GUEST COMMENT: Are we the baddies? Fund management reputation in question

Everyone thinks they’re the good guys.

The comedians Mitchell and Webb summed it up perfectly with two wartime German soldiers asking, “… are we the baddies?”

But it’s a question that fund management businesses should be asking themselves.

The public narrative now makes for unpleasant reading. It says that active fund managers trouser excessive and opaque fees for funds that occasionally beat their benchmarks. The passive funds being chosen by ever more investors can also underperform benchmarks after fees.

This line of argument has a prominent cheerleader (or Tsar or pit bull, according to which newspaper you read) in Chris Sier, who chairs the UK regulator’s working group on fee disclosure.

The industry hasn’t made its case well. First, the trade body dismissed the idea of hidden charges. Then, when it tried to improve standards and consumer trust, some large members saw it as mission creep, and its chief executive resigned.

At the same time, some fund managers also tried to explain and evidence their social and economic value. Does anyone remember that bold initiative? Thought not.

But are fund managers really the baddies?

I’m not so sure. In the main, they provide long-term, sensible investment returns that enable millions of ordinary, hard working people to have the retirement they hoped for.

They put that money into the national and international economy. They finance companies, entrepreneurs, hospitals, transport and governments.

The issue is that they’ve been doing this for a generation, or more, practically aloof and in isolation from the shifting public mood.

Yet they can make simple changes before it’s too late. I think they fall into three areas.

They could address the lost connection with end users: the mums and dads who hold policies, shares or units.

The system has become so intermediated that money managers have no clear view of their underlying customers. You couldn’t imagine this disconnect happening in other vital economic sectors, such as pharmaceuticals or even banking.

That reconnection is possible with greater transparency and imaginative story telling. It’s something insurers do very well – even without annoying ads.

Secondly, state the case for fund management. If the social and economic value story wasn’t memorable first time around then remix it and have another go. The world of popular music is full of songs that flew to number one only on their second release.

This is simple to do. The stories of retirement dreams and new homes are all there to be told – but they need to reach a broader audience than the industry echo chamber.

Lastly, the investment industry badly needs public advocates. Who is talking up this small but vital economic sector other than the trade body?

The industry has plenty of friends, from chief executives of companies and housing associations to entrepreneurs and finance ministers around the world. These are the people fund managers have made successful.

Fund management companies are full of smart, energetic, imaginative people who care deeply about their fiduciary duty.

If they don’t want to be the baddies, they’ll find a way.

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