Indexes special report


April 2013 - sponsored by: Interactive Data, Russell Indexes, Thomson Reuters

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Indexes on Deck, or Benchmarks on the Bench?

With the Dow Jones Industrial Average hitting record highs so soon after the recent financial crisis, some investors are questioning whether indexes are a true reflection of the health of financial markets. At the same time, investment firms managing assets that are bound to track these benchmark indexes are questioning the costs levied by providers, while exchanges and index providers dispute who owns the right to list contracts based on an index.

Who would have thought that these financial tools-which essentially group representative baskets of companies together and create an aggregate value to reflect the investment strength or weakness of a particular sector, industry or region-would still have a role in today's markets, at a time when "consumerization" of finance is seeing investors cut out traditional advisors in favor of investing directly.

Yet index use is arguably stronger than ever-in part because those independence-seeking investors are migrating to funds or instruments like exchange-traded funds that are linked to indexes, and in part simply because of the economic recovery and a growing population requiring savings plans and pensions that deliver exposure to growth with limited risk. Also, notes Gareth Parker of Russell Indexes, what else would investors use to benchmark the performance and behavior of their portfolios?

But some consumers feel trapped using indexes that rely on the strength of their brand rather than the value of their index selection methodology, and which are sometimes accompanies by expensive and complex licensing models. "Vendor licensing models have not kept up with the changes in [consumers'] global operating model," says John Simons, director of market data services at John Hancock, adding that index providers continue to raise fees at levels exceeding the rise of another key index-the consumer price index.

In response, index providers are developing new products that deliver a broader and more sophisticated set of exposures, including dynamic, "alpha-tracking" indexes, new weighting and constituent selection models, such as by fundamental factors including geographic revenue split, or preference factors such as ESG. And more competition from providers such as CRSP-which last year won a big deal with Vanguard-and startup the Freedom Index Company, among other niche specialists, will make it arguably easier to switch benchmarks, and drive further innovation if established vendors are to retain and win business.

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