Imagine a 401 (k) that doesn’t have an investment menu for stock funds. Instead, you can create one that suits your values.
You could start by taking out oil drills or gun manufacturers, or pulling companies out one by one, depending on which one you’ve (or the world) crossed recently. And when you’re done, you – and not a mutual fund – have bits and pieces of any other security that you don’t work with personally or as a global citizen.
Some of the biggest names on Wall Street can conjure up this enticing perspective known as direct indexing. And they are buying up smaller firms that are already making it a reality for some wealthy investors.
Last month, BlackRock paid a cool $ 1.05 billion to buy Aperio, a company helping financial advisors invest client funds this way. Morgan Stanley entered that arena earlier this year when he acquired Parametric Portfolio Associates as part of the purchase of old-line fund firm Eaton Vance.
Charles Schwab and Goldman Sachs also made acquisitions in the general area.
What are these direct indexing companies doing for investors now – and how many more people could they benefit from in the years to come?
Direct indexing begins with a list of stocks that are similar to the holdings of an index mutual fund you might buy from Vanguard or Fidelity. Then, with the help of an intermediary, buy shares (or fractions of shares) only in those securities that fit your individual plan.
Maybe you work for Google and get a lot of shares as part of your compensation. Hence, you want to avoid owning additional shares and those of other large technology companies.
Or maybe you are (or want to be) an investor focused on environmental, social or governance issues – the ESG segment. You might want to get rid of gun inventories, or avoid Wells Fargo, considering how it has treated its customers over the years, or Toyota for moving away from stricter fuel economy standards in California.
Regardless of which company you quit, you still end up owning hundreds of stocks. And because you own these stocks, not a mutual fund, there are some great potential benefits: You can, in many cases, avoid capital gains taxes by selling the losers to offset the growth of the winners.
The details get technical and difficult for human clients or even their advisors to manage manually. But it is also important that if you are in the highest tax brackets and live in a state with its own taxes, it can cost you not to pay attention to profits.
For investors focusing on mutual funds or exchange-traded funds, Parametric believes these taxes can weigh even more on your returns than advisory fees or trading costs. Aperio bluntly states on its website that “ignoring the effects of taxes equals willingly accepting inferior performance.” A percentage point of your returns may be at stake each year, possibly more.
Both companies use software to match their winners and losers and minimize your tax burdens. (The companies will also help people who want to use charitable stock contributions to keep taxes in line while maintaining the right balance in their stock portfolio.)
But we are in dilute air here. Most people – even wealthier ones – do not have most of their money in brokerage accounts that are subject to capital gains taxes. Instead, their money is usually in tax-deferred retirement accounts or 529 plans.
So how could more people get access to the part of this approach where you can choose your own adventure? Some important factors are already in place: the decline and decline in trading commissions, as well as the increase in the ability to buy broken stocks.
Declining commissions combined with technology that allows software to track, rebalance or, if necessary, generate tax savings on a given day of software software can keep total costs reasonable. And buying fractions of a stock means you won’t need nearly as much money to own hundreds of stocks since you don’t need $ 1,800 to buy a single share from Google.
And despite all of Aperio’s boast that its services are “designed for discerning financial advisors” who “serve very wealthy clients,” the company has already served the masses, like the preschool leaders of the synagogue.
Several years ago, the Reform Judaism Movement Pension Agency accepted Aperio’s offer to create an ESG investment option for their 403 (b) plan. The board used 100 years of social justice resolutions to shape the composition of the portfolio. Then it added another principle to its investment philosophy to own additional stakes in companies that were Israeli or had invested in Israel.
The fee for this bespoke investment is 0.15 percent per year for the first $ 10 million under management and 0.10 percent beyond that. “There is no such cheap ESG mutual fund on the market,” said Michael Kimmel, CEO. (A disclosure: I gave a talk on children and money at the reform movement’s annual conference five years ago.)
So what do more employers need to put something like this together? Or, better yet, when could company pension plan administrators allow individuals to build their own? (Or for companies like Vanguard and Fidelity, so people can do this on their broker accounts?)
When I asked Parametric’s executive director, Brian Langstraat, he joked that I must have overheard Parametric calls to Morgan Stanley and its other new acquisition, E-Trade. “It’s certainly a talking point on Zoom virtual calls pinging across the country,” he said.
One challenge is indolence. Mr Kimmel, the pension fund’s chairman, noted that only about 2 percent of the money from his pension plan went towards the new offering, even though many of his rabbis are warriors of social justice.
However, such slow walking is common. As much as investors show interest in ESG investing in surveys, it is difficult to decipher new offers, move money, and switch advisors if yours are not happy with the program.
One direct indexing start-up called OpenInvest is more focused on bringing ESG to the masses than it is primarily on the richest of us. The challenge is to convince financial advisors to people who are no less than 1 percent to make all of this more available.
“This is an industry where we tell stories,” said Joshua Levin, co-founder of OpenInvest, who has written passionately about the transformation the company hopes to fuel.
At first he thought that shunning Wells Fargo and Facebook, as favored by some of his customers, was the best story to tell what he and his colleagues made possible. Now he’s trying to get the audience to see the ESG movement as a feature rather than a product. The goal is for OpenInvest to be able to add its tools to existing portfolios without anyone having to switch advisors or do much more than push a single button.
“The lack of a dedicated end user hinders innovation across the financial services industry,” he said. Which is not meant to offend indolence. “We’re just thinking about getting this established and what technology we can develop to make this stuff.”
I asked Mr. Levin if BlackRock had tried to buy his company and he wouldn’t tell. The fact that such big players are circling this area suggests they know how alluringly tailored, tax-friendly indexed portfolios are.
Startups Since these are startups, Mr. Levin’s company is as likely to burn out as it is to turn into a unicorn. But no matter what, in five years time, I’d bet a lot more of us will be investing this way. And we will likely be happier without misbehaving in our stocks.