The Fearless Girl Needs To Lean In

In dollar terms, State Street's marketing gimmick failed.
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(Getty Images)

(Getty Images)

It's easy to get wrapped up in the escalating drama between Fearless Girl and Charging Bull of Wall Street. Rarely do the cultural politics of late capitalism offer us such a lose-lose conflict. Do we side with a cynical marketing ploy whose social politics, though muddled, are basically noble? Or a celebrated work borne of genuine artistic sacrifice that now carries the full symbolic weight of tedious male fragility?

Because these are your only options:

Arturo Di Modica, who sculpted the bull, wants the girl moved. He told reporters Wednesday that the girl changes the positive message of the bull sculpture, which is "a better America and a better world." His lawyer, Norman Siegel, said the girl's presence makes the bull "representational of male dominance and Wall Street" instead. Siegel called it copyright infringement, and said he's considering filing suit. [...]

Siegel also said that State Street Global Advisors, the company that installed "Fearless Girl," made money off the bull by running ads that included both sculptures, though the company has since omitted the bull.

Actually suing would be almost comically tone-deaf and petty. But we need to take a step back from the roiling gender politics of the artistic fracas and ask ourselves a deeper question. Namely, how was State Street's return on investment?

The answer is: poor.

The multitrillion-dollar bank commissioned the girl in a laudable effort to push corporate America's executive ranks to embrace a gender balance slightly better than a frat-party pregame crew or philosophy department. The centerpiece of the campaign was SHE-US – aka the SSGA Gender Diversity Index ETF – which invests in companies with an decent share of X chromosomes in their C-suites. (Though research tells us this is good for returns, SHE has trailed S&P 500 and Russell 3000 ETFs by about five points each over the last year. But that's neither here nor there.)

The Fearless Girl certainly did her job on the publicity front, attracting countless glowing headlines and gawking tourists. As a generalized feminist message to young tourists it does the trick. You can't hate on this:

But the investment fund the pigtailed statue stands for didn't do so hot. From FactSet:

ETF investors must have mustered their inner toughness, because very few opened their wallets for SHE-US. SHE’s March $3.2 million in inflows is not enough to keep pace in the hyper-competitive U.S. large cap equity ETF space. Had SHE-US grown assets as fast as the average U.S. large cap ETF, nearly $7.4 million would have flowed in this past month.

SHE-US wasn't alone. ETFs in the broader environmental, social and governance, trailed their soulless counterparts. Relative to their respective segments – large-cap equity, fixed-income, etc – do-gooder ETFs raised just 84 percent of what you'd expect based on their size last month. But SHE-US lagged behind even that.

The moral of the story is unclear. People seem to like the Fearless Girl. The city agreed to keep it up until 2018. Mayor de Blasio, referencing the Bull artist, declared that “Men who don’t like women taking up space are exactly why we need the Fearless Girl.” Yet for all that, State Street got nothing.

Yet maybe the problem wasn't that financiers ignored the symbolism of the statue. Maybe they paid it too close attention. After all, the investment thesis behind the ETF is that recruiting women to run companies isn't just good morally, but good financially. If that were the point of the Fearless Girl, then she should have been riding the bull, not standing athwart its path. She should be leaning in.

Standoff: 'Charging Bull' artist wants 'Fearless Girl' out of the way [CNNMoney]
March 2017: ETF Intelligentsia Snubbed [FactSet]

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