SAN JOSE, Calif. — In 2016, start-up founders sang, “Theranos doesn’t represent, we are better,” in a holiday video created by the venture capital firm First Round Capital.
Over the next few years, several columnists wrote that Silicon Valley shouldn’t be blamed for Theranos.
Last month, Keith Rabois, a venture capitalist, said on Twitter that articles connecting Theranos with Silicon Valley culture contained “more fabrication than anything ever uttered by Trump.”
The technorati in Silicon Valley and beyond have long tried to separate themselves from Theranos, the blood testing start-up in Palo Alto, Calif., that was exposed for lying about its abilities. But the fraud trial of the company’s founder, Elizabeth Holmes, has shown that just as Bernard Madoff was a creature of Wall Street and Enron represented the get-rich-quick excesses of the 1990s, Theranos and its leader were very much products of Silicon Valley.
a jury found the entrepreneur guilty of four of 11 counts of fraud, starkly underlined her participation in Silicon Valley’s culture.
Ms. Holmes, 37, used the mentorship and credibility of tech industry big shots like Larry Ellison, a co-founder of Oracle, and Don Lucas, a Silicon Valley venture capitalist, to raise money from others. She lived in Atherton, Calif., amid Silicon Valley’s elite and was welcomed into their circles.
She also used the start-up playbook of hype, exclusivity and a “fear of missing out” to win over later investors. She embodied start-up hustle culture by optimizing her life for the maximum amount of work. She dismissed the “haters” and anything that interfered with her vision of a better world. She parroted mission-driven technobabble. She even dressed like Steve Jobs.
No industry wants to be judged only by its worst actors. And many venture capitalists who heard Ms. Holmes’s impossibly lofty claims didn’t fall for them. But if anyone in Silicon Valley was suspicious of her proclamations, none spoke publicly about it until after things went south.
said in a hearing in May before the trial began.
At its best, Silicon Valley is optimistic. At its worst, it is so naïve it believes its own hogwash. Throughout her trial, Ms. Holmes’s lawyers argued she was simply a wide-eyed believer. Any statements that weren’t entirely truthful, they said, were about the future. It was what investors wanted to hear, they said.
“They weren’t interested in today or tomorrow or next month,” Ms. Holmes testified. “They were interested in what kind of change we could make.”
Soon after Theranos got started in 2003, Ms. Holmes used her vision of the future to win over investors and advisers like Mr. Ellison and Mr. Lucas. Mr. Lucas, who was chairman of Theranos’s board until 2013, was involved with more than 20 investment vehicles that backed Theranos. Those included his son’s venture firm, Lucas Venture Group; another vehicle, PEER Venture Partners; and trusts and foundations associated with members of his family.
Bad Blood,” a book by John Carreyrou, a former Wall Street Journal reporter.
Brian Grossman, an investor at the heath care-focused hedge fund PFM Health Sciences, learned about Theranos through Thomas Laffont, a co-founder of Coatue Management, a prominent investment fund with a San Francisco presence. In an email that was part of the court filings, Mr. Laffont gushed that Theranos had “one of the most impressive boards I’ve ever seen” and said Mr. Grossman’s firm should let him know “ASAP” if it was interested in an introduction.
Coatue did not respond to a request for comment and PFM Health Sciences declined to comment.
embraced by many in the tech industry. “This is what happens when you work to change things,” she said in a TV interview. “First they think you’re crazy, then they fight you, and then all of a sudden you change the world.”
In the years since Theranos collapsed, more tech start-ups have followed its strategy of looking outside the small network of Sand Hill Road venture capital firms for funding. Start-ups are raising more money at higher valuations, and deal-making has accelerated. Mutual funds, hedge funds, family offices, private equity funds and megafunds like SoftBank’s Vision Fund have rushed to back them.
Mr. Salehizadehsaid Silicon Valley’s shift to a focus on fund-raising over all else was one reason he had left to set up a private equity firm on the East Coast. The big money brought more glitz to tech start-ups, he said, but it had little basis in business fundamentals.
“You’re always left feeling like either you’re an idiot or you’re brilliant,” he said. “It’s a tough way to be an investor.”
In the near future, giant index funds, those low-cost investments that have helped millions of people to build nest eggs, will gain “practical power over the majority of U.S. public companies.”
