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Vanguard Mulling Move Into Private Equity: Report

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Vanguard Group is considering the launch of private equity funds and has spoken with a few private equity firms about the plan, the Wall Street Journal reported Sunday.

Over the past year, the index fund giant has held exploratory talks with HarbourVest Partners of Boston, Pantheon of London and at least one more firm, according to the Journal. 

“We continually evaluate a range of products and services, but have no immediate plans to offer a private equity fund,” a Vanguard spokesperson said in a statement shared with CNBC over the weekend.

News that the fund giant has been exploring private equity funds comes a month after CEO Tim Buckley who took the reins from William McNabb at the end of 2017 said the firm was working on plans to give all financial advisors the ability to use its investment modeling and related technology.

This effort focuses on Vanguard’s Personal Advisor Services — which combines robo-investing and some access to its own financial professionals — and was launched four years ago.

Like Vanguard’s robo plans, the firm’s possible expansion into alternatives could be yet another sign that asset managers must find news ways to produce profits in light of decreasing fund fees and intense competition.

The fund giant’s average expense ratio is 0.11%, and it had some $5.6 trillion in assets under management worldwide as of April 30.

“I’d never say never,” Buckley said at a May press briefing, about whether Vanguard would go bigger into alternatives, the Journal reported. “In the alts space there’s some great people, and there are also some crazy strategies. We have to make sure we find the right space there.”

The PE products under consideration would likely target Vanguard’s institutional and high-net-worth advisory clients, according to the report., which said the firm currently advises institutions with $50 billion of total assets and retail clients with $130 billion.

Vanguard already provides these clients with portfolios that include some liquid but not illiquid alternatives, the Journal said.

This would not be the first time that Vanguard is considering a private equity offering.

In late 2001 Vanguard partnered with Hamilton Lane Advisors LLC, a private equity adviser based in Bala Cynwyd, Pennsylvania, to develop a fund-of-private-equity-funds for high-net-worth clients, requiring a $500,000 minimum investment that would be locked up for a minimum five years, according to Daniel Wiener, editor of The Independent Adviser for Vanguard Investors.

Vanguard planned on charging an 0.85% expense fee — 0.35% for itself and 0.50% for Hamilton Lane — plus 1% to 3% annually for each private equity fund the portfolio invested in and 20% to 30% of profits for the private equity managers.

The offering failed to attract much interest and Vanguard ended the effort in May 2002, calling it a “suspension,” according to Wiener.

“Whether Vanguard can come up with a better and more attractive offering this go-round remains to be seen,” writes Wiener. “One thing I don’t think Vanguard will be able to do is leverage its reputation as a low-cost leader when it comes to a notoriously high-cost, and typically market-lagging investment enterprise.”

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