Fund management needs to get social

The head of Unilever was quoted a few months ago as saying that if social media can bring about the fall of the Egyptian government, they can do a lot worse to Unilever.

Anthony Hilton: Social media is starting to be seen as part of the solution
Anthony Hilton: Social media is starting to be seen as part of the solution

His comments were echoed at a recent conference by a fund manager whose business had suffered badly - though not entirely without justification - from being attacked in stock market-related internet chat rooms. Another pointed out the asset management industry was now so driven by reputation that though there are 2,611 retail stock market-related funds in the UK, more than half the money invested last year went into just 50 of them.

The fund management industry has a reputation problem. For all the talk of skill there are doubts about how much value it adds. It is widely seen as more skilled at extracting fees from clients than generating profits for them. It seems no better at avoiding shocks to the market than anyone else, and more interested in short-term trading than long-term performance.

But some managers now see social media not as part of the problem but as part of the solution, and are seeking to develop investment products that are more in keeping with the times, and that they hope will therefore be viewed favourably on Facebook.

There are two prongs to the strategy. The first is to focus on ESG - environmental, social and corporate governance - meaning funds are invested only in companies that fit in with perceptions of what is socially responsible. The idea is that if people can be sure their money is only used to support companies that take their wider responsibilities seriously, the fund management group will avoid reputational issues.

The second longer-term objective is to find ways through investment to support social enterprise by using business techniques to help solve society's problems. The PR and reputational idea behind this is that investors will obsess less about how big a return they make on their money if they can get satisfaction from seeing it being deployed to pursue worthwhile objectives. This way, they believe, the messages on social media should become much more positive.

Anthony Hilton is City commentator on London's Evening Standard.

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