Over the past several decades, asset management firms – financial intermediaries who invest assets on behalf of ultimate beneficiaries such as pension holders or wealthy individuals – have surged to become the dominant shareholders in corporations throughout the global economy, supplanting individuals and other institutional investors such as pension funds. This growth has been accompanied by a second trend: significant concentration within asset management itself. BlackRock and Vanguard, the two largest asset managers worldwide, control $9 trillion and $8 trillion in assets, respectively – or more than four times the value of all UK corporations.
We argue the emerging dominance of asset managers constitutes a new corporate governance regime, a clear understanding of which is vital to addressing corporations’ roles in societal challenges from the climate crisis to wage stagnation and inequality. This new regime – asset manager capitalism - is the product of two related trends in ownership without historical precedent: the combination of significant reconcentration of ownership within a small top cohort of minority shareholders, and the universal nature of these shareholders, meaning their ownership of assets is distributed across all geographies and industries. In contrast to the image of the activist shareholder, on which the prevailing ‘shareholder primacy’ regime of corporate governance is based, asset manager capitalism is defined by a structure of ownership in which the dominant owners of a corporation are motivated not by the performance of individual portfolio companies, but by the accumulation of further assets under management.
In the US, the rise of the asset management industry and increasing domination of ownership by elite asset management firms of corporate shares, bonds, and numerous other asset classes is well documented. In the UK, this transition is less well documented. To address this gap, we analysed shareholding data in the FTSE350 index of UK companies from the end of 2000 to the end of 2020, assessing trends in ownership distribution as well as corresponding shifts in corporate behaviour. We found that although the total share of FTSE350 value controlled by the 10 largest investors remained relatively stable at approximately 20% over this period, concentration within the Top 10 became substantially more pronounced, with BlackRock and Vanguard now controlling 10%. At the level of individual firms, we found a substantial upward trend with respect to the fraction of shares outstanding held by the top 10 investors in a given firm. With respect to corporate behaviour over this period, our analysis found that while productive investment had declined, shareholder payouts as a proportion of profits had risen substantially, reaching nearly 80% of pre-tax profits at the end of 2020.
These results suggest the UK is following the US in the solidification of an economy defined by asset manager capitalism, with implications for policymakers and others concerned with corporations’ roles in inequality, productivity and sustainability.
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