We miss a powerful opportunity if we believe the story that the wealthiest 1% has power over us

In Yuval Noah Harari’s book Saipens he suggests that one of the reasons that homo sapiens became the dominant human species was because of a Cognitive Revolution about 70,000 years ago that enabled us to imagine.

Not just imagine, but create stories that large groups of people believed because they provided a sense of meaning, belonging and/or order. Like the notion of gods that reward the good and punish the bad.

Or, perhaps more relevant to where we are now, that wealth has some moral value and wealthy people deserve political power whether they have demonstrated an interest in leading for the people rather than themselves.

These stories and ideas allowed people and groups to be bestowed with a belief of great power. And for stories supporting these ideas to go unchallenged. For instance, an often repeated ‘truth’ at the moment is that the wealthiest 1%’s accumulation of assets means they dictate how the world should be run. And this in turn creates a sense of hopelessness among the remaining 99% that nothing can be done.

But it is not really the case. There is another version of this story.

Those of us who live in countries where we are fortunate to be able to save for retirement or have governments which invest to fund pensions own more of the market than you think. Those living in countries with sovereign funds, which represent many countries including some of the poorest, also own a substantial percentage of the market.

Sovereign funds were initially developed by countries that generated revenue from their oil and gas reserves as a way of funding economic and infrastructure development in their country, to ensure intergenerational wealth transfer and to stabilise revenues. These funds buy foreign exchange, bonds and shares in companies, units in mutual funds and private equity and venture capital funds as well as directly investing in infrastructure.

It is quite hard to find information on how much of the market sovereign wealth funds and other public funds, such as government pension funds, own but the Sovereign Wealth Fund Institute, based in the US provides information on more than US$30 trillion under management.

Retirement funds also invest in equities, bonds, venture capital and private equity, and we own a lot of the businesses that make up the economies we live in. Even if it is only a handful of shares it is still an ownership stake and that stake has a voice. In the US market alone, in 2013, households, mutual funds and sovereign funds owned 70% of the market, according the Federal Reserve and Goldman Sachs. That should be more than enough to sway the vote.

In the same way as a democratic vote gives you a voice in politics, being a shareholder should give you a vote about the governance of a company. The word ‘should’ is a very important point in this scenario. Most of ‘votes’ are decided by the professional institutional investors that look after our money. The professional investment market has not shown much interest in representing the views of the ultimate owners of capital and many companies only really listen to the institutional investment community.

This institutional investor community doesn’t make any effort to consider the values of the people it is happy to make exorbitant amounts of money from. They presume that because they are the professionals, their view, and the view of their very similar peers around them, is the ‘right’ view about investment and that the only thing their customers are worried about is profit maximisation. And mostly, we defer to them because the jargon all sounds so complex and watching sport is more fun.

If we want the world to change, to become fairer, then we must start demanding that the institutional investors that manage money on our behalf, invest for the long-term economic benefit of all not short-term profit. And stop believing the story that we don’t have any power.