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NEW! SPEECH: Lessons learnt over 2 decades as an universal owner advocate (Cambridge University, May 2023)

Some important thought leadership developments

1976 – “The Unseen Revolution: How Pension Fund Socialism Came to America” by Peter Drucker (subsequently renamed Pension Fund Capitalism)

1999 – “Ownership-Based Governance: Corporate Governance for the New Millennium” by Bob Monks and Nell Minow

2000 – “The Emergence of Universal Owners: Some Implications of Institutional Equity Ownership” by James Hawley & Andrew Williams (followed by a book in 2006, “The universal owner’s role in sustainable economic development”) 

2007 – A practitioner perspective: “Increasing Long-Term Market Returns: realising the potential of collective pension fund action” by Helen Wildsmith & Raj Thamotheram

2019 – An academic review with a focus on the climate crisis: “Universal Ownership in the Anthropocene” by Ellen Quigley

2021 – A book about the state of the art: “Moving Beyond Modern Portfolio Theory: Investing That Matters” by Jon Lukomnik & James Hawley

2021 – “21ST CENTURY INVESTING: Redirecting Financial Strategies to Drive Systems Change” by William Burckart & Steve Lydenberg

2022ESG 2.0: Measuring & Managing Investor Risks Beyond the Enterprise-level by Delilah Rothenberg et al

2023A workshop about system level investing by The Investment Integration Project

2023 Lessons learnt from 2 decades as an universal owner advocate by Raj Thamotheram

Some important practitioner developments

2001 Institutional Investor Group on Climate Change (IIGCC)

2002 “Managing Pension Funds as if the Long Term Matters” competition & Marathon Club

2003 Enhanced Analytics Initiative (EAI)

2003Pharma Shareowners Group

2005Pharma Futures 

2017Investors for Opioid and Pharmaceutical Accountability

2019The Investor Mining and Tailings Safety Initiative

2021GREEN Global Real Estate Engagement Network


Universal Ownership Theory (UOT) is a hypothesis like the Efficient Market Hypothesis. UOT started with a focus on externalities but has broadened significantly. Institutional investors with diversified portfolios and a long-tern horizon own a representative share of the entire economy (the “universe” of companies”). The interests of these universal owners depends on overall market returns and is therefore often aligned with the long-term interests of the public. 

System level investing focuses on the context (or “systems”) in which investors operate. Advocates argue it is a responsibility of all 21st century investors—whether retail, HNWI or institutional—to ensure that their investments intentionally reduce systemic risks by supporting the health and resilience of crucial social, financial, and environmental systems.

The label “system level investing” appears to have better traction in North America and is often associated with an “outside in” focus on systematic (non-diversifiable) risk and return of the capital markets. Universal ownership is more common in Europe and often associated with an “inside out” focus on maximising positive externalities, minimising negative externalities and managing systemic risks/threats often with a focus on collaborative engagement/stewardship. On this site, we consider these terms synonymous and use them interchangeably as both aspects of the definition are important.

Externalities are costs or benefits caused by a producer that are not financially incurred or received by that producer. An externality can be both positive or negative and can stem from either the production or consumption of a good or service. The focus here is on costs and benefits that affect society as a whole.

Organisations supporting universal ownership

The Investment Integration Project – A consulting services and applied research firm that provides advice, thought leadership, and a turnkey solution to help investors manage, systemic risks and opportunities.

The Pre-Distribution Initiative – Works with investors & stakeholders to address systemic & systematic risks by focusing on changes to investment governance & structures and market structure. PDI contributes to standard setting & tools for investors to make internal changes that set incentives for companies to have more positive impacts on people & nature, while preserving long-term financial returns.

Preventable Surprises – sparks and facilitates challenging conversations with investment professionals to develop fresh concepts (e.g. “forceful stewardship’ as a good strategy for managing systemic risk) and acts as a connector to put together “positive mavericks” worldwide who can, together, develop more ambitious strategies than would be possible working in isolation

The Shareholder Commons – addresses, social and environmental issues from the perspective of diversified shareholders with an advocacy focus on the divergence that often emerges between a company’s interest in maximising cash flow over the long term and its shareholders interests in optimising overall market returns.

Task Force on Inequality-related Financial Disclosures is a systemic risk management framework to reduce inequality created by the private sector. A multi-stakeholder collaboration, TIFD will provide guidance, thresholds, targets & metrics for companies & investors to measure & manage their impacts on inequality, as well as inequality’s impacts on company & investor performance.

Universal Owner Initiatives – Produces thought-leading reports on the concept of universal ownership and the real-world impact of investors on climate change and develops systemic interventions in the financial system, including building a model to understand systemic risk from the perspective of universal ownership.

Fund managers who are explicitly supportive of universal ownership or system level investing

Aviva Investors have produced several thought leadership pieces on systemic risk and are also proactive on sustainability related public policy matters.

The case against universal ownership

An in-depth political economy review of why index / passive investors choose “asset manager capitalism” rather than “universal ownership”: “Exit, Control, and Politics: Structural Power and Corporate Governance under Asset Manager Capitalism” by Benjamin Braun. This is an authentic analysis of why there has been so little progress by commercial fund managers. This reflects the lack of assertive action todate by asset owners, their agents (investment consultants) and regulators.

Why investors would be better suited lobbying than trying to be universal owners by Joel Moreland. This blog is focused on commercial fund managers but the same could be said for asset owners. Many of the objections to doing universal ownership apply when investors are asked to lobby, or contain corporate lobbying. Hence, it is unclear that this is an alternative strategy. There is every reason for universal investors also focusing on lobbying as this is synergistic with their corporate stewardship activity.

Thematic universal ownership perspectives


Inequality feeds civil unrest and threatens national security: a review (by Branko Milanovich) of a book (“End Times: Elites, Counter-Elites, and the Path of Political Disintegration“) by quant modeller, Peter Turchin, which focuses on the USA.

Excessive inequality also undermines growth – a summary (by Paul Lee) of a paper by Dr Martin Moryson (Chief Economist, Europe at DWS Research Institute).


“Humanity needs nature to survive, and so do the economy and banks. The more species become extinct, the less diverse are the ecosystems on which we rely. This presents a growing financial risk that cannot be ignored”

Frank Elderson (European Central Bank)

Social stability depends on economic stability which in term depends on ecological stability and this is founded on the diversity of ecosystems and their underlying flora and fauna. As these inter-relationships co-evolved over millennia, biodiversity is critical to the resilience and stability of life. For example, commodities such as food staples, fisheries, timber and natural systems such wetlands, waterways, etc. are foundational to the infrastructure and healthy functioning of our society. Disrupting biodiversity undermines present and future prosperity. Long term investors have a share of responsibility for pre-empting and minimising threats to these systems since these represent threats to the investment strategies.

Why institutional investors have become concerned about chemicals

How biodiversity loss and climate change interact: financial stability implications

Biodiversity risks to the (Dutch) financial sector by the Dutch Central Bank (2020)

What does deforestation mean for investors by Hymans Robertson (2023)

Biodiversity as a systemic risk by ICGN (2023)