A report from Cerulli Associates surveys the investment industry’s expanding direct indexing landscape. Learn what’s on the map and what remains to be discovered.
It feels like everything is out of our hands today, personally or as investors. We see our lives and the markets shifting daily with the latest medical, political, economic, and climate news. Social media and the 24/7 news cycle add to this unease. What can investors do about it? Control what they can control. This is a good time for investors to take control of their risks, values, and taxes. The finance industry agrees—and it’s making it easier for investors to do so.
One of the most exciting developments in the finance industry in recent years has been the rise of direct indexing—owning the individual securities in a passive portfolio, with the added upside of a variety of customizations built for the specific investor. Several major players have added direct indexing capabilities, largely by acquiring its earliest entrants. Parametric, regarded as a pioneer of customized separately managed accounts (SMAs), was among the first of these acquisitions, becoming a part of Morgan Stanley Investment Management (MSIM) in the second quarter of 2021.
Direct indexing is nothing new at Parametric, but it can be both compelling and confusing for investors. Yet it can unlock numerous rewards if it’s done right, and not just in dollars. Market researchers Cerulli Associates published an August 2021 report on the present and future of the direct indexing landscape. They surveyed financial advisors, account managers, wealth managers, and retail investors to find out what’s already known about direct indexing and what remains to be discovered. Let’s look at what “done right” means for both investors and their advisors.
Managing investment taxes
A key advantage of direct indexing is maximum flexibility when it comes to managing tax losses and gains throughout the year at the individual security level. Tax-loss harvesting predates direct indexing, and it’s a feature of some other asset management solutions, such as model-traded or manager-traded SMAs. However, direct indexing allows clients to buy or sell securities in an index on an individual basis, according to risk controls they specify—and without drifting too far from their target risk tolerance or tracking error.
Many advisors currently wait until the end of the year to review their clients’ portfolios for loss-harvesting opportunities. Unfortunately, only a few opportunities wait that long. A year-round, rules-based loss-harvesting method creates the potential for higher tax alpha, particularly during global market disruptions.
By harnessing the power of tax-loss harvesting through direct indexing, advisors can set themselves apart from their competitors and add value for their clients. The benefits of loss harvesting can be difficult for even experienced investors to understand, yet the quantifiable tax savings are a compelling proof point to show that an advisor is earning their fee.
Aligning portfolios with principles
Many advisors told Cerulli that clients often discuss personal priorities outside their finances. They’re eager to build portfolios that not only generate maximum after-tax returns but reflect their personal values and opinions. Often advisors get the chance to introduce responsible investing to their clients, who reportedly “light up” as they learn more about available environmental, social, and governance (ESG) approaches.
The term ESG tends to make people think first of the environment—for example, how companies are working to lower carbon emissions or whether they test their products on animals. The COVID-19 pandemic brought the two other facets of ESG into the limelight. Now investors might demand that companies do more to protect their employees from public health risks or keep a closer eye on diversity in their workforces. Or they may want to construct portfolios that won’t force them to compromise their religious beliefs. The only consistent truth about ESG is that every client defines it their own way.
This reality can make the advisor’s job a little more complicated than simply investing their clients’ money in some securities and keeping it out of others. However, with 44% of wealthy investors preferring to invest in companies with a “positive social or environmental impact,” navigating the complexities of ESG is becoming a must. Here direct indexing offers yet another benefit: a way for investors to express their responsible investing principles while gaining their target market exposure and risk characteristics.