Imagine a world in which two asset managers call the shots, in which their wealth exceeds current U.S. GDP and where almost every hedge fund, government and retiree is a customer. It’s closer than you think.
Amassing that sum will likely upend the asset management industry, intensify their ownership of the largest U.S. companies and test the twin pillars of market efficiency and corporate governance.
None other than Vanguard founder Jack Bogle, widely regarded as the father of the index fund, is raising the prospect that too much money is in too few hands, with BlackRock, Vanguard and State Street Corp. together owning significant stakes in the biggest U.S. companies.
“That’s about 20 percent owned by this oligopoly of three,” Bogle said at a Nov. 28 appearance at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. “It is too bad that there aren’t more people in the index-fund business.”
Vanguard is poised to parlay its $4.7 trillion of assets into more than $10 trillion by 2023, while BlackRock may hit that mark two years later, up from almost $6 trillion today, according to Bloomberg News projections based on the companies’ most recent five-year average annual growth rates in assets.
Those gains in part reflect a bull market in stocks that’s driven assets into investment products and may not continue.
Investors from individuals to large institutions such as pension and hedge funds have flocked to this duo, won over in part by their low-cost funds and breadth of offerings. The proliferation of exchange-traded funds is also supercharging these firms and will likely continue to do so.
Global ETF assets could explode to $25 trillion by 2025, according to estimates by Jim Ross, chairman of State Street’s global ETF business. That sum alone would mean trillions of dollars more for BlackRock and Vanguard, based on their current market share.
“Growth is not a goal, nor do we make projections about future growth,” Vanguard spokesman John Woerth said of the Bloomberg calculations.
While bigger may be better for the fund giants, passive funds may be blurring the inherent value of securities, implied in a company’s earnings or cash flow.
The argument goes like this: The number of indexes now outstrips U.S. stocks, with the eruption of passive funds driving demand for securities within these benchmarks, rather than for the broader universe of stocks and bonds. That could inflate or depress the price of these securities versus similar un-indexed assets, which may create bubbles and volatile price movements.
Stocks with outsize exposure to indexed funds could trade more on cross-asset flows and macro views, according to Goldman Sachs Group Inc. The bank found that, for the average stock in the S&P 500, 77 percent might trade on fundamentals, versus more than 90 percent a decade ago.
That’s not BlackRock’s experience. “While index investing does play a role, the price discovery process is still dominated by active stock selectors,” executives led by Vice Chairman Barbara Novick wrote in a paper in October, citing the relatively low turnover and small size of passive accounts compared with active strategies.
Another concern is that without the prospect of being part of an index, fewer small or mid-sized companies have an incentive to go public, according to Larry Tabb, founder of Tabb Group LLC, a New York-based firm that analyzes the structure of financial markets.
That’s because their stock risks underperforming without the inclusion in an index or an ETF, he said. Benchmarks are governed by rules or a methodology for selection and some require that a security has a certain size or liquidity for inclusion.
We’re not near a tipping point yet. Roughly 37 percent of assets in U.S.-domiciled equity funds are managed passively, up from 19 percent in 2009, according to Savita Subramanian at Bank of America Corp. By contrast, in Japan, nearly 70 percent of domestically focused equity funds are passively managed, suggesting the U.S. can stomach more indexing before market efficiency suffers.
There’s even further to go if you look globally: Only 15 percent of world equity markets — including funds, separately managed accounts and holdings of individual securities — are passively managed, said Joe Brennan, global head of Vanguard’s equity index group, in an interview.