24 July 2015

The Good Guys are (Finally) Winning

When high finance first comes to mind, one immediately thinks of the excesses.  The $10M birthday parties, the "wolves" of Wall Street, and the Goldman bonuses.  However, the financial services industry, as has been the case with numerous others, is finally experiencing a seismic shift in power.  Innovation, transparency, and even lower fees are becoming the norm as pro-investor trends gain in popularity.  Has Main Street finally gotten control Wall Street?

For one, the largest asset managers, who happen to be the most investor friendly, have taken significant market share in recent years.  Vanguard, Blackrock, and Fidelity, now collectively manage over $10 trillion of assets  Vanguard and Fidelity are non-profit institutions and best known for bringing down transaction costs and low- fee, successful, passive investment tools.  Blackrock has taken it a step further as its popular exchange-traded funds have brought once untouchable asset classes into common stock like vehicles available to the masses.  According to a recent Fortune article, not only are these firms gaining share at the expense of high-priced competitors, but also now using its clout in board rooms to influence executive compensation and thwart short-term focused activist investor efforts.

And for those who have felt shut out of the hedge fund craze, innovative startups have paved the way for individuals to leverage some of those strategies.  The growing roboadvisors, such as Wealthfront and Betterment, provide sophisticated portfolio management techniques at a fraction of the cost.  For investors that prefer a live human, RIAs have become the industry norm.  These advisors, unlike their transaction-based fee predecessors, adhere to a "fidcuiary responsibility" standard that focuses on long-term planning and better aligns incentives.

Even the closed door world of private equity and venture capital have felt the impact of changing times.  Crowdfunding has brought early stage investing to the masses, which has in some ways created competition for VCs.  Many have now embraced the platform by creating their own syndicated investment vehicles on sites such as AngelList and Indiegogo.  Private Equity firms have started to feel the effects of declining pension allocations and increased competition both for deals and funding.  Large firms such as Carlyle and KKR have recently filed for IPOs to find new sources of liquidity and are even opening up to smaller investors.

No the world is not quite caving in for the Manhattan financiers.  But bonuses have not nor expected to reached pre-credit bust levels.  And the industry continues to lose top talent to Silicon Valley companies. With the shift towards friendlier asset managers, the democratization of information and services, and good old fashioned innovation,  the "Flash Boys" are facing the stiffest competition yet.   Perhaps the next big set of investment opportunities for them might be the very ones that disrupt their own industry and unseat them from power.