — Chief Financial Officer

Yeah. That’s a good question. And you are correct, as we think about where we’ve got more control and visibility. So, right now, we intend to continue to invest at the pace that we talked about last year. So, that we have the levers, so to speak, if need be. But it really — since it’s all around revenue growth being higher than and spend growth, expense growth, that’s really what — why we lacked that visibility at this juncture. But our intent is to continue to invest at the pace that we outlined a year ago.

George Tong — Goldman Sachs & Co. — Analyst

Got it. Very helpful. Thank you.

Helen Shan — Chief Financial Officer

You’re welcome.

Operator

Our last question comes from Keith Housum with Northcoast Research.

Keith Housum — Northcoast Research Holdings, LLC — Analyst

Good morning, guys. A question for you on the operations. You guys have proven that you’re able to sell it virtually, but yet your model has been traditionally high-touch with the consultants visiting customers often. Coming out of the COVID pandemic, is there any expectation that the business model may change and you’re able to cut back on some of the high-touch T&E that you guys do?

Philip Snow — Chief Executive Officer

Hi, Keith. So yeah, we’ve been doing inside sales now for six months. So, I’m really intrigued by how can we be more efficient at selling the higher volume type sales or the smaller clients — the smaller type clients without necessarily having FactSeters sort of fly around the globe. But I do think for the larger firms and the more complex deals, there is going to have to be that element of sort of being in front of the clients, talking to them about their overall strategy and building those relationships face to face. So, it’s not going to go away. But like every other company, we’re going to rethink carefully our business model, how we work with our clients and also how we work as a company. So, I think, it presents more opportunity than not honestly. And I’ve been very encouraged from what I’ve seen with the sales force and how they’ve been able to execute during the last six months.

Keith Housum — Northcoast Research Holdings, LLC — Analyst

Okay, got it. And so, just maybe I can clarify your pipeline expectations as of now because I think we heard several different comments is that the pipeline is equal the size that it was pressed a year ago, but maybe you’re not seeing as many large deals in that pipeline as of now, and it’s certainly probably not as strong as it was at the end of the second quarter. Is that a good summary of how you see the pipeline right now?

Philip Snow — Chief Executive Officer

It’s a comparable size going into the year as it was last year. And the deals build up, and we’ve gained more confidence in those deals as the years go — as the year goes on. So, the one area that I think we’re just hesitant about and need a little bit more time is, can we build up that pipeline of the larger deals for the second half the same way that we were able to do that in the first half of last year.

Keith Housum — Northcoast Research Holdings, LLC — Analyst

Great. Thank you.

Operator

I would now like to turn the call back over to Phil Snow for closing remarks.

Philip Snow — Chief Executive Officer

I’d like to thank you all for joining us today. I’m pleased with our team’s and Company’s performance this year and the strong progress we have made on our investment plan. We’re excited for this new year. As we continue to expand our offering and equip our team and our clients to operate successfully in this environment, I’m confident we will capture further wallet share and secure additional client wins. And importantly, we remain committed to investing in our people, our clients and communities to create long-term value for our shareholders.

With that, I’d like to thank you one more time for your time. And if you have additional questions, please call Rima Hyder, and we look forward to speaking to you next quarter. Operator, that ends today’s call.

Operator

[Operator Closing Remarks]

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