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Signs in real estate suggest passive has grown too big

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The future of passive investing is facing one of its biggest tests yet. And surprisingly the challenge is coming from a handful of relatively obscure real-estate companies.

Funds that track indexes are coming increasingly close to owning a majority of shares in eight property owners and managers, according to a report from Bloomberg Intelligence. Real estate stands out in a wider market where just 16% of stocks are held by passive investors. That makes these companies potential bellwethers for the impact of benchmark tracking as the funds grow.

“For firms with high passive ownership, you have lower reaction to company-specific news,” said Itzhak Ben-David, a finance professor at Ohio State University who’s studied the topic. “When everybody pulls money out of the market or gets into the market, the tide lifts all boats.”

Identifying the potential dangers within passive investing vehicles — particularly ETFs — has been a Wall Street parlor game for years, not least among displaced stock pickers. Variously described by active managers as being akin to Marxism or financial weapons of mass destruction, indexed funds are poised for another year of inflows as actively managed products hemorrhage cash, data compiled by Bloomberg show.

But with the number of U.S. indexes far outstripping stocks, anxiety is mounting over whether passive funds — which buy the stocks in their benchmarks regardless of news, earnings or other fundamentals — artificially inflate share prices, fueling bubbles.

Societe Generale last month argued small caps, dividend shares and gold miners were particularly at risk of market selloffs due to their outsized ownership by passive investors. Goldman Sachs, meanwhile, suggested in a report last year that stocks with a larger exposure to passive funds could trade more on cross-asset flows and macro views than their own fundamentals.

Tanger Factory Outlet Centers, which owns and operates out-of-town retail parks, could be the first stock to test passive’s tipping point. Index funds own 46.9% of the REIT, which has a market capitalization of $2 billion, the data show.

Fees were nearly half the price of the top-performing active funds.
September 4

Based in Greensboro, North Carolina, Tanger may seem like a strange yardstick for the future of investing, but its diverse appeal has made it a stock to watch. It’s owned by dividend strategies, funds that buy mid-cap or small-cap companies, and investors in real estate or REITs.

Of course, as Ben-David points out, it’s hard to know how this stock or any other would behave without passive owners. Bloomberg Intelligence also found little correlation between Tanger’s stock price and flows into the largest fund that owns it. In fact, greater passive ownership could have a positive impact, according to Eric Balchunas, a senior ETF analyst who co-authored the report.

“Passive funds’ growing stock-market ownership hasn’t had any unusual effects on share prices so far, and their focus on ESG issues could be viewed as complementary to active managers that mostly chase profits,” he wrote, referring to funds that target environmental, social and governance concerns.

Bloomberg News