Passive Investing and Corporate Governance: A Law and Economics Analysis
18 Pages Posted: 2 Jul 2020 Last revised: 10 Jul 2020
Date Written: June 9, 2020
An important debate in corporate governance is whether passive funds — a term that includes ETFs and index funds — have incentives to provide adequate oversight of their portfolio companies. One set of scholars contends that agency cost problems likely thwart passive fund stewardship for several reasons. First, passive funds suffer from an acute collective action problem because any investment in improving the performance of a company will benefit all funds that track the index equally, while only the activist fund will incur the costs. Indeed, these scholars point out that investments in stewardship are particularly costly for the passive fund portfolio manager, which lacks the firm-specific information necessary to participate in governance in a beneficial way. Second, passive fund portfolio managers may have inadequate incentives to invest in beneficial stewardship because they capture only a small fraction of the gains. And third and finally, passive fund portfolio managers have ample incentive to be excessively deferential to management, who are often their clients. These scholars conclude that because of these flawed incentives, the rise of passive investing portends economic harm and justifies wide-ranging regulatory intervention — from incentivizing passive fund stewardship, to restricting passive fund voting rights. Another set of scholars contend that passive fund stewardship is likely to be as good as, if not better than, stewardship by other investors. They contend that passive funds compete for investor dollars not just against other passive funds, but also against actively managed mutual funds. This competition provides an incentive for passive funds to invest in stewardship that will attract asset inflows. In addition, the large size of the institutional investors that offer passive funds affords them economies of scale and scope in stewardship. And because these large institutional investors have massive stakes in portfolio companies, capturing even a small fraction of any gain will substantially increase their take home pay, providing an incentive to be engaged for a small number of material votes that occur each year. These scholars contend — in the words of Adam Smith, and later, Jack Bogle — that the invisible hand is all that is needed. This is a chapter from the forthcoming Encyclopedia of Law and Economics (Adam Badawi, ed., 2nd edition 2020).
Keywords: Mutual Funds, Passive Funds, ETFs, Index Funds, Corporate Governance, Law and Economics, Corporate Law
JEL Classification: K22, K20, K2
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation