Long-term investors using short-term strategies

Most institutional investors have long-dated obligations that extend decades into the future. Consistent with their long time-horizon and the need to deliver inflation-beating returns, such investors typically allocate the majority of their capital to public and private equity, real estate and infrastructure assets. Increasingly, such allocations are managed with environmental, social and governance (ESG) concerns to the fore. Indeed, some investors have gone further and now seek to align their investment strategy with the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

Paradoxically, the same investors will often use strategies that are inherently short-term in their approach. The most obvious example is the momentum strategy, which involves buying recent winners and avoiding recent losers. This is a high turnover strategy that has nothing to do with the productive allocation of capital. Moreover, the procyclical nature of the strategy means that it will tend to amplify trends, distort prices and, in the extreme, contribute to bubbles and crashes.

Out-and-out momentum strategies are just the tip of a large procyclical iceberg. The still widespread use of tracking error constraints forces managers to chase the fastest-performing segments of the market to avoid breaching their mandate guidelines. Even in the absence of such constraints, asset managers willingly chase trends in order to manage their own career risk. And performance-driven hire and fire decisions by asset owners further embed a procyclical bias within financial markets.

All this adds up to a situation in which large investors who claim to invest with a long horizon and who wish to be seen as champions of a socially responsible form of capitalism, are in fact contributing to dysfunctional capital markets in which short-termism dominates long-term thinking.

The social costs of asset mispricing and short-termism are less visible than the more widely discussed environmental and social externalities, but may be no less damaging.

Traditional finance theory suggests that in more-or-less efficient markets, a company’s share price is a fair reflection of the fundamental worth of the business. In this idealised world, there is no difference between actions that boost the share price and actions that deliver long-term value. However, in the presence of asset mispricing this no longer holds. As a result, it is possible – and often highly remunerative – for CEOs to engage in financial engineering rather than productivity-enhancing investment. An egregious and widespread example of this arises when share buybacks are used to mask the dilutive impact of stock-based compensation packages under the cover of “returning capital to shareholders”.

Procyclical dynamics also support a tendency towards monopoly: a rising share price confers greater market power on a company, enabling it to buy up competitors, often using their overvalued stock to fund the purchase. Asset owners that employ procyclical strategies are thereby facilitating a gradual shift towards a less competitive, less productive economy in which monopolistic corporations can engage in rent extraction on a vast scale.

Furthermore, procyclical strategies exert positive feedback effects on markets which help inflate asset price bubbles. When these bubbles eventually burst they often inflict significant and long-lasting damage on the economy, resulting in job losses and wage stagnation.

Public calls for institutional investors to recognise the impact of their investment approach have so far been limited to divestment campaigns focused on specific issues – most notably in relation to fossil fuel and tobacco holdings. However, as attention shifts towards broader issues such as excessive corporate power and rising inequality, it seems likely that asset owners will need to justify their investment strategy on much more fundamental grounds.

This would not require a huge leap from where we stand today. Savers and activists are already asking why their pension savings should support anti-social corporate activity. They might also ask why their savings should support anti-social investment strategies. Regulators across many markets have become increasingly assertive in encouraging funds to consider ESG issues. A natural extension of this – and one very much aligned with the underlying objectives of the sustainability movement – would be to ask large funds to consider the extent to which the strategies they employ contribute to market instability and capital misallocation.

Even in the absence of regulatory pressure, socially responsible asset owners will naturally want to understand the impact that their investment approach has on the wider world. This means going beyond the now commonplace integration of ESG considerations and the use of sustainability-themed strategies at the margin. Indeed, it demands that long-horizon investors avoid strategies that undermine the efficient working of capital markets and which consequently impose an unrecognised cost on wider society. If long-term capital was managed with a genuinely long-term mindset, the private and social benefits could be immense.

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