For many active-fund managers, a primary goal is beating a designated market barometer such as the S&P 500. Tying a manager’s compensation to outperforming a benchmark supposedly aligns the manager’s incentives with investors’ goals.
But there are problems with this system, suggests research by Chicago Booth’s Anil K Kashyap, Arizona State’s Natalia Kovrijnykh, Booth PhD student Jian Li, and London Business School’s Anna Pavlova. When everyone uses benchmarks as incentives, doing so becomes less effective, the researchers find.
Benchmarks are a long-standing feature of the finance world: money managers’ compensation has been tied to these metrics for at least the past few decades. But there has never been a theoretical framework for this widespread practice, even as investors have turned over $100 trillion to the asset management industry and the amount of money tied to benchmarks has exploded.
Should pay be tied to benchmarks? To find out, the researchers created a model that considers the effects of often-used linear contracts, which offer managers a fixed salary as well as compensation on the basis of absolute performance (as in, hitting a defined threshold) and performance relative to a benchmark. Managers can beat their benchmarks by making smart moves in the traditional sense of buying and selling but also by engaging in other strategies such as securities lending to boost returns and trading in house rather than on the open market to cut costs.
Linking compensation and benchmarks, the researchers find, leads to inflated asset prices. When many managers chase the same benchmark, it raises demand for the assets underlying it. A manager who is paid to beat the S&P 500 is likely to buy shares of the companies in the index, and many other active managers in a similar position will do the same. On top of that, managers of funds that passively follow the index will purchase the same stocks to at least match the benchmark’s performance. This results in higher demand for the underlying stocks, crowded trades, and lower returns.
It can lead to other costs too. Strategies such as lending out securities can boost returns significantly—securities lending alone represented 5 percent of total revenue at large investment managers BlackRock and State Street in 2017, the researchers report. But such strategies can involve risk, and they take time and effort to oversee. A crucial assumption in the model is that managers with larger portfolios have higher costs, Li explains.