Tuesday, November 1, 2022
Griffin on the Index Fund Voting Process
Professor Caleb Griffin (University of Arkansas School of Law) offered testimony before the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs in June of 2022 on problems associated with the fact that the “Big Three” index fund managers (Vanguard, BlackRock, and State Street) cast almost a quarter of the votes at S&P 500 companies. As a result, enormous power is concentrated in the hands of just a few index fund managers, whose interests and values may not align with those whose shares they are voting. Professor Griffin proposed two solutions to this problem: (1) “categorical” pass-through voting, and (2) vote outsourcing. Professor Griffin’s remarks were recently posted here, and here’s the abstract:
In recent years, index funds have assumed a new and unprecedented role as the most influential players in corporate governance. In particular, the “Big Three” index fund managers—Vanguard, BlackRock, and State Street—occupy a pivotal role. The Big Three currently cast nearly a quarter of the votes at S&P 500 companies, and that figure is expected to grow to 34% by 2028 and over 40% in the following decade.
The best solution to the current problem—where we have virtually powerless index investors and enormous, concentrated power in the hands of index fund management—is to transfer some of that power to individual investors.
There are two primary ways to do so. The first is to allow individual investors to set their own voting instructions with “categorical” pass-through voting, where investors are able to give semi-specific instructions on common categories of topics. The second approach is vote outsourcing, where investors could instruct management to vote their shares in alignment with a third party representative.
Pass-through voting preserves the economies of scale at the Big Three while addressing the root of the problem: concentrated voting power in the hands of a small, unaccountable group. Ultimately, index funds occupy a unique and important role in financial markets, not least because they're disproportionately owned by smaller, middle-income investors. These investors have a valuable voice, and pass-through voting would help us hear it.