But if the Big Three keep growing, the effects of their concentrated ownership will get only worse. Einer Elhauge, also of Harvard Law School, has written that concentrated ownership “poses the greatest anticompetitive threat of our time, mainly because it is the one anticompetitive problem we are doing nothing about.”
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Ramaswamy says his new firm, Strive, will aim to limit the Big Three’s power through competition. If Strive attracts enough investors to gain a say in how companies are run — a huge “if,” considering that Ramaswamy has said that Strive has raised only about $20 million compared with the trillions managed by the Big Three — Ramaswamy says that he will push for companies to focus on “excellence” rather than wading into heated political issues.
But the goal of staying out of politics in 2022 is about as realistic as staying dry in a hurricane. Last year, for example, BlackRock, Vanguard and State Street supported a successful effort to shake up the board of Exxon Mobil by installing new members who promised to take climate change more seriously. Was that because of excessive wokeness, as Ramaswamy says, or because Exxon Mobil had been underperforming its peers for several years, and it was woefully ill prepared for the transition to renewable energy that has been transforming energy markets? The move seems well within what the investment firms say is their main goal, looking out for the long-term interest of shareholders. And what if the firms hadn’t backed the climate initiative — wouldn’t that have been construed as a political decision by the activists who have called on shareholders to push corporations to address the climate? (In any case, BlackRock announced this week that it would most likely vote for fewer climate-related shareholder proposals in 2022 than it did in 2021.)
In late 2018, a few months before his death, John C. Bogle, the visionary founder of Vanguard who developed the first index fund for individual investors, published an extraordinary article in The Wall Street Journal assessing the impact of his life’s work. The index fund had revolutionized Wall Street — but what happens, he wondered, “if it becomes too successful for its own good?”
Bogle pointed out that asset management is a business of scale — the more money that BlackRock or Vanguard or State Street manages, the more it can lower its fees for investors. This makes it difficult for new companies to enter the business, meaning that the Big Three’s hold on the market seems likely to persist. “I do not believe that such concentration would serve the national interest,” Bogle wrote.
Bogle outlined several ideas for limiting their power, but he pointed out problems with a number of them. For example, regulators could prohibit index funds from holding large positions in more than one company in a given industry. But how then would they offer an index fund that invested in all companies in the S&P 500, one of the most popular kinds of funds?
Coates, of Harvard, argues that policymakers will have to move carefully to manage the dangers of concentration without limiting the benefits to investors of these firms’ low-cost funds. “No doubt getting the balance right will require judgment and experimentation,” he wrote.