The Survival Game

Imagine a young active fund manager is presented with a choice; over a twenty-year investing career the fund they manage can take one of two paths. In path A it delivers annualised outperformance of 3%, but it is a bumpy ride – there will be numerous years of sustained and substantial underperformance. In path B their fund underperforms the market by only 0.3% a year, but it is a far smoother journey – in some years returns are a little better than the benchmark, in some slightly worse, but never too far away. Which path would they choose?

For a client investing with the fund manager the choice seems relatively straightforward – path A leaves them with substantially more wealth and justifies their use of an active fund. Yet for the fund manager it is not an obvious decision at all, in fact it is probably rational for them to choose path B, even though it would leave their clients worse off over the long run. Why? Because in path A there is a high probability that they will be fired and never be able to deliver the long-run results promised; contrastingly, path B is more likely to lead to a lucrative career.

There is a major incentive problem at the heart of the asset management industry, where the interests of clients and the professional investors who run money for them are often poorly aligned.

The key to a ‘successful’ career as a fund manager is not long-term outperformance, it is survival. Making sure from quarter to quarter that your results are adequate so that you don’t find yourself in the firing line. If you can survive long enough then you might get promoted to head of team or another executive role, so you are no longer even directly responsible for investment decisions. The most lucrative choices you can make are those that help you to stay in the game.

The power of the incentive to keep your job and progress your career increases through time. As you earn more money, you adapt your lifestyle, take on a bigger mortgage and send your children to private school. This means the risk of short-term failure becomes even more acute.

The development of this type of incentive structure means that the active fund management industry has evolved to a point where making high conviction, long-term decisions is irrational behaviour for many participants. Even though it should be one of its primary purposes.  

This is not the fault of fund managers. The entire industry is complicit in the game of enabling their own short-term survival. Asset management companies trying to meet quarterly inflow targets, board and committee members worried about the reputational impact of something going wrong, consultants concerned about losing disgruntled clients. Even regulators are now enforcing judgements on “value” based on performance time horizons over which every strategy (no matter how capable) will fail at some juncture. Nobody is incentivised to make long-term investment decisions because doing so exposes you to profound personal and corporate risks. 

Most people are left spending their time engaging with largely meaningless short-term market noise and ensuring that they are safely ensconced within the pack.

What does this cultural backdrop mean for the structure of the active asset management industry? We are left with an unnecessarily large and amorphous blob of uninspiring funds stuck in the middle and doing enough to survive. Strategies taking higher conviction, longer-term decisions frequently succumb to the endemic short-termism that defines the industry (irrespective of whether they are skillful or lucky).

For the active management sector to successfully evolve not only does it have to become smaller and cheaper, but it must ensure that it creates an incentive structure and clear purpose that is properly aligned with the long-term interests of its clients.

I have a book coming out! The Intelligent Fund Investor explores the beliefs and behaviours that lead investors astray, and shows how we can make better decisions. You can find out more here.