This week I read about a new initiative calling itself the 300 Club.
“What is this?” I ask Geert, our new recruit to the investment office at Wasserdicht Pension Funds in Utrecht. “Some kind of historical re-enactment society for ancient battles?”
“Well almost but not quite,” Geert answers. “True, it is a reference to Thermopylae, the battle between Sparta and the Persians in 480BC, but the battle these investment professionals are fighting is more of a metaphorical nature. They are fighting entrenched interests in the investment management business.”
“We see quite a lot of those,” I tell Geert, who recently graduated from the London School of Economics and INSEAD, and who knows his numbers but not a lot about the way the business works. At least, not yet.
One of my old friends is Jan-Pieter. He’s pretty senior at a Dutch asset manager, and has been asked to join the 300 Club. I meet him for dinner after a property conference in Amsterdam. Jan-Pieter thinks he will join.
“I admire the aims of the 300 Club,” I tell Jan-Pieter in a cosy little restaurant in Amsterdam-Zuid. “But if you guys were so influential in the asset management business, why didn’t you change things before now?”
“It’s difficult to single-handedly change an industry,” says Jan-Pieter. “Now we have identified a group of like-minded people, we can be more influential. Unlike the Wall Street protestors, we have some more tangible aims.”
“Like what?” I ask. He replies: “Like challenging benchmark hugging, product pushing and complex terminology. We need to align ourselves with the interests of the investor and that’s not easy.”
“Not easy when your fees and bonus are at stake,” I say. Jan-Pieter counters: “If we do our job well, then everyone wins. You must also play your role in challenging us.” “When have I not done that, Jan-Pieter?” I ask.
The next day, BIG Asset Management from the American mid-West is came in for a quarterly meeting. Beforehand, Brad and I chat about Greece, the euro crisis and the world economy. I also ask Brad about the 300 Club.
“Praiseworthy aims,” Brad says. “But between you and me, there’s a danger that these initiatives become a talking shop.” Ever the American cycnic. Perhaps Brad is unhappy that he hasn’t been asked to join.
“So what are you doing to promote the interests of the investor?” I ask.
“Good question,” says Brad. “We’re simplifying terminology in our client communications. So instead of alpha we will say manager skill. Instead of beta we will say market performance.”
“Why are you doing this now?”
“We’re plain- talking mid-Westerners. We just don’t hold with all this Greek stuff.”
Pieter Mullen is investment director at Wasserdicht Pension Funds