Portraying yourself as a victim can be a great communication strategy. It deflects attention and can even arouse sympathy. BlackRock CEO Larry Fink has been playing the part masterfully ever since a volatile stock market exposed flaws in one of his company’s biggest products. But is BlackRock the victim – or the villain?
As every Hollywood director knows, a good story needs a victim, a villain and a hero. The crisis in the exchange-traded funds (ETF) market is no different. BlackRock is trying to cast itself as the victim of unstable markets, and perhaps as the hero, too, if its market-reform plans are adopted.
But, like ETFs themselves, BlackRock’s strategy has flaws that could make the drama a horror story for the firm. With volatility again on the rise as 2016 begins, it’s a critical time for the asset manager.
BlackRock is one of the largest sponsors of ETFs, which have become a wildly popular investment product. They promise investors the diversification and performance of an index fund combined with the continuous trading of an individual stock. Investors have poured $2.2 trillion into ETFs, a 13 percent rise from a year ago, according to Broadridge. Last year, BlackRock’s ETF-related revenue was $3.26 billion, about a third of the company’s total.
Investors who put their faith – and cash – in the precision and efficiency of ETFs, had a rude shock on August 24, when market volatility delayed the opening of more than half the stocks in the S&P 500. As a result, hundreds of ETFs traded with “incorrect” prices, costing investors hundreds of millions of dollars.
Like Frankenstein’s monster, these creations have turned on their makers, forcing Mr. Fink and other executives to defend them.
He is trying hard to sell his version of the story: That BlackRock, like ordinary investors, was the victim of a short burst of extreme trading volatility and antiquated market rules. Mr. Fink neatly summed up his view this way, telling the New York Times:
“We didn’t have the problem — this was a market structure problem. Aug. 24 was a big event, but 90 minutes later everything was fine.”
To fortify its narrative, BlackRock published a 16-page position paper on equity market structure and made recommendations for reforming ETF trading. Here, too, BlackRock casts volatility and ETF breakdowns simply as facts of modern life:
“With the recognition that moments of high volatility and discontinuous pricing may be a persistent aspect of today’s markets, we see a need for market participants, exchanges, and regulators to improve the US equity market’s ability to cope with extraordinary volatility.”
This has been an effective communication strategy for BlackRock. But it is open to an attack by common sense.
Consider, for example, if a freight-hauling company added thousands of trucks to a highway and the pavement began to crack and buckle from the wear. There’d be an uproar if the company complained about the condition of the roadway without acknowledging any role in causing it.
But that’s essentially what BlackRock is doing. Although it created and sold the thousands of ETF products now rumbling across the equity and derivatives markets every day, BlackRock has uttered barely a whisper of responsibility for their flaws.
What’s even more remarkable is that BlackRock’s proposal to address the problem calls for the entire stock market to shut down during high volatility periods. That’s like the trucker asking for the road to be closed for repairs. It’s a measure of Mr. Fink’s influence that hardly anyone has objected to such a radical step.
Or maybe it’s the influence of Donald Trump. When he says something outrageous he just keeps sailing along. Objections (and there seem to be fewer following each jaw-dropper) simply get ignored or overwhelmed by Mr. Trump’s bluster.
Of course, playing the victim has been a frequent tactic in the financial services industry. Just look at former AIG boss Hank Greenberg, still convinced the government’s rescue destroyed his company. Or Dick Fuld, who still thinks he’s a victim.
Right now few are asking hard questions of BlackRock, so Mr. Fink’s communication strategy is holding up. But that could be changing. The Securities and Exchange Commission just announced that ETFs will be a priority for investigation in 2016.
As scrutiny of ETFs grows, BlackRock might no longer be seen as the victim in this market drama. Instead, investors might start to see the firm like the lead character in the movie “Gone Girl” and realize that the victim is really the villain.