Looking at the hard economic impact of the Great Depression (1929-1932) and the Great Recession (2007-2009), leads us to the eminent role played by banks in both. It then comes as little surprise that the banking sector captures all the attention. However, what remains to be looked into, and perhaps more worrying in today’s environment, is the role of prolonged periods of uptrend and low-vol on the asset management industry. This is where the risk builds…as everybody gets overly comfortable and ultimately concentrates in the same investments.
In 2014, the Financial Stability Board (FSB), an international body that makes recommendations to G20 nations on financial risks, published a consultation paper asking whether fund managers might need to be designated as “global systemically important financial institution” or G-SIFI, a step that would involve greater regulation and oversight. It did not result in much, as the industry lobbied in protest, emphasizing the difference between the levered balance sheet of a bank and the business of funds.
The reason for asking the question is evident: (i) sheer size, as the AM industry ballooned in the last few years, to now represent over 15trn for just the top 5 US players!, (ii) funds have partially substituted banks in certain market-making activities, as banks dialed back their participation in response to tighter regulation and (iii) , funds can indeed do damage: think of LTCM in 1998, the fatal bailout of two Real Estate funds by Bear Stearns in 2007, the money market funds ‘breaking the buck’ in 2008 amongst others.
But it is not just sheer size that matters for asset managers. What may worry more is the positive feedback loops discussed above and the resulting concentration of bets in one single global pot, life-dependent on infinite momentum/trend and ever-falling volatility. Positive feedback loops are the link for the sheer size of the AM industry to become systemically relevant. Today more than ever, they morph market risks in systemic risks.
Volatility will not forever be low, the trend will not forever go: how bad a damage when it stops? As macro prudential policy is not the art of “whether or not it will happen” but of “what happens if”, it is hard not to see this as a blind spot for policymakers nowadays.