Some people look forward to traveling or maybe taking up gardening in retirement, but Fred Martin wants to fix a broken U.S. investment management industry.
“I’ve spent a lot of time thinking, ‘Why is this so screwed up?’ ” said Martin, now in his fifth decade in the money management business.
He’s not talking just about investment managers charging too much for middling returns. He also pointed to millions of Americans reaching the end of their working years without enough saved for retirement. To him, these are both part of the same problem.
By one estimate, the total assets professionally managed in the U.S. is approaching $50 trillion, so one guy’s ambition to change how that’s done might seem the very definition of quixotic. Yet it doesn’t seem smart to bet against him.
He’s putting his own money behind this, through a foundation, and he promised to give it at least 10 years — if not 20.
As for who is Fred Martin, it’s true he’s not got the public profile of a CNBC regular, but he has a top-of-the-profession reputation. “It’s a great story,” said Mark Argento, senior analyst and co-founder of the Minneapolis institutional investment bank Lake Street Capital Markets. “Their success has gone largely unnoticed, even here in town.”
Martin was already a veteran portfolio manager when he founded Minneapolis-based Disciplined Growth Investors in 1997, and the name of the firm essentially describes his approach to investments.
Martin turns 70 this year, and he’s started down the road on a long-planned ownership transition. He was thinking through his next chapter when he decided his best option to improve the way business gets done in his industry was sponsoring conferences he’s calling “Objective Measure.”
Now envisioned as an annual conference, the first won’t take place until October 2017, but Martin has already booked a big concert hall at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis and has lined up a half-dozen speakers. “We’ve got an all-star lineup,” Martin said, a statement that appears to be simple fact.
His list includes Charley Ellis, a giant of the investment profession who helped create the indexed mutual fund business back in the 1970s when he wrote “The Loser’s Game,” questioning the whole idea that fund managers can beat the market. His latest book offered solutions on what to do about the widespread problem of Americans not having enough saved for retirement.
Martin said Suzanne Duncan is confirmed, too, and she’s an investment research star best known for a study called “The Folklore of Finance.”
She and her research colleagues described one problem in the money management business as a “crisis of faith.” That is, investors had stopped trusting the pros. Nine out of 10 investors in one survey so distrusted the pros that they thought they would be better off investing on their own.
Objective Measure won’t just be about managing investments, either. Martin plans to have Illinois megachurch pastor Bill Hybels speak. The local consultant and author Doug Lennick will be there, too, and he’s best known for a popular book about the importance of moral values in business leadership, more than just not cheating but also things like showing compassion.
“We may fail,” Martin said, “but it won’t be for lack of great content.”
By including a preacher and ethics experts, Martin seems to have concluded that his industry’s primary problem is unethical behavior, but “we’re not going to go pointing fingers at people,” he said. “Quickest way to turn them off.”
Ethics also seems far too simple a way to summarize Martin’s thinking. It is fair to say, though, that Martin is looking for ways to rebuild trust.
Martin described himself as “outraged” whenever he learns of an investor who’s been overcharged for mediocre investment advice. “I’m mad right now,” he said, citing as an example a small investment portfolio he looked over that consisted of at least 50 different mutual funds, collectively costing the investor Lord only knows what in total fees and expenses.
It would help if investment pros were more thoughtful about why they are even in the business, he said. They were attracted by interesting work that pays a lot, Martin said, but many of them can’t answer the question of “What’s the purpose?”
One typical answer, he guesses, is simply “alpha,” the finance term that means returns that beat some investment benchmark like the S&P 500. Whose money it is and the purpose it serves in the client’s life don’t seem to much matter.
He also isn’t letting investors off the hook, one reason why he hopes half of the seats in the hall next October will be filled with people with money to invest. One of the reasons investors are often disappointed in the results they get, Martin explained, is that many seem generally uneasy with the money they have saved and so they can’t always be rational about what to do with it. They are also deeply bothered by not knowing what’s going to happen in the future.
In talking about the best client relationships of his own career, Martin said, they developed out of a deeply trusting relationship. It has to go both ways, too, between what he called “healthy” parties.
On the client side, warning signs of poor health might be family members feuding with one another or a client with out-of-control spending habits. One sign of a healthy investment manager is a team of portfolio managers working well together. Another is complete openness about the plan to achieve the client’s goals, which of course includes the fees to be charged.
As for who in his industry could profit by dropping by his conference to hear more, he’s not even exempting himself. Sure, Objective Measure will be his conference and he plans to personally kick it off, yet he also said his firm will benefit, too.
“We have the same problem as everybody else,” he said. “We’ve got to get better.”