Stealth socialism

September 15, 2016 | By | Reply More

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THERE is a contradiction at the heart of financial capitalism. The creative destruction that drives long-run growth depends on the picking of winners by bold, risk-taking capitalists. Yet the impressive (if not perfect) efficiency of markets means that trying to out-bet other investors is almost inevitably a losing proposition. Algorithmic punters trade away the tiniest of arbitrage opportunities near-instantaneously. Active investment strategies therefore amount to little more than a guessing game: one in which, over time, the losses from bad guesses eventually top the gains from good ones. Betting with the market—through broad index funds, for instance—is therefore a good way to maximise returns. Yet where does that leave capitalism, red in tooth and claw, and its need for bloody-minded nonconformists?

“Passive” investment vehicles, like those low-fee index funds, now soak up enormous amounts of cash. In America, since 2008, about $600 billion in holdings of actively managed mutual funds (which pick investments strategically) have been sold off, while $1 trillion has flowed into passive funds. So the passive funds now hold gargantuan ownership stakes in large, public firms. That makes for some awkward economics. Research by Jan Fichtner, Eelke Heemskerk and Javier Garcia-Bernardo from the University of Amsterdam tracks the holdings of the “Big Three” asset managers: BlackRock, Vanguard and State Street. Treated as a single entity, they would now be the largest shareholder in just over 40% of listed American firms, which, adjusting for market capitalisation, account for nearly 80% of the market (see chart). The revolution is here, but it was not the workers who seized ownership of the means of production; it was the asset managers.

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