Michael Lewis in Portfolio wonders if the whole world’s gone mad:
One day, someone may look back and ask: At the end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st, how did so many take up financial careers on Wall Street that were of such little social value? Just now, the markets are roiling, money managers and investment banks are reporting disappointing returns, and people are beginning to wonder if they chose the wrong guy in Greenwich, Connecticut, to take 2 percent of their assets and 20 percent of profits. But what if the problem isn’t the guy in Greenwich but the idea that makes him possible: the belief that the best way to invest capital is to hand it to an expert? As a group, professional money managers control more than 90 percent of the U.S. stock market. By definition, the money they invest yields returns equal to those of the market as a whole, minus whatever fees investors pay them for their services. This simple math, you might think, would lead investors to pay professional money managers less and less. Instead, they pay them more and more. Twenty-five years ago, the most successful among them took home a few million dollars a year; in 2006, more than 100 money managers made more than $100 million, and a handful made more than $1 billion. A vast industry of stockbrokers, financial planners, and investment advisers skims a fortune for themselves off the top in exchange for passing their clients’ money on to people who, as a group, cannot possibly outperform the market.
The whole piece is great. A related issue is what are the barriers to entry here. Sometimes unimpressive-looking NBA players make a ton of money because very, very, very few people could play as well as a middling NBA player. But how hard can it be to do the job of a middling financial manager? You could just flip coins.