The Great Stagnation

Asset management hasn’t changed all that much over the last few decades. Despite all the headlines about consolidation, disruption, pressure on fees, and so on, the asset management industry today doesn’t look too different from a decade ago. Full-service wealth managers still charge high fees while offering dubious value. The last real product innovation was the Exchange Traded Fund (ETF), hailing back to 1993.

The Great Decoupling

Holding a variety of assets across different strategies is pretty normal these days — and if modern portfolio theory is correct, it’s also a good thing, thanks to the benefits of diversification. But in order to invest in different types of assets today, these assets often need to be maintained in multiple accounts. This situation leads to two sources of entropy:

  1. A growing number of siloed data sources to pull from, wrangle and aggregate to get an idea of consolidated portfolio performance.

The shape of things to come

Once logic is cleanly decoupled from data and execution, it’s possible to create a light-weight container to share the most intellectually valuable and creative part of investing — the investing strategy. An investing strategy, after all, is a set of decisions that rely on data as input.

Interoperable

If the investing strategy is the thing of value, and the brokerage is largely a commodity, people shouldn’t be forced to use any one brokerage. This means the Symphony needs to easily interoperate with many different brokerages, much like how Stripe makes it easy to integrate with many different payment processors. Interoperation would entail both pulling account-level data needed to make sense of the aggregate holdings of a portfolio from across accounts and sending order instructions. There has been some progress on the former “read” case, with much less progress on the latter “write” case — although both could use improvement.

Modular and Extensible

As with any new, bold software innovation, the Symphony won’t be static nor perfect at conception. Instead, there will be an active community of developers and enthusiasts to extend the functionality of a Symphony in ways the initial creators could never dream of. This might mean new core functionality in the Symphony itself or new external integrations.

Sharable and communicable

In addition to making it easy for humans to interact with software, humans need to be able to interact with each other — that is, they need to be able to communicate. Right now, communicating about an investing strategy is a disaster. The main mediums available are Excel sheets, code, and long-form natural language. All of these mediums are deeply flawed; they’re either too ambiguous, or they take far too long and too much cognitive effort to parse. Code, which is the most rigorously testable and unambiguous medium, is completely uninterpretable to anyone who can’t code. Natural language is the most accessible, but the reader may easily interpret a strategy differently from what the original author intended to convey. Excel offers a middle ground, but it has repeatedly been the source of grave errors and mistakes, with more complex workbooks relying on a dizzying chain of formulas and manually inputted data.

Immutable and versioned

Just as engineers version their code with Github, designers version their designs in Figma, and writers version their work in Google Docs, it should be easy to version Symphonies. As with any creative knowledge work, it’s helpful to track changes made over time, enriched with comments and metadata that indicate why a change was made. If there’s a mistake, it should be easy to roll back to a previous version. A related, equally desirable property is the ability to “fork” different versions of a Symphony and run them in parallel for purposes of either experimentation or diversification.

Monetizable

Right now, the best way to make money in asset management is, well, to work in asset management. But being an asset manager isn’t easy — nor is becoming one. Even sophisticated private investors eschew launching funds to invest in public markets, as the setup costs and regulatory burden prove to be too much of a headache.

Investing as a creative endeavour.

In some ways, the most radical change needed to evolve asset management isn’t even technical. It’s a cultural change, challenging long-held beliefs about what asset management should look like. What if the experience of managing investing strategies not only didn’t suck, but actually delighted? This only sounds like naive, foolish optimism before considering that tools in fields like design, film, coding, and so on are already fun, stimulating, and creative.

CEO and co-founder of Composer