The index fund pioneer’s low fees have driven down costs but is its success a cyclical phenomenon? ... It passed the $3tn mark in assets under management globally last year, as international growth spurted alongside the US; today the total is $3.4tn. ... if there are vulnerabilities, they are in three areas: the shift to passive investing may prove to be partly a cyclical phenomenon; Vanguard’s move into giving financial advice could cause friction; and regulators could decide to step in to stop the firm becoming too big to fail. ... Instead of having outside shareholders, Vanguard is owned by its funds, which means that instead of having to charge fees high enough to generate a profit for shareholders, it operates “at cost” and charges only enough to cover expenses and business investment. ... The Financial Stability Board, based in Basel, Switzerland, has suggested designating every fund with over $100bn in assets as a “systemically important” organisation and subjecting them to tougher oversight and perhaps other requirements, all of which would raise costs.
In four quick years, the concept of the "new normal" has gone from being viewed as unlikely by most analysts and policymakers to becoming consensus. The popular application of the phrase now extends well beyond its original conceptualization that simply encompassed economic and financial prospects. It has also been used to describe medical procedures, unusual weather patterns and geopolitical shifts. It even gave rise to a television series. ... Yet all is not well for the concept of the new normal. Yes, its popularity has expanded. Yes, it has become conventional wisdom in most policy and market circles. And yes, the concept has proven consequential for evaluating the effectiveness of policies and the potency of traditional investment approaches. But there is also an important qualification: The concept itself is morphing, evolving to describe a contextual configuration that is less stable and more unpredictable. ... The purpose of this paper is to analyze what lies ahead for the new normal, and why.
One particular section of Chapter 3 caught Bloom’s attention. There, the SEC suggested that “an alternative approach be examined” and posited that if well-capitalized specialists and supplementary market makers could have turned to a single “product” for trading baskets of stocks, the market damage—and volatility—may have been significantly smaller. Indeed, such a product might even have prevented the crash by providing a liquidity buffer between the futures market and individual stocks. “I walked into Nate’s office and said, ‘Here’s an opening we could drive a truck through,’ ” Bloom says. ... Of course, today we do have what the report refers to as basket-trading products. We call them exchange-traded funds, or ETFs, and they’re a $3 trillion global industry, with more than 6,780 products on 60 exchanges to choose from. In the U.S. last year, ETFs traded about $20 trillion worth of shares—more than the country’s gross domestic product. ... “We were essentially reverse-engineering what the SEC called for in their report,” Bloom says. “We viewed it as a product proposal being made by the regulators.”
Investors are shifting their investment allocations from active to passive management. This trend has accelerated in recent years. The investors who are shifting from active to passive are less informed than those who stay. This is equivalent to the weak players leaving the poker table. Since the winners need losers, this can make the market even more efficient, and hence less attractive, for those who remain. If you can’t identify the patsy, or weak player, it’s probably you. ... Passive management has lower costs than active management and hence delivers higher returns per dollar invested than active management does in the aggregate. However, passive management introduces the possibility of market distortions, including crowding and illiquidity. Exchange-traded funds, in particular, are worth watching closely because of their explosive growth and high trading volume. ... Four drivers have led to the development of the mutual fund industry and, more recently, to the shift toward passive investing. These include regulation, the market environment, technology, and the balance between informed and uninformed investors.
Volatility was once merely a mathematical measure for investors of how sharply markets moved. Today, volatility is a complex multibillion-dollar market in its own right, played by everyone from sophisticated hedge funds to gum-chewing day traders. ... But Vix is also one of the finance industry’s biggest enigmas. This should be a moment of potential peril for markets, with US interest rates rising, heightened geopolitical tension and a populist outsider in the White House. Yet Vix has remained largely tranquil. ... the evaporation of volatility also reflects profound structural changes that have taken place since the financial crisis, such as the primacy of central banks and the big shift into exchange traded funds. ... the index’s inventor is unhappy about, given structural flaws that make these products ill-suited for retail investors. Constantly buying new futures is costly, and Vix futures are typically in “contango”, when longer-term contracts are more expensive than near-term ones. In practice this means that Vix ETPs are most of the time slowly bleeding to death.