The benefits of alignment

Investors tend to focus predominantly on investment capabilities and operational strength when assessing whether to engage or retain a fund manager. These are important factors, but an often overlooked factor is alignment; or the extent to which fund managers, acting in their own interest, can also act in the best interests of their investors.

Attention to fund manager alignment is part and parcel of good governance.

As an investor, you want to know to what extent the two of you are ‘in the same boat’ – whether your partner is shoulder-to-shoulder with you or is paddling broadly in the same direction but from a separate vessel. The difference becomes most evident when the waters aren’t smooth.

Mercer identifies three key parties:

  • The funds management firm (including the owners)
  • The portfolio managers and investment staff
  • The investors (including advisers).

Biologists might call this scenario ‘obligate disjunctive symbiosis’, where two or more species live separately but depend on each other for survival.

Each party does not necessarily benefit equally, although that is surely a worthy goal for a successful long-term relationship.

To quote Charlie Munger of Berkshire Hathaway: “Show me the incentives and I’ll show you the outcome.”

Incentives drive human behaviour and we underestimate them at our peril.

It’s not that the majority of fund managers don’t fundamentally want to deliver good outcomes for their clients. Rather, Munger’s quote highlights the importance of creating an environment in which mutually beneficial outcomes are most likely to happen.

Steps to improve alignment

  1. 1. Co-invest for success

Assume you have a large amount of money to invest. Would you want your portfolio manager to have a significant amount of their own money similarly invested? Why would they not invest in the same product?

A significant co-investment supports the notion that the manager is going to actively manage the risks in addition to pursuing as much upside as possible.

It’s more the exception than the norm to see disclosure details on co-investment, but it does happen.

To quote an actual factsheet of an equity manager: “The portfolio manager has $100,000 invested in the fund, and staff have $1.5 million invested in the fund, as at quarter-end.”

We can then make a judgement call as to how meaningful such amounts are to the staff concerned.

  1. 2. Share a mutual timeframe

As an investor, do you have a long-term investment mentality and have you discussed it with your fund manager? A lot tends to get assumed.

If a portfolio manager detects that his/her client base is likely to have a strong reaction to short-term outcomes, they may be discouraged from making value-adding longer-term strategic decisions that might entail some short-term volatility.

Good investments often require patience and a side benefit is lower trading costs from lower portfolio turnover.

  1. 3. Defer a portion of rewards

If your portfolio manager performs well and gets a bonus – preferably reflecting a multi-year outcome – then great. But what should happen to that bonus? Would you rather it was released straight away as cash, or half of it was invested in the investment product for a minimum of say three years?

Most of us would take some comfort if the manager had that sum locked away for a while. Then there is a greater disincentive to take risks in the portfolio which may pay off in the short term but ‘come home to roost’ later on.

  1. 4. Support board independence

As an investor, would you want the board of the fund’s management entity to have independent directors or consist entirely of internal executives?

Some board independence helps balance the interests of the three parties referred to earlier – shareholders, staff, and investors. While their presence is no guarantee that investor interests will be at the fore, they offer an increased chance of broad representation at the board table.

  1. 5. Think strategically about fees

When it comes to fees it is useful to establish some principles:

  • Fund managers are entitled to rewards that reflect the true value of their skills
  • As an investor you want to reward skill, though the real question is how much is too much?
  • When it comes to performance-based fees the devil is often in the detail. Thought needs to be applied to issues such as the correct benchmark, high-water marks being in place and a cap on the total fee. A well-designed structure should mean that the manager is rewarded for performance that meets the long-term objectives of the end-investor.
  1. 6. Discourage personal trading

There’s plenty of merit in your portfolio manager co-investing in a product, but would you want them to be able to trade in the same asset class separately on a personal account?

In part this represents a compliance issue (prohibiting or making transparent certain trade activity), but even if personal trades are cleared through internal compliance teams, the scope for conflict of interest is hard to eliminate.

And, as a fund management firm, why open up the risk in the context that, as a general statement, portfolio managers are fairly well compensated for their day job.

  1. 7. Consider the ownership structure

Where investment staff have an ownership stake in the firm, does that promote alignment?

On the positive side, ownership by key individuals can help with staff retention, amplify incentives for the business to succeed, and help foster a longer-term mind-set.

On the other hand, it ties individuals more directly to the interests of the business, being the total revenue picture, rather than the outperformance of a certain product (over which they have much greater control).

This is particularly relevant if the product you are invested in does not represent a large part of the overall business, since the success of the firm may not be closely tied to how well that product does.

And there is an issue of what to do if a staff member is a shareholder but the strength of their contribution diminishes. Arrangements can be difficult to unwind, even though parting company may be the best outcome for the business and for clients.

Hence we can regard the self-ownership model as positive in many respects for alignment purposes, but not entirely without issue.

  1. 8. Implementation issues

Some challenges present themselves when trying to execute material change to alignment structures. Many investors are not big enough, relative to the size of a manager’s total client base, to have meaningful influence.

Existing fee structures may be so ingrained that there is little chance of affecting change. In some cases, managers have been so successful that they do not feel obliged to be flexible on arrangements – ‘there is plenty of demand so if you want to invest with us, these are the terms’.

The reality is that negotiation is mostly evident when (a) the investor is large and/or prestigious and (b) the manager or strategy is in its relatively early stages. In some cases, smaller or boutique-type firms are well-placed to apply flexibility given relatively smoother pathways to implementing internal policy changes.

Notwithstanding some implementation challenges, we believe fund managers should always be open to ways to improve mechanisms for stronger investor alignment. Where this is not the case, this should act as a red flag to potential investors.

While it is not realistic to expect every funds manager to tick every alignment box, investor interests need to be at the forefront of the manager selection process. Well-structured alignment arrangements should:

  • Underpin a sense of partnership between investors and fund managers

Promote strong performance and risk management, and

Minimise costs related to intensive monitoring and changing managers.

David Scobie is a principal in Mercer’s Investments business, based in Auckland.

Join the discussion