That nightmarish vision originated in a prescient 2018 paper by John Coates.
Mr. Coates was a professor of Harvard Law School when he laid out his argument — one that I share. Now, he is a policymaker. In February, he became acting director of the Securities and Exchange Commission’s division of corporation finance. Under the new reform-minded S.E.C. chairman, Gary Gensler, Mr. Coates is in a position to address the problems he has analyzed so painstakingly.
Neither Mr. Coates nor Mr. Gensler was available for an interview, but in that paper, Mr. Coates laid out his views. Index funds, which simply track the market and make no attempt to outperform it, are so effective and cheap, he said, that they have become the investment vehicle of choice for trillions of dollars of assets. Yet under current rules, it is the index fund executives, not the millions of people who invest in them, who have the power to cast proxy votes.
Those votes are the heart of a system intended to give investors a voice on crucial matters like how much the chief executive is paid or whether a company is damaging the environment.
wrote in December 2019, that lack of proxy voting capability leaves vast numbers of investors out of the equation, and gives corporations inordinate power. Consider that roughly half of all American households, comprising tens of millions of people, have a stake in the stock market. But most own equities indirectly through funds — mainly index funds.
That leaves fund managers with the decisive power over corporate governance, and the biggest fund companies have sided with management roughly 90 percent of the time.
As Mr. Coates wrote in 2018, “Control of most public companies — that is, the wealthiest organizations in the world, with more revenue than most states — will soon be concentrated in the hands of a dozen or fewer people.” The title of his paper was “The Problem of Twelve,” referring to the unelected leaders of index fund operations.
What’s worse, mutual fund companies are frequently conflicted. Many receive revenue from public traded corporations for providing financial services connected to retirement plans, yet have the responsibility of casting critical votes on how those companies are run. Scholars like Mr. Coates have worried about these conflicts for years.
study, “Uncovering Conflict of Interests: Proxy Voting Data Reveals Bias for Asset Managers to Favor Clients,” was done by the group As You Sow, which files for shareholder proposals on issues such as the environment, gender and racial diversity, and executive pay.
Today in Business
The group based its finding on an analysis of 9.6 million proxy votes by fund companies, along with Labor Department records that show how much fund companies were paid for retirement plan services.
“The big fund companies have a massive aggregation of power that comes from the investments of their shareholders,” said Andrew Behar, chief executive of As You Sow. “At the very least, the fund companies shouldn’t be allowed to vote if they have conflicts of interest.”
Such apparent conflicts are permitted under current rules, as Mr. Coates noted in his 2018 paper. There are many possible regulatory solutions, but the fundamental cure would be to take proxy voting power away from the fund companies and put it in the hands of millions of fund shareholders. That change would be especially important for investors in broad-based index funds, which mirror the stock market and cannot divest shares of individual companies.
Say you don’t want to put money into Exxon Mobil because you disagree with its approach to climate change. If you own shares in an S&P 500 index fund, you will have an indirect stake in Exxon nonetheless. And if you hold the fund in a workplace retirement account, you may be stuck. Only 3 percent of 401(k) plans include investment options based on what are known in the industry as environmental, social and governance (E.S.G.) principles, according to the research firm Morningstar, a research firm that rates funds.
Reflecting widespread concern about climate change, fund companies appear to be shifting some of their proxy votes, Morningstar said. BlackRock, headed by Larry Fink, has called for a speedy transition to a “net zero economy” and Vanguard in April adopted guidelines that may lead to more “E.S.G.-friendly” votes, said Jackie Cook, director of investment stewardship research at Morningstar.
INDEX, has taken a small step that could have revolutionary implications: This year, it has begun asking shareholders how they want to vote.
Index Proxy Polling,” an easy way for shareholders to convey their preferences on proxy votes for S&P 500 companies. The aim is to demonstrate how shareholders in an index fund could express their opinions.
So far, only about 100 investors have participated, said Mike Willis, the fund manager, and current S.E.C. regulations require him to make the final voting decisions on behalf of the fund. But he said he hoped the S.E.C. would eventually allow him “to move to real shareholder democracy and go to pass-through voting, in which the shareholders say what they want and we just cast the vote for them.”
