Even Fidelity’s $230 Billion Star Manager Has Robinhood Anxiety

Will Danoff has been wondering why billions of dollars keep flowing out of the Contrafund, the giant mutual fund he manages at Fidelity Investments. Performance isn’t the problem. He’s up 21% this year, trouncing the S&P 500’s 6.2% return. His conclusion: Today’s kids want something sexier.

“There’s a demographic issue,” Danoff, who has beaten the benchmark by an average of more than 3 percentage points annually over three decades, said in a Bloomberg Front Row interview. “We need to appeal to the Gen Z-ers and the younger generation as well, and luckily I think our app is quite good. But you know, a typical Gen Z-er may not be as interested in owning a mutual fund.”

That assessment, from one of Fidelity’s biggest stars, captures the angst of an entire industry. For years, traditional mutual funds have been losing favor. Many investors were turned off by chronically poor performance, and others objected to paying commissions or annual fees that often approach 1%.

There’s now less money in actively managed U.S. equity funds than in low-cost alternatives such as index funds and exchange-traded funds that track the market instead of trying to beat it. More recently, young investors have flocked to Robinhood Markets, making commission-free trades with a few taps on their smartphones.

Next to the social media antics of celebrity speculator Dave Portnoy, Danoff’s world of buy-and-hold discipline seems antique by comparison.

“When I started in 1990, there were 261 equity funds, and now there are thousands,” said Danoff, who manages $230 billion. “There are thousands of hedge funds. There are thousands or millions of Robinhood investors. There’s sovereign wealth funds, etc. So there’s no question that it’s become much, much more competitive.”