Monday, March 24, 2008

Commercial Honor, Equitable Principles, Fair Dealings

John Bogle, chairman of Vangaurd, recently gave a speech to the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority about the declining ethics in the mutual fund industry.

This morning, I’ll focus on investor protection in the mutual fund industry, discussing what can be done to assure that fund investors get a fair shake, or, as I wrote in my senior thesis at Princeton University almost 57 years ago, that “mutual funds must be operated in the most efficient, economical, and honest way possible.” It was that thesis that opened the door to my first job in this industry, and I’ve been with the same firm ever since, although it has changed greatly.1 That was a pretty good characterization of how the industry worked in 1951. But it is with regret that I report to you that the ethos of today’s mutual fund industry—with some, but not nearly enough, exceptions—has moved away from those principles. I am a tough critic of today’s fund industry, but acknowledge that my views are not widely shared by my industry colleagues. Indeed, one veteran industry leader has stated that “Mr. Bogle’s view of ethics may be somewhat outside the mainstream.” He was, of course, quite right.

To set the stage for my remarks, I’ve chosen as my title the three central standards of the NASD Rules of Fair Practice: “a member, in the conduct of its business, shall observe high standards of commercial honor and just and equitable principles of trade,” and shall engage in “fair dealing with investors.” With these principles in mind, let me discuss how they relate to the mutual fund industry, which has changed in so many fundamental ways.

  • A new mission. We’ve moved our central mission from stewardship to salesmanship, and our core value from managing assets to gathering assets. We have become far less of a management industry and far more of a marketing industry, engaging in a furious orgy of “product proliferation” that has ill-served our investors. Once an industry that “sold what we made,” our new motto has become “if we can sell it, we will make it.” For example, right at the peak of the late, great bull market, we created 494 new “aggressive growth” funds, investing largely in technology and telecommunication stocks. The consequences for our investors were devastating.
  • Our funds, once broadly diversified, became largely specialized. In 1951, almost 80 percent of all stock funds (60 of 75) were broadly diversified among investment-grade “blue-chip” stocks, pretty much tracking the movements of the stock market itself, and lagging its returns only by the amount of their then-modest operating costs. Today, our total of 512 “large-cap blend funds” account for only 11 percent of all stock funds. These “market beta” funds are now vastly outnumbered by 4200 more specialized funds—3,100 U.S. equity funds diversified in other styles; 400 funds narrowly-diversified in various market sectors; and 700 funds investing in international equities, some broadly diversified, some investing in specific countries. The challenge in picking funds, dare I say, has become roughly akin to the challenge in picking individual stocks. I don’t regard that change as progress
  • The wisdom of long-term investing has given way to the folly of short-term speculation. In 1951, a mutual fund held the average stock in its portfolio for about six years—investing. Today, the average holding period for a stock in an equity fund portfolio is just over one year—speculation. Neither is that change progress.
  • We’ve discouraged long-term investors. With the substantial differences in short-term returns that inevitably occur among these different fund styles, investors have come to chase past performance. In 1951, most fund investors just picked funds and held them—on average, for about 16 years. Today, investors trade their funds, now holding the typical fund in their portfolios for a period of only about four years. A negative reversal with unfortunate consequences for our clients.
  • The ethos of fund managers has changed. Once dominated entirely by small, privately-owned firms and operated by professional investors, the industry is now dominated by giant, publicly-owned firms, largely operated by businessmen bereft of investment experience. Today, 41 of the 50 largest fund managers are publicly-held, including 35 owned by giant U.S. and international financial conglomerates. Small wonder that these firms are all too eager to focus on maximizing the return on their own capital invested in the fund management companies they own, rather than focusing on maximizing the return on the capital they are investing for fund shareholders. Another compelling negative for our clients.


Together, this disgraceful conduct represents a sorry chapter in this industry history. But I know of no easy way to regulate or legislate a return to our industry’s traditional values. Competition, in fact, is driving us in quite the opposite direction. As long as our industry participants—our fund managers and marketers, our brokerage firm account executives, and our financial advisers—have more information at hand than their clients possibly could—the economists call this information asymmetry—a largely unaware investment public will be inadequately informed. Regulations calling for more complete disclosure would be a huge help in protecting investors from their own naiveté and lack of information.

Also interesting:

One of the great unexplained curiosities of the mutual fund industry is its unwillingness to call attention to the vital role of investment income in shaping the returns on equities. Theory tells us, and experience confirms, that dividend yields play a crucial role in shaping stock market returns. In fact, the dividend yield on stocks has accounted for almost one-half of their total long-term return. Of the 9.6 percent nominal total return earned by stocks over the past century, fully 9½ percent has been contributed by investment return—4 ½ percent by dividend yields and 5 percent from earnings growth. (The remaining 0.1 percent resulted from an 80 percent increase in the price-earnings ratio, from 10 at the start of the century to 18 at the end, amortized over the long period. I describe changes in the P-E ratio as speculative return.)

No comments: