Investors Will Demand More Firms Like Vanguard, Bogle Predicts
May 19, 2003
What better pairing than two individuals who like to stir things up? Outspoken industry pundit Roy Weitz, publisher of FundAlarm.com, recently weighed in on some of the pressures facing the mutual fund industry with Jack Bogle, founder and former chairman of Vanguard and a notoriously outspoken defender of the investor.
Weitz: I think it's fair to say that you were the star of the recent Congressional hearings. But I think it's also fair to say that sometimes these hearings are used to score political points and for grandstanding.
Bogle: I think Chairman Oxley's and Chairman Baker's motives are the right motives, and the position put forth by the ICI seemed fairly weak.
We may think we've done a good job for investors. But, as I testified, the reality is in the last 20 years, the market has gone up at a 13% average annual rate, while the average mutual fund has returned 10%, and the average mutual fund investor's profits have increased an average of 2% a year.
A dollar in the market would have brought you a profit of $10.50, but the average fund investor would have realized a profit of 50 cents.
There's all this talk about the fund industry never having had a major scandal. You know, if that's not a major scandal I wouldn't know what was.
Weitz: How did the ICI respond to your comments?
Bogle: As far as I can recall, they made no response. They also made no response when I made probably my single most important recommendation, which is to separate the office of fund chairman and management company chairman, to make sure that the fund directors have a leader who's not basically on the other side of the table. To quote Warren Buffett's wonderful comment, "Negotiating with oneself seldom produces a barroom brawl."
Weitz: In your statement to the Congressional committee, you said that fund directors need to be "empowered" to negotiate lower management fees. What do you mean by empowered?
Bogle: Well, if I used the word "empowered," it might be an ill-chosen word. Fund directors have the power to do anything they wish. They have awesome power.
Weitz: In your Congressional testimony you also call for the disclosure of all mutual fund transaction costs, including commissions, market spreads, and market impact costs. The latter two, spreads and impact costs, are especially difficult to pin down, so you suggested that rough estimates would be necessary. Do we really want to encourage the fund companies to give rough estimates of anything?
Bogle: No. But I don't think we can do any better. Rough disclosure, call it rough justice, is better than no justice at all.
Weitz: So if this kind of disclosure were to go forward, it would be acknowledged as an experiment?
Bogle: Yes. But let me say further, I'm not sure that there isn't a little credibility gap here. If a fund manager told me as a fund shareholder that he had no idea what his transaction costs were, I would move my money to another fund.
Weitz: So you're suggesting that fund managers know these costs already?
Bogle: Right. There are already firms that analyze these numbers, so presumably the boards of directors of the funds already get them. And I make no argument there is perfect accounting for transaction costs. It's a very elusive area, but we owe it to shareholders to do the best we can.
Weitz: As estimates, it seems that those numbers could be shot down quite easily, and therefore might lose their impact. Is that something that concerns you?
Bogle: Well, let me ask you a simple question. How many numbers in IBM's audited financial statements are other than estimates? Appreciable life, debt chargeoffs, bad debts, useful life of a computer. Almost everything is an estimate, if you think about it.
Weitz: Just after the Enron and Tyco scandals broke, there was some indication that you and a couple of other industry leaders, specifically Bill Miller and Chris Davis, were going to try to become the conscience of the fund industry. You even had a meeting, or a couple of meetings, but nothing seems to have come of that effort. Can you tell us where that effort stands?
Bogle: The idea was to form what I called a Federation of Long-Term Investors. We got about eight of the biggest firms in the industry together, some of them indexers. Our idea was to develop a set of benchmarks. But when the New York Stock Exchange and Nasdaq developed a set of best practices and the Conference Board Commission on Public Trust and Private Enterprise was established, it occurred to me that we didn't really need another set of best practices.
Weitz: If you had forged ahead with the Federation of Long-Term Investors, what would your primary focus have been?