John Bogle

Bogle Calls for Federation of Long-Term Investors

John Bogle

Like Woodrow Wilson laying out his vision of a League of Nations after World War I, Vanguard founder John C. Bogle has called for a "Federation of Long-Term Investors" in the wake of the late 1990s speculative bubble, Enron, and a crisis in American corporate governance. In a Valentine's Day speech to the New York Society of Security Analysts, Bogle made an eloquent plea for the mutual fund industry, which controls roughly $7.5 trillion or 52% of the total market capitalization of the stock market, to break its silence and speak out to encourage good governance best practices.

In his trademark pull-no-punches style, Bogle referenced cold facts and hard numbers in his argument that Main Street's current lack of faith in the integrity of Wall Street is due to a pervasiveness of greed, a breakdown in morals and character, and countless conflicts of interest.

"In its failure, it [Enron] illustrates nearly all of the central points I have illustrated today - improper financial reporting, opaque financial statements, hidden liabilities, aggressive earnings guidance, grossly excessive executive compensation, happy co-conspirators, and the tragic collapse of its employee savings plan," said Bogle. "Enron is, above all, a failure of corporate governance."

Amidst tough talk in hearings in Congress and angry headlines, little is actually being done as far as taking concrete steps to clear up the conflicts of interest that led to the current state of affairs. Bogle, whose revolutionary index fund concept for retail investors was largely scoffed at in the 1970s, has outlined the idealistic yet realistic first steps toward a solution.

Two years ago while addressing the same body, Bogle asked the mutual fund industry to unite and exert its considerable influence to take up corporate governance issues. Call it skepticism, but since then Bogle has reduced his expectations and is calling to arms specifically "passive managers," or the large fund shops that offer index funds. According to Bogle, the seven largest passive managers hold $1.4 trillion of U.S. corporate stocks, or nearly 10% of all stock outstanding. For the time being, Bogle says active managers don't qualify for his Federation of Long-Term investors because "the fund industry has helped create the over-heated financial environment of the recent era."

Bogle points out that in the last year, one of every ten equity funds turned its portfolio over at an annual rate in excess of 200%; four of every ten funds at a rate of more than 100%, and only one in eight at a rate of less than 25%.

"Even equity mutual funds got the bull market religion, reducing their cash reserve positions from a nervous 12% of assets when the bull market began in 1982 to an exuberant 3.5% at the high in March 2000," said Bogle.

According to Bogle, active funds run by trigger-happy managers have no real incentive to cool the speculative fever and spectacular short-term gains that can only lead to a meltdown like we are witnessing now. "We have met the enemy, and they are us," said Bogle of the mutual fund industry. However, Bogle did point to the Capital Group and S&P 500 index thumper Bill Miller of the $9.8 billion Legg Mason Value Trust as potential allies of the Federation.

"There must be other Bill Millers out there who care about restoring the integrity of our financial markets, and perhaps our Federation of Long-Term Investors will gradually grow to represent ownership of perhaps 25% or more of the shares of America's corporations - no, not yet a fully-grown 800-pound gorilla, but a strapping young 400-pounder, who will grow bigger with each passing year," said Bogle.

Although Bogle's proposed spirit of cooperation is a noble idea, only time will tell if it is put into practice. The world of passive index investing seems like it should be a tranquil place, but of course it is a business and competition for assets is fierce. For example, the relationship between index provider Standard & Poor's and Bogle's Vanguard seems like such a natural fit, yet it turned ugly when S&P sued Vanguard over a licensing agreement dispute. No doubt, executives at State Street Global Advisors and Barclays Global Investors (two members of Bogle's proposed Federation) toasted the court ruling that prevented Vanguard from launching competitor ETFs based on S&P's 500 index and other benchmarks. Putting the legal battle aside, Bogle did offer an olive branch in praising S&P for calling for a uniform earnings reporting system.

One hopes passive managers will come together for the greater good and collectively harness their growing influence. However, history tells us that the post-bubble outcry, although loud, is often quickly forgotten. Also, it wouldn't be the first time the mutual fund industry ignored the wisdom of perhaps its greatest advocate of the small individual investor. Woodrow Wilson's concept of a League of Nations was ultimately rejected, and it took another world war for the United Nations to be born. Perhaps this latest speculative bubble and resultant stock plunge, combined with the jolt of Enron, will sufficiently demonstrate that the mutual fund industry can't afford to remain silent anymore.