Bernstein: Passive investing is worse for society than Marxism

The rise of passive asset management threatens to fundamentally undermine the entire system of capitalism, say analysts at research and brokerage firm Sanford C. Bernstein & Co.

Aug 24, 2016 @ 10:33 am

By Bloomberg News

The rise of passive asset management threatens to fundamentally undermine the entire system of capitalism and market mechanisms that facilitate an increase in the general welfare, according to analysts at research and brokerage firm Sanford C. Bernstein & Co.

In a note titled "The Silent Road to Serfdom: Why Passive Investing is Worse Than Marxism," a team led by Head of Global Quantitative and European Equity Strategy Inigo Fraser-Jenkins, says that politicians and regulators need to be cognizant of the social case for active management in the investment industry.

"A supposedly capitalist economy where the only investment is passive is worse than either a centrally planned economy or an economy with active market led capital management," they write.

(More: Vanguard, the king of passive investing, hops on board the active ETF train)

High fees and subpar returns, coupled with the creation of a plethora of relatively inexpensive exchange-traded funds that track major equity indexes have helped fuel a massive shift in asset flows away from active management in favor of passive. While policymakers are quick to praise the benefits of these low-cost options for retail investors, Bernstein argues that this is a short-sighted view that doesn't take into account the potential downsides involved with the increase in passively-managed assets.

Mr. Fraser-Jenkins notes that the rise of indexing should theoretically entail that stocks tend to move in the same direction more often (though such a simple relationship isn't necessarily borne out by the data), and cites research indicating that "if the correlation of stocks increases then that impedes the efficient allocation of capital. That is, there isn't as big of a difference in capital expenditures on a sector by sector basis than what would be expected based on relative profit growth.

The social function of active management, in a capitalist society, is that it seeks to direct capital to its most productive end, facilitating sustainable job creation and a rise in the aggregate standard of living. And rather than be guided by the Invisible Hand and profit motive, capital allocation under Marxism is conducted by an oh-so-visible hand aimed at producing use-values that satisfy each member of the society's needs. Seen through this lens, passive management is somewhat tantamount to a nihilistic approach to capital allocation.

To adapt a line from a Coen brothers classic: Say what you will about the tenets of Marxism, Dude, at least it's a formal attempt to direct capital to achieve a desired end.

"The commonality between both active market management and the Marxist approach is that in both cases there are a set of agents trying — at least in principle — to optimize the flows of capital in the real economy," writes Mr. Fraser-Jenkins.

Bernstein's team isn't asking for governments to bail out active managers, but merely advises that lawmakers and regulators "may wish to consider the broader benefits of a functioning active asset management industry to society as a whole so that when policy initiatives are undertaken they do not explicitly undermine active management."

While the question of whether the rise of passive investing is an existential threat to capitalism remains an open one, Bernstein's team acknowledges one uncomfortable truth: it certainly looms as a major downside risk for the livelihoods of people who produce sell side equity research.

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