— Paul Amery's Blog

Smart beta will eat active managers’ lunch

The UK’s asset management sector is a classic case of market failure. Its services are allocated in a sub-optimal way, while clients are not shifting their resources to achieve better outcomes.

The Financial Conduct Authority’s (FCA’s) interim report on asset management, released earlier today, demonstrates the lack of effective competition via a couple of charts.

The average ongoing charges for actively managed funds have remained static during the last decade, while those for passive (index-tracking) funds have been declining.

active

passive

How is this possible? After all, it’s passive that has been taking a steadily rising share of the funds market. Assets in index-tracking funds have risen fivefold in the last decade and they now represent 23 percent of the overall market, says the FCA.

On the basis of the increasing competition from the passive sector, you’d expect the active fund operators to be cutting fees to compete. That they haven’t done so at all is an indictment of their business model. And it’s a very short-sighted one, suggestive of senior executives angling for a last fat bonus before the tide turns, and reminiscent of the well-publicised excesses in the banking sector.

The FCA cites a number of reasons why active managers may have been so immune to competition.

First, there are too many intermediaries between savers and fund managers, and many of those advising on the selection of active managers—whether pension fund consultants, fund ratings services or fund supermarkets—overemphasise the importance of past performance. This facilitates a merry-go-round of managers, lucrative for the intermediaries but detrimental for the clients.

The success of consultants’ own manager recommendations may be poorly monitored, while the consultants increasingly risk conflicts of interest, such as when providing fiduciary management services—getting involved in asset allocation, portfolio construction and risk management, traditionally the asset managers’ domain.

Meanwhile, retail clients may either be woefully misinformed about the costs of the products they invest in—according to the FCA, about half of retail investors don’t know they are paying a fee at all—or may be restricted from accessing the lowest-priced funds, either because their financial advisers don’t suggest them, or because their fund supermarkets don’t have them on the menu.

If it may be uncomfortable reading for many active asset managers, the FCA’s report threatens even worse news for the consultants and supermarkets, whose business models are now under close regulatory scrutiny.

But while the FCA report provides substantial evidence that there is cartel-like behaviour amongst active managers, it’s striking how competitive the passive funds business has become (see the sharply falling ongoing charges figure in the second chart above).

We’ve witnessed a wave of competition amongst ETF providers in the last few years, with firms forced to cut fees to compete with the likes of Vanguard, which prices its funds at cost.

There’s also been a substantial automation of passive fund management, with firms seeking to cut out expensive human intermediation and improve their operational efficiency.

The FCA’s survey reminds us of some basic human psychology. Every basis point in fees matters if you’re trying to track an index, while if you’re sold on high future performance you may turn a blind eye to what you pay. This is despite the overwhelming evidence that the costs you incur are the best indicator of what you’ll end up with.

So there will always be some demand for high-octane versions of fund management, with the associated high fees. But for the bulk of the active funds industry, there’s now a version of passive management that threatens to eat their lunch and shave zeros off the annual bonus.

The evidence released today by the FCA suggests that smart beta funds, which aim to deliver better risk-adjusted returns than conventional index trackers by using alternative weightings, are likely to take substantially more market share.

(Disclosure – I’ve done paid writing work in the last year for firms that provide smart beta and index products)