By Ralph Nader
January 24, 2019
The accolades were uniformly respectful for the honest, innovative, and unyielding defender of shareholder/investor rights – the late John C. Bogle – the founder of the now giant Vanguard Group of mutual funds. Writers took note of his pioneering low-cost, low-fee investing and mutual funds tied to stock-market indices. Index funds, tied to such indices as the S&P 500, now total trillions of dollars.
Bogle abhorred gouging by the money managers. He would add up their fees – seemingly small at less than 1% a year – and show how over time they could cut the cumulative return by 50% or more. That’s why he set up Vanguard in 1974, which by holding down costs and fees has begun to push the rest of the smug industry to be more reasonable. Vanguard now has over $5 trillion in managed assets.
He could have become as rich as Edward Johnson III– his counterpart at Fidelity Investments, who is worth over $7 billion. Instead, Bogle organized Vanguard as a mutual firm, not a stock firm, owned by its investors. Bogle’s fortune, at the time of his passing last week, was estimated at $80 million after a lifetime of giving away half of his annual adjusted gross income to charitable and educational groups.
In the admiring words of Warren Buffett, Bogle’s work “helped millions of investors realize far better returns on their savings than they otherwise would have earned. He is a hero to them and to me.”
The Philadelphia Inquirer described the Malvern, Pennsylvania-based local giant of the investing world as “motivated by a mix of pragmatism and idealism. Mr. Bogle was regarded by friends and foes alike as the conscience of the industry and the sheriff of Wall Street.” It was hard to be his foe. Bogle, a father of six children, was calm, gregarious, and amicable. He connected his irrefutable rhetoric with unassailable evidence. He was Mr. Fair Play, the go-to wise man for his judgment on whether the torrent of financial services and offerings were, as he put it, “all hat and no cattle.” He unraveled the sweet talk and complex camouflage of the financial services industry with analytic precision and explained it with clear language.
He would call out the corporatists whenever he saw “rank speculation” reckless debt, “obscene” executive pay, or the disgraceful, unearned golden parachutes handed to bosses who tanked their own companies. For Bogle, there were serious economic differences between “speculation” and “investment” with “other peoples’ money.”
His admirers were so numerous they organized themselves as “Bogleheads,” two of whom wrote the book The Bogleheads ‘Guide to Investing. Right up to his passing at the age of 89, after surviving 6 heart attacks and a heart transplant, Bogle, was still humble, approachable, and writing memorable articles.
He was responsive and kind. In May and September of 2016, we held 4 days of the Super Bowl of civic activities in Washington, D.C. I invited Mr. Bogle to speak on the topic of “Fiduciary Duties as if Shareholders Mattered.” His voice sounded weary from being over scheduled and other responsibilities. Yet he said “yes, I’ll take the train down from Philadelphia.” (You can watch his presentation here).
We were fellow Princetonians and he often told me about his 1951 Princeton senior thesis where he laid the basis for his career emphasizing a “reduction of sales loads and management fees.”
His family business – American Can – crashed in the Depression, so he grew up poor, working as a newspaper delivery boy, waiter, ticket seller, mail clerk, cub reporter and a pinsetter in a bowling alley, and as he described “growing up the best possible way.” The cheerful champion of the fiduciary rule between sellers of financial advice and their client pension funds, insurance policyholders and other buyers/investors wanted fiduciary responsibility to be the law, not just a principle. He urged the large institutional investors – mutual, pension and university endowment funds – to end their passivity and exercise their ownership rights as shareholders in giant companies (Exxon/Mobile, Bank of America, Pfizer, GM etc.), including specifically challenging their political activities and campaign contributions.
Ever the contrarian, in a November 29, 2018 Wall Street Journal article, Bogle warned about the index mutual funds – an industry he started – having too much power! The big three – Vanguard, Black Rock, and State Street Global dominate the field with a collective 81% share of index fund assets. He wrote: “if historical trends continue, a handful of giant institutional investors will one day hold voting control of virtually every large U.S corporation… I do not believe that such concentration would serve the national interest.”
Rick Stengel, former managing editor of Time magazine and former president of the National Constitution Center, when Jack Bogle was the Board chair, described him as “the last honorable man, a complete straight-shooter.” In his 2008 book, Enough: True Measures of Money, Business and Life, Bogle ranged far beyond index funds and shareholders.
The Philadelphia Inquirer put it well: he was “less interested in counting than in what counts. … He revered language, history, poetry, and classical wisdom, and frequently amazed and delighted people by reciting long passages of verse …a social critic, civic leader, mentor, and philanthropist.” He was also very courteous – striving to return calls and respond to letters, which makes him unique these days.
A devoted father and husband, Jack Bogle declared that the “essential message is, stop focusing on self and start thinking about service to others.”
Now is the time for his family, friends, and Bogleheads to plan a series of living memorials to this great and resourceful man, so that his legacy is more than a memory but an ongoing foray into the future that he so fervently wanted to become realities.