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Benchmarking the Investment Industry

In my September 11, 2008 testimony before the ERISA Advisory Council, I described two buckets of organizations - those which deserve a gold star and those who don't. I went on to explain that the size of the "everybody else" bucket might be very large but that current reporting requirements make it nearly impossible to know about red flags in advance. This is cold comfort for shareholders and taxpayers who would prefer to know about financial runaway trains beforehand.

Unfortunately, those who attempt to provide more sunlight about their activities are not always rewarded. In a recent conversation with the CEO of a major asset management firm, I was told that this firm had provided detailed information about its fee structure to institutional clients. Instead of being rewarded, and because there are wide variations with report to how asset managers present performance data, sunlight led to storm clouds. Endowments, foundations and pensions responded by asking why the fees were so high. The reality was that the costs were in fact lower than those of comparable traders but, since competitors were not providing more than basic feedback, their costs were interpreted as lower and therefore "better." It's no surprise that the executive with whom I spoke expressed frustration. Here they were trying to do what they thought was the right thing and come clean with a detailed decomposition of what they charged. Instead of a reward, they were kicked in the proverbial shins.

In "Type-A-Plus Students Chafe at Grade Deflation" (January 29, 2010), New York Timesreporter Lisa W. Foderaro describes a similar phenomena in the university sector. Where Princeton sought to minimize grade inflation by limiting the number of A's, top quality students found it harder to compete for jobs when graduates from other schools flashed their scores. Never mind that Princeton arguably tried to impart higher integrity data.

Is the message that transparency is window dressing and that no one really wants to have the low down on "true" outcomes? Alternatively, should we conclude that heightened disclosure rules are inevitable but it is incumbent upon providers of information to educate their recipients, i.e. make sure that underlying assumptions are clearly explained? If that does not occur, might well-intended parties (those who provide more detail than necessary) be impugned instead of rewarded for their forthrightness? 

Click to read "Testimony by Dr. Susan Mangiero to ERISA Advisory Council Working Group on Hard to Value Assets," September 11, 2008. (Note that Pension Governance, LLC is now part of Investment Governance, Inc.)

Disclosure: No positions