Over the last 50 years, the trust that people have in institutions has gradually eroded. According to the Pew Research Center, over 70% of people in 1960s America trusted their president; today it is less than 25%. The trend is similar, if not as precipitous, in the media, business and even NGOs. More recently, the decline in trust has occurred alongside… the growth of social media. Today, angry voices – verified, trustworthy or otherwise – can be heard around the world in an instant.
There is an economic cost to this decline in trust. Social scientists like Dr Richard Halpern have long shown societies with a higher level of trust are richer and more productive than others.
This overall decline in trust is very clear in asset management too. The financial crisis caused a huge schism between society and financial institutions, which has had major implications throughout the industry. As fund managers, we must now set aside greater amounts of capital to meet the requirements of the regulators, we must implement stricter disclosure and transparency standards and, more recently, bear third-party research costs. All to help ensure we do the right thing.
The ‘reallocation’ of trust
But perhaps the picture is more nuanced. Instead of there being a simple decline in trust overall – as people we are conditioned and predisposed to trust because it’s a good survival instinct – it’s possible there has actually been a reallocation of trust. Within the asset management industry, active managers have fallen out of favour in some parts of the market, leading to investors placing their trust in passive funds and resulting in big inflows into passive from active. But we believe that active management is required to price risk, set the cost of capital and allocate that capital – the unchecked rise of passive funds ultimately leads to markets ceasing to function as an efficient allocator of capital.
Meanwhile, Bloomberg finds that there are currently more indices in the US than there are listed stocks. Yet a benchmark needs to be chosen, an active decision needs to be taken. The move to passive does not necessarily lead to a reduction in risk, just a different form of risk.
The rise of cryptocurrencies is another example of the reallocation of trust, this time from the governments that traditionally issued currencies, to technology. There is no statutory authority standing behind cryptocurrencies, they are based on algorithms distributed via shared networks and have open source data. The dramatic rise of alternative currencies like Bitcoin similarly represents the dramatic rise in trust in the technology that supports it. The problem with cryptocurrencies is that there remains a lack of understanding among investors and outstanding issues of regulation, governance and efficiency. That means we simply don’t know what could happen to them when things go wrong.
Let the buyer beware
Does the rise of passive funds and cryptocurrencies mean that investors are too trusting? Perhaps. The Latin phrase, ‘caveat emptor’ or, let the buyer beware, is very relevant. Asset management has its own trust issue and we must try and restore that by doing a better job for our clients. We can and we will. But we live in a world of echo chambers where people very often seek out others with the same opinion – making them less able to identify risks or indeed opportunities. As investors, we must therefore continually question what we see, probe further and avoid the echo chamber. In my opinion, that is the best way that we can support our clients in a complex and changing world.