I commend Mr. Willis for his innovative approach, but note that this is not a typical index fund. It is an equal-weighted version of the S&P 500: It gives equal emphasis to big and small companies, so it may underperform the market when giants like Apple boom, and do better than the standard index when smaller companies excel. Its expense ratio of 0.25 percent is reasonable but not as low as some of the giant funds.
If experiments like this catch on, they could help to move the markets closer to something resembling shareholder democracy. But legislators and regulators — people like Mr. Coates and Mr. Gensler — will need to weigh in, too, if we are to avert a future in which the voices of investors are muffled and giant corporations are dominated by even more powerful index funds.
Other money managers joining universities sought Mr. Swensen’s advice. He always suggested that they keep their offices on campus if possible, and he was sensitive to matters that students brought up, like climate change. Students have continued to push Yale to take a stronger stand on the issue.
Mr. Swensen acknowledged that greenhouse gas emissions posed a grave threat and asked managers to consider the financial risks of climate change, particularly if the government imposed carbon taxes. The investment office recently estimated that 2.6 percent of the endowment is invested in fossil fuel producers, a multi-decade low, and that it expects that decline to continue.
In 2018, Mr. Swensen said Yale would not invest in outlets that sell assault weapons. Most recently he encouraged endowments to hire more women and members of minorities.
Over the years he was a trustee or adviser to a host of institutions, including the Brookings Institution, the Carnegie Corporation, the Courtauld Institute of Art, the Chad Zuckerberg Initiative and the states of Connecticut and Massachusetts.
Mr. Swensen’s first marriage, to Susan Foster, ended in divorce. In addition to Ms. McMahon, he is survived by three children from his first marriage, Alexander Swensen, Timothy Swensen and Victoria Coleman; his mother, Grace; two brothers, Stephen and Daniel; three sisters, Linda Haefemeyer, Carolyn Popp and Jane Swensen; and two grandchildren. He lived in Killingworth, Conn.
Mr. Swensen was as concerned about the small investor as he was about his endowment. In his book “Unconventional Success: A Fundamental Approach to Personal Investment” (1995), he advised people to keep their costs low and to stick to exchange-traded funds, which invest across an entire index of stocks, rather than investing with money managers or mutual funds that select individual stocks, and where the costs can erode profits. It was virtually impossible for the average investor to get into the best private funds, he said.
The Trump-era working group suggested a variety of fixes. Some would revise when gates and fees kicked in, while another would create a private-sector backstop. That would essentially admit that the funds might encounter problems, but try to ensure that government money wasn’t at stake.
If history is any guide, pushing through changes is not likely to be an easy task.
Back in 2012, the effort included a President’s Working Group report, a comment process, a round table and S.E.C. staff proposals. But those plans were scrapped after three of five S.E.C. commissioners signaled that they would not support them.
“The issue is too important to investors, to our economy and to taxpayers to put our head in the sand and wish it away,” Mary Schapiro, then the chair of the S.E.C., said in August 2012, after her fellow commissioners made their opposition known.
In 2014, rules that instituted fees, gates and floating values for institutional funds invested in corporate paper were approved in a narrow vote under a new S.E.C. head, Mary Jo White.
Kara M. Stein, a commissioner who took issue with the final version, argued in 2014 that sophisticated investors would be able to sense trouble brewing and move to withdraw their money before the delays were imposed — exactly what seems to have happened in March 2020.
“Those reforms were known to be insufficient,” Ben S. Bernanke, a former Fed chair, said at an event on Jan. 3.
The question now is whether better changes are possible, or whether the industry will fight back again. While asking a question at a hearing this year, Senator Patrick J. Toomey, Republican from Pennsylvania and chair of the Banking Committee, volunteered a statement minimizing the funds’ role.
“I would point out that money market funds have been remarkably stable and successful,” Mr. Toomey said.
Dozens of companies are suddenly paying more attention to individual investors.
Small investors who buy single stocks have not been a major force in financial markets for the better part of half a century. They were growing in influence before the pandemic, partly because of the popularity of free trading apps such as Robinhood.
But with millions of Americans stuck at home during the pandemic, the trading trend escalated, Matt Phillips reports for The New York Times.
