Free riding is one of the oldest problems in economics and in society in general. Simply put, free riding describes a situation where one party takes the benefits of an economic condition without contributing anything to sustain that condition.
The best example is a parasite on an elephant. The parasite sucks the elephant’s blood to survive but contributes nothing to the elephant’s well-being.
A few parasites on an elephant are a harmless annoyance. But sooner or later the word spreads and more parasites arrive. After a while, the parasites begin to weaken the host elephant’s stamina, but the elephant carries on.
Eventually a tipping point arrives when there are so many parasites that the elephant dies. At that point, the parasites die too. It’s a question of short-run benefit versus long-run sustainability. Parasites only think about the short run.
A driver who uses a highway without paying tolls or taxes is a free rider. An investor who snaps up brokerage research without opening an account or paying advisory fees is another example.
Actually, free-riding problems appear in almost every form of human endeavor. The trick is to keep the free riders to a minimum so they do not overwhelm the service being provided and ruin that service for those paying their fair share.
The biggest free riders in the financial system are bank executives such as Jamie Dimon, the CEO of J.P. Morgan. Bank liabilities are guaranteed by the FDIC up to $250,000 per account.
Liabilities in excess of that are implicitly guaranteed by the “too big to fail” policy of the Federal Reserve. The big banks can engage in swap and other derivative contracts “off the books” without providing adequate capital for the market risk involved.
Interest rates were held near zero for years by the Fed to help the banks earn profits by not passing the benefits of low rates along to their borrowers.
Put all of this (and more) together and it’s a recipe for billions of dollars in bank profits and huge paychecks and bonuses for the top executives like Dimon. What is the executives’ contribution to the system?
Nothing. They just sit there like parasites and collect the benefits while offering nothing in return.
Given all of these federal subsidies to the banks, a trained pet could be CEO of J.P. Morgan and the profits would be the same. This is the essence of parasitic behavior.
Yet there’s another parasite problem affecting markets that is harder to see and may be even more dangerous that the bank CEO free riders. This is the problem of “active” versus “passive” investors.
An active investor is one who does original research and due diligence on her investments or who relies on an investment adviser or mutual fund that does its own research. The active investor makes bets, takes risks and is the lifeblood of price discovery in securities markets.
The active investor may make money or lose money (usually it’s a bit of both) but in all cases earns her money by thoughtful investment. The active investor contributes to markets while trying to make money in them.
A passive investor is a parasite. The passive investor simply buys an index fund, sits back and enjoys the show. Since markets mostly go up, the passive investor mostly makes money but contributes nothing to price discovery.
The benefits of passive investing have been trumpeted by the late Jack Bogle of the Vanguard Group. Bogle insisted that passive investing is superior to active investing because of lower fees and because active managers can’t “beat the market.” Bogle urged investors to buy and hold passive funds and ignore market ups and downs.
The problem with Bogle’s advice is that it’s a parasitic strategy. It works until it doesn’t.
In a world in which most mutual funds and wealth managers are active investors, the passive investor can do just fine. Passive investors pay lower fees while they get to enjoy the price discovery, liquidity and directional impetus provided by the active investors.
Passive investors are free riding on the hard work of active investors the same way a parasite lives off the strength of the elephant.
What happens when the passive investors outnumber the active investors? The elephant starts to die.
Since 2009, over $2.5 trillion of equity investment has been added to passive-strategy funds, while over $2.0 trillion has been withdrawn from active-strategy funds.
The active investors who do their homework and add to market liquidity and price discovery are shrinking in number. The passive investors who free ride on the system and add nothing to price discovery are expanding rapidly. The parasites are starting to overwhelm the elephant.
There’s much more to this analysis than mere opinion or observation. The danger of this situation lies in the fact that active investors are the ones who prop up the market when it’s under stress. If markets are declining rapidly, the active investors see value and may step up to buy.
If markets are soaring in a bubble fashion, active investors may take profits and step to the sidelines. Either way, it’s the active investors who act as a brake on runaway behavior to the upside or downside.
Active investors perform a role akin to the old New York Stock Exchange specialist who was expected to sell when the crowd wanted to buy and to buy when the crowd wanted to sell in order to maintain a balanced order book and keep markets on an even keel.
Passive investors may be enjoying the free ride for now but they’re in for a shock the next time the market breaks, as it did in 2008, 2000, 1998, 1994 and 1987.
When the market goes down, passive fund managers will be forced to sell stocks in order to track the index. This selling will force the market down further and force more selling by the passive managers. This dynamic will feed on itself and accelerate the market crash.
Passive investors will be looking for active investors to “step up” and buy. The problem is there won’t be any active investors left or at least not enough to make a difference.
The market crash will be like a runaway train with no brakes.
The elephant will die.