Curse of the Benchmarks

Publication Date
Financial Markets Group Discussion Papers DP 747
Publication Authors

Obsession with short-term performance against market cap benchmarks preordains the dysfunctionality of asset markets. The problems start when trustees hire fund managers to outperform benchmark indexes subject to limits on annual divergence. For multi-asset portfolios the benchmark is generally the performance of peer group funds, also based on market cap. In the absence of formal instructions, asset managers, as well as off-the-peg mutual funds, are still keen to demonstrate their ability against the competition in the short run.

If securities markets were efficiently priced in the sense of reflecting best estimates of fundamental value, there would be no problem in using market cap benchmarks. But the terms under which most professional investment is handled ensure that markets are not efficient. Benchmarking causes, first, the inversion of the relationship between risk and return so that high volatile securities and asset classes offer lower returns than low volatile ones. Second, it fosters the pursuit of momentum strategies which then earn profits at the expense of benchmarked funds. The paper explains how these problems arise using rational models of asset mispricing and proposes an incentive-based solution.