“Retail trading now accounts for almost as much volume as mutual funds and hedge funds combined,” Amelia Garnett, an executive at Goldman Sachs’s Global Markets Division, said on a recent podcast produced by the firm. “So, the retail impact is really meaningful right now.”
Tesla has long eschewed traditional communications with Wall Street. Ark Investment Management — the high-flying, tech-focused exchange-traded fund company run by the investor Cathie Wood — and Palantir Technologies, are also trying to reach small investors directly.
Before Lemonade, a company that sells insurance to consumers online, went public in July, it went on a traditional tour of Wall Street, meeting big investors and talking up its prospects. However, the company has since discovered that more than half of its shares are held by small investors, excluding insiders who own the stock, said Daniel Schreiber, its chief executive.
That has prompted a strategy adjustment. In addition to spending time communicating with analysts whose “buy” or “sell” ratings on the stock can move its price, Mr. Schreiber said, he has made a point of doing interviews on podcasts, websites and YouTube programs popular with retail investors.
“I think that they are, today, far more influential on, and command far more following in terms of stock buying or selling power than the mighty Goldman Sachs does,” Mr. Schreiber said. “And we’ve seen that in our own stock.”
Lawyers and securities experts said a multibillion-dollar family office like Archegos could avoid making 13F disclosures, but it would require threading a needle: The firm could have managed money for only Mr. Hwang and his spouse — not other family members, fund employees or his charity, which operated on the same floor of a Midtown Manhattan office building. The firm could also have been able to skip filing a 13F if it sold off enough stocks to fall below the $100 million threshold before the end of each quarter. It also could have requested confidential treatment from the S.E.C. to keep such disclosures private, lawyers and experts said.
Today in Business
Archegos was set up to make filings to the S.E.C. — it had its own Central Index Key number — but a search for documents returns no results.
The S.E.C. has opened an informal inquiry into Archegos and the spillover effects of its collapse, which caused billions of dollars in losses at banks around the globe. Regulators have declined to comment on the investigation.
Senator Sherrod Brown, chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, sent letters to the half-dozen banks that did business with Archegos — including Credit Suisse, Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley — seeking information about their dealings with Mr. Hwang’s firm. That includes information about any transactions that “would be subject to regulatory reporting with the S.E.C.”
The rules for 13F filings apply to “registered investment advisers and exempt reporting advisers that manage accounts on behalf of others, including advisers to separately managed accounts, private funds, mutual funds, and pension plans.” They must file if they have “discretion” over $100 million or more in securities at the end of a quarter.
Nicolas Morgan, a former S.E.C. lawyer, said a family office could get around the stock reporting requirement in only rare circumstances. It “would be outside the norm” to not file a 13F, said Mr. Morgan, a partner in the white-collar defense practice at Paul Hastings.
After the failure of Archegos, Americans for Financial Reform, an advocacy group, sent a letter to the S.E.C. calling for a review of 13F filings and whether gaps in the disclosure process created the registration exemption for family offices, which control roughly $6 trillion in assets, according to Campden Wealth, which provides research and networking opportunities to wealthy families.
The stock market’s rally during the pandemic has been nothing short of amazing. But rising interest rates are raising the question of how long this bull market can last.
In the 12 months through March, the average general stock mutual fund tracked by Morningstar returned nearly 66 percent — a remarkable rebound after a three-month loss of nearly 22 percent at the start of last year.
The turnaround came after the Federal Reserve stepped in with support for financial markets and the economy, fueling much of the stock market’s exuberance with low interest rates.
But with the economy taking off, rates have begun to rise. At the start of a new quarter, it is a propitious moment to ask, how long can these strangely prosperous times last?
My crystal ball is no clearer now than it has ever been, alas, and I can’t time the market’s movements any better than anyone else. But this certainly a good time to assess whether you are well positioned for a possible downward shift.
As always, the best approach for long-term investors is to set up a portfolio with a reasonable, diversified asset allocation of stocks and bonds and then live with it, come what may.
Our quarterly report on investing is intended to help. If you haven’t been an investor before, we’ve included tips on how to get started. Here you will find broad coverage of recent trends, guidance for the future and reflections on personal finance in a challenging era.
