Industry elder statesman John Bogle did not refrain from speaking his version of truth to power at a national gathering of investors, condemning the financial industry’s grip on corporate America while taking other unpopular stands in a wide-ranging keynote discussion.
“The mutual fund industry owns 35% of the stock in America,” Vanguard founder and the fund firm’s former CEO told Morningstar’s Don Phillips, in a conversation hosted by the fund research firm at its annual convention in Chicago.
“But it’s actually much more than that because the big firms run institutional money as well. So it’s probably 50% of stock. So we control corporate America,” Bogle said, adding that such power leads to abuse.
“Executive compensation is a disgrace,” he said, and the retired Vanguard CEO also criticized corporate philanthropic gifts, which he said corporations do “in their own interest,” calling for shareholder approval for such pseudo-magnanimous gestures.
Bogle said that courts, regulators, security analysts and with few exceptions the news media have all failed to tame large financial industry firms and fully subject them to their shareholders.
Quoting a passage from the New Testament, Bogle said a man cannot serve two masters. And that’s the attempt that takes place when a firm like Deutsche Bank, one example he named, say in effect “we love our investors but we’re not going to cut their fees.”
Low fees is the outspoken Vanguard founder’s biggest claim to fame, and though the index giant retains that legacy, its former CEO did not refrain from criticizing Vanguard, where he still works every day.
“Can our directors be fiduciaries and understand the workings of 160 mutual funds?” he asked. “The answer is pretty obvious you can’t do it all; you need some help. They need staffs,” Bogle said, noting that things were different when he founded the firm in the 1970s with a staff of just 28 and only one fund the team had to know.
The Pennsylvania-based firm today has 14,000 employees, so it’s impossible to know them all, but Bogle still tries, noting in passing that he went to the firm’s exhibit hall both to meet the employees there.
Bogle acknowledged that the current management of Vanguard may be frustrated with his unwillingness to “shut up”—“I just like a fight,” he said—but said that disagreement is just a part of life that human beings must “face with good humor and a smile.”
Bogle said one mutual fund executive who got on the wrong side of former New York state attorney general Eliot Spitzer approached him at a book signing, in a book in which Bogle criticized his behavior. The former exec had done some jail time, but assured Bogle in the awkward meeting that “I was a bad apple” deserving of the punishment.
Bogle was outspoken during the Spitzer prosecutions, calling for more aggressive legal approach than the lawyers and courts pursued.
“I looked at it as a conspiracy of insiders and hedge fund managers to defraud the long term owners of the fund,” he said.