The market clout of the indexers raises other questions too. The actual owners of the stocks—not the index-fund managers but the people putting money into index funds—have little say over the companies they own. Vanguard, Fidelity, and State Street, not Mom and Dad, vote in shareholder elections. As John Coates, the Harvard professor, notes: “For the most valuable public company in the world, three individuals can in principle swing the vote of 17 percent of its shares. Generally, a significant fraction of shareholders do not vote, even if in contested battles. As a result, the 17 percent actually represents more like 25 percent or more of the likely votes in contested votes. That share of the vote will generally be pivotal.” In fact, the Big Three cast roughly 25 percent of the votes in S&P 500 companies.
Another worry is that these firms are too passive rather than too powerful. They are committed to being as lean and hands-off as possible, in order to reduce their fees. They do not tend to get involved in shareholder actions or small-bore corporate management, perhaps in part because any one company doing well against its peers is not of interest to the indexers, who want more assets under management and higher corporate profits.
It’s not easy being big.
Just last month, Senator Elizabeth Warren grilled Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen on whether BlackRock, with its $9 trillion in assets under management, is too big to fail. The Federal Trade Commission is contemplating whether the big index-fund families pose antitrust concerns. Government watchdogs have raised alarm bells about the revolving door, as the Biden administration continues to draw officials from the Big Three. In an interview with The Wall Street Journal, the chief executive officer of State Street said he thought it was “almost inevitable, when you see this kind of concentration, that it probably will make sense to do something about it.”
But figuring out what the appropriate restrictions are depends on determining just what the problem with the indexers is—are they distorting price signals, raising the cost of consumer goods, posing financial systemic risk, or do they just have the market cornered? Then, what to do about it? Common ownership is not a problem the government is used to handling.
Yet, thanks to the passive revolution, a broad variety and huge number of firms might have less incentive to compete. The effect on the real economy might look a lot like that of rising corporate concentration. And the two phenomena might be catalyzing one another, as index investing increases the number of mergers and makes them more lucrative.
In recent decades, the whole economy has gone on autopilot. Index-fund investment is hyperconcentrated. So is online retail. So are pharmaceuticals. So is broadband. Name an industry, and it is likely dominated by a handful of giant players. That has led to all sorts of deleterious downstream effects: suppressing workers’ wages, raising consumer prices, stifling innovation, stoking inequality, and suffocating business creation. The problem is not just the indexers. It is the public markets they reflect, where more chaos, more speculation, more risk, more innovation, and more competition are desperately needed.
The antidote lies not just in fixing passive investment, but in making markets be markets again. Perhaps we could all use a little more of that manic stock-picking energy, not less.