It’s been a long, fine run for the stock market but a great deal of the upswing has depended on low interest rates, and in the bond market rates have been rising. Investment strategists are taking a wide array of approaches to deal with this difficult problem. For now, the bull market rides on.
Bonds provide ballast in diversified portfolios, damping the swings of the stock market and sometimes providing solid returns. Because bond yields have been rising — and yields and prices move in opposite directions — bond returns have been suffering lately. But adding a diversified selection of international bonds to domestic holdings can reduce the risk in the bond side of your investments.
Yes, the markets and the economy are complicated. That often puts people off, and stops them from taking action that can help them and their families immeasurably: investing.
But investing need not be complicated. A succinct article gives pointers on how to get started, and on how to navigate the markets for the long haul.
After a piece of virtual art known as a nonfungible token — an NFT — sold at auction for $70 million recently, NFTs have suddenly became an asset that you can invest in. Our columnist prefers real dollars.
Short-term demand for oil and gas is rising, but if climate change is to be reversed, consumption of fossil fuels will have to diminish. This leaves investors in a tough spot.
For other perspectives on finance, take a deeper look at our report:
Additional attention in this area is a notion with bipartisan support, in an era that lacks much of that. In June, Representatives Chip Roy, Republican of Texas, and Abigail Spanberger, Democrat of Virginia, introduced what they called the Trust Act.
The bill would require their colleagues, spouses and dependent children to use a qualified blind trust, as Mr. Ossoff and Mr. Kelly are doing. With such vehicles, a third party would control individual stocks, if any, and some other investment assets and keep the beneficiary from knowing much about the contents or from trading on specialized knowledge of coming legislation. (Owning and trading common investments like mutual funds would be fine.)
“This is about making it easier for members of Congress to do their job,” Mr. Roy said at the time.
And let us not forget what I outlined in detail in a November column: They’ll all end up with more money in the end, on average, if they (or their stockbrokers) stop believing that they’re smart enough to beat the market. The studies on this are legion, and a particularly fun one showed how badly people in Congress did, on average, when they tried to outsmart the market between 2004 and 2008.
It is perhaps not surprising that those who would be elected officials would not be passive investors. The same enhanced sense of self that propels many of them to run for office may well make them think they have some kind of stock-picking superpower. They almost certainly don’t — and neither do the financial advisers who are charging them handsomely. Perhaps they’ll come to their senses eventually.
Others may own stock or trade it to blow off steam, as a form of gambling. If they can afford to lose the money, and are truly not using any inside information or in a position to influence the policies that affect the companies they bet on, then there is no real harm.
But do they wish to lose elections over it?
Certainly, stock trading wasn’t the only issue at play in Georgia. But in purple parts of the country or districts where upstarts in their own party would try to make a case of it, these newly elected officials could be vulnerable. If they avoid individual stocks for political reasons rather than more principled reasons, so be it. It’s all to the good.
The sharp rise in bond yields is forcing traders to consider that they may be holding two irreconcilable ideas in their heads.
One is that the Federal Reserve has no real control over bond market interest rates. The other is that the Fed can keep the stock market aloft as long as it tries to control interest rates.
The resilience of share prices — the S&P 500 rose 5.8 percent in the first quarter — suggests that those two ideas can coexist. But if yields continue to rise, the impact on companies, consumers and homeowners and the appeal that fatter bond yields may have to investors could produce a reckoning for stocks.
“The bond market is at an inflection point that eventually is going to be recognized by the stock market,” said Komal Sri-Kumar, president of Sri-Kumar Global Strategies. “Over the last 30 years, the bond market has only gone one way, but a change is occurring now, and it’s likely to be an abrupt one.”
CRB index, which measures a basket of commodities, rose 52 percent in the 12 months through March. Home prices rose 6 percent last year, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.
$1.9 trillion bill last month to help the economy after the ravages wrought by the pandemic, President Biden proposed spending $2 trillion more on infrastructure projects, albeit over several years.
That $4 trillion, give or take, would be “going into an economy saturated with $6 trillion of stimulus spending from the Trump administration,” Mr. Sri-Kumar said. So much spending is likely to push up inflation and bond yields, he said.
Michael Hartnett, chief investment strategist at Bank of America Global Research, does not expect such concerns to diminish soon.
