Does the Institutional Structure of the Buy Side Impact Portfolio Returns?

Sep 4 / Geoff Robinson

I've just got back from a drink with a client of mine - a senior PM at a European fund - and this interesting question was posed. Luckily I was on the diet cokes, so I can remember what we spoke about!

In the complex world of investment management, numerous factors influence portfolio returns. While it's easy to focus on external factors such as economic indicators, geopolitical events, and market trends, the internal institutional structure of buy-side firms also plays a significant role.

But how does the internal structure of a buy-side firm influence the portfolio returns it can generate? In this post, we will explore the relationship between institutional structure and portfolio returns, using real-world quotes and statistics for context.

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Centralized versus Decentralized Structures

There is a wide range of institutional structures in the buy-side world, but for simplicity, we'll broadly categorize them into centralized and decentralized models.
In a centralized structure, decision-making authority is concentrated at the top. This often leads to consistent investment strategies and a uniform firm-wide approach. However, it may also slow the decision-making process, potentially missing short-term investment opportunities.
On the other hand, decentralized structures distribute decision-making powers among individual portfolio managers or teams. This can allow for a more rapid response to market changes and a more comprehensive range of investment strategies. However, it can also lead to inconsistencies in the firm's overall investment approach.
It is noteworthy to quote John C. Bogle, the founder of Vanguard, who once said, "Investing is not nearly as difficult as it looks. Successful investing involves doing a few things right and avoiding serious mistakes." This principle applies aptly to the internal structure of buy-side firms - the challenge lies in balancing authority and decision-making speed with consistency and coherence in the investment approach.

Impact on Portfolio Returns
Analyzing the correlation between institutional structure and portfolio returns can be challenging due to the multiplicity of influencing factors. However, it is undoubted that structure can impact returns in various ways.
With their uniform investment approach, centralized structures often achieve more significant economies of scale, lower transaction costs, and more strategic alignment. This has the potential to lead to enhanced returns over the long term.
However, the agility and flexibility inherent in decentralized structures can lead to potentially higher short-term returns, especially in volatile markets. A study by Gottesman and Morey (2006) found that fund performance improved with increased decentralization. The authors attributed this to "the value of the unique information gathered by the portfolio managers."
But, as quoted by Benjamin Graham, often called the 'father of value investing,' "Investment is most intelligent when it is most businesslike." This suggests that portfolio returns are more likely to be optimized when the structure is logical, coherent, and balanced. Therefore, whether a buy-side firm opts for a centralized or decentralized structure, the key lies in its ability to adapt and refine its structure in response to evolving market conditions and investment opportunities.

The Role of Corporate Culture
While the impact of structure on portfolio returns is significant, it's essential not to overlook the role of corporate culture. Whether the structure is centralized or decentralized, an empowering, inclusive, and transparent culture can foster innovation, collaboration, and risk management. This, in turn, can positively influence portfolio returns.
For instance, Bridgewater Associates, the world's largest hedge fund, famously promotes a 'radical transparency' culture. This culture of open communication and accountability is considered one of the critical drivers of Bridgewater's consistent outperformance.


In conclusion, there's no one-size-fits-all answer to the impact of institutional structure on portfolio returns. Different structures can yield different results under varying market conditions.

Nevertheless, the structure does matter. It's essential for buy-side firms to strategically consider their organizational structure and ensure it aligns with their investment approach and market strategy. It's about striking the right balance - between consistency and flexibility, strategy and agility, centralization and decentralization - to optimize portfolio returns in a rapidly evolving investment landscape.