Because of such factors as “new central bank mandates, excess fiscal stimulus,” as well as “less globalization, fading deflation from disruption, demographics, debt, we believe inflation rises in the 2020s and the 40-year bull market in bonds is over,” Mr. Hartnett said in a report.
Commodities and other hard assets should outperform in the long term, in his view, along with shares of smaller companies, value stocks and foreign stocks. The dollar, shares of big companies and bonds should do worse.
David Giroux, a portfolio manager and head of investment strategy at T. Rowe Price, said he is worried that the bill will come due for much of the government spending.
“There’s a high likelihood we will have higher corporate taxes next year,” Mr. Giroux said. “That will be a headwind for corporate earnings.”
That persuades him to avoid shares of economically sensitive companies for which “a lot of really good news is already priced in.”
He prefers “stocks with really good business models that have been left behind,” including technology giants that are off their highs, such as Amazon and Google, and companies like utilities. Other favorites include regional banks such as PNC and Huntington Bancshares.
Ms. Bitel at William Blair foresees long-term higher returns by big growth stocks. But she throws in an immense caveat: Because rising interest rates tend to force down valuations, especially on the most expensive segments of the market, there could be a sharp decline before the erstwhile Wall Street darlings excel again.
“Retail investors will be able to buy their favorite growth stocks at a 40 percent discount, but that leadership will resume,” she said, emphasizing that the 40 percent was a ballpark figure.
Ms. Bitel also suggested holding foreign stocks, in particular shares of Chinese health care companies and Japanese software companies.
Mr. Paolini recommends banks, energy and real estate, and said he is avoiding carmakers, industrial companies and home builders.
Considering the investment landscape more broadly, he said, “The outlook for the next one to three years is quite good.” Then he seemed to try to talk himself out of that belief.
“The idea that you can simply print money and everything is fine isn’t sustainable,” Mr. Paolini said. “At some point, we will realize too much has been done and the market is too high, and the situation will change quite fast. I don’t know what that level is or how far away we are from it.”
As concerns about climate change push the world economy toward a lower-carbon future, investing in oil may seem a risky bet. For the long term, that may be true.
Yet for the moment, at least, oil and gas prices appear likely to continue to rise as the economy recovers from the pandemic-driven shutdown of millions of businesses, big and small.
These countervailing trends — increasing demand now and falling demand at some point, perhaps in the not-too-distant future — create a dilemma for investors.
The good news is that an array of traditional mutual funds and exchange-traded funds are available to help them navigate these uncertain waters. Some funds focus on slices of the industry, such as extracting crude oil and gas from the ground or delivering refined products to consumers. Others focus on so-called integrated companies that do it all. Some spice their holdings with some exposure to wind, solar or other alternative energy sources.
International Energy Agency forecast that oil consumption was not likely to return to prepandemic levels in developed economies.
“World oil markets are rebalancing after the Covid-19 crisis spurred an unprecedented collapse in demand in 2020, but they may never return to ‘normal,’” the I.E.A. said in its “Oil 2021” report. “Rapid changes in behavior from the pandemic and a stronger drive by governments toward a low-carbon future have caused a dramatic downward shift in expectations for oil demand over the next six years.”
alternative energy funds. Many enable investors to zero in on discrete segments of the industry.
The biggest holdings of the Invesco WilderHill Clean Energy E.T.F. are producers of raw materials for solar cells and rechargeable batteries or builders and operators of large-scale solar projects. The $2.9 billion fund yields 0.49 percent and has an expense ratio of 0.7 percent.
The First Trust NASDAQ Clean Edge Green Energy Index Fund focuses on applied green technology. Its biggest holdings are Tesla, the American maker of electric automobiles; NIO, a Chinese rival in that field; and Plug Power, which makes hydrogen fuel cells for vehicles. Also a $2.9 billion fund, it yields 0.24 percent and has an expense ratio of 0.6 percent.
The First Trust Global Wind Energy E.T.F., as its name suggests, targets wind turbine manufacturers and servicers, led by the Spanish-German joint venture Siemens Gamesa Renewable Energy and Vestas Wind Systems of Denmark, as well as operators such as Northland Power of Canada. This $423 million fund yields 0.92 percent and has an expense ratio of 0.61 percent.