PHILADELPHIA -- Jack Bogle, the founder of Vanguard, fired off last year about the presidential race, saying "Donald Trump and I are kind of antithetical." Bogle wrote a book called Enough, about how readers should consider financial success in light of larger personal success. Meanwhile, Never Enough is the title of a biography of Donald Trump by Michael D'Antonio.
But at this year's Bogleheads meetup -- a gathering of Bogle admirers who get together to talk about index funds and visit the Vanguard headquarters -- "the T-word" was banned as a topic by the moderators. (And a few attendees wore pins saying "Jack Bogle for President" -- a prize from a prior Bogleheads meetup.)
Bogle still had plenty of opportunity to skewer other financial companies, however, and to lay out his solutions for what he called a retirement crisis.
The Wells Fargo Scandal
Wells Fargo (WFC) is being raked over the coals by Congress after it created bank and credit accounts without customer authorization. The scandal is tainting Wells Fargo's reputation; the bank was previously seen as quite ethical.
Bogle, a crusader for little-guy investors, talked about the scandal in a speech and question-and-answer session at the Bogleheads meeting Thursday.
Bogle said that, when he started out at Vanguard, "I did my best to disrupt an industry that was sadly in need of disruption." The unique mutual ownership structure of Vanguard -- in which shareholders are actually the owners of the funds -- incentivizes lower and lower fees. Bogle said that Vanguard has grown to hold $3.5 trillion in assets, and its funds comprise 22.8% of the mutual fund industry.
But, Bogle said that in the larger investing industry, "expense ratios haven't gone down the way you'd think they'd go down" with economies of scale. Instead, the other mutual fund companies have "taken all the economies of scale and have arrogated them to their own benefit." It's a "terrible flaw" of the industry, he said. "No man can serve two masters," he quoted from the Bible. In his view, mutual fund companies that operate for profit can't also fully serve the interests of investors.
The Wells Fargo scandal highlights "the role of integrity," Bogle said. Wells Fargo's employees were rewarded for creating new accounts, and 5,300 of those employees were fired for creating an estimated 2 million accounts without customer authorization. Wells Fargo's CEO John Stumpf has forefeited $41 million in unvested stock awards over the scandal, and he says he is abolishing the sales targets as of Oct. 1.
Bogle condemned the idea that financial institutions should reward creating new accounts. When he started Vanguard, he said, "We didn't have any incentives for selling more."
"I can't imagine anything that's more idiotic, that's more cutting to your integrity," he said.
The Retirement Crisis
In a question-and-answer session, Bogle was asked if there is a retirement crisis. "No, not at all -- there are three," he said.
The first crisis is in Social Security, he said. It's underfunded. Although fixing the shortfall is a "politically sensitive" task, Bogle called for an increase in the level of income that is taxed for Social Security. Currently, the first $118,500 earned by a taxpayer is taxed at 6.2% to pay for Social Security; any earnings above $118,500 are not taxed for Social Security. Bogle said that if the first $150,000 of income were taxed instead, that would go a long way toward solving the shortfall.
"We're all -- or at least I am -- living far longer than our expectations," Bogle said, and it's essential to support Social Security.
The second crisis Bogle identified is in pension funds. Both corporate and state and local pension funds have serious shortfalls, he said. "They're 35% behind the eight-ball," he commented, referring to the magnitude of the average shortfall.
Pension funds are making wrong assumptions, he said: "They're idiotically assuming they'll get a 7% or 8% return" on their assets, he said. But those returns are probably unrealistically optimistic.
Why are pensions underfunded? "Corporations are very stingy," Bogle said. They're unwilling to pay enough into the funds to fix the problem, he said.
And "state and local pensions are really in a bind" because they are constitutionally required to pay what they've promised, Bogle pointed out. "If there's no money left in the till, there's no money to pay the benefits," he said. "They're skating on thin ice," because states and municipalities will need to raise taxes to pay their bills. And nobody likes that.
The third crisis is in defined contribution plans -- like 401(k)s. "That's the worst problem of all," Bogle declared. "The teachers in this country are victimized by this."
Bogle said such plans are afflicted by high fees on the funds and large commissions paid to salespeople. "That's just not right," Bogle said. "That's where the fiduciary standard may help."
New regulations from the Obama administration and a Supreme Court decision have recently supported a fiduciary standard for these kind of plans, meaning that financial advisors will need to recommend plans that put investors' interests first.
"That's the death knell for high-cost plans right there," Bogle said. "Indeed, I would -- in my tough way -- say if you touch a penny of other people's money, you have to put their interests first."
"It's a question of morality," Bogle said.
Oh, and one other thing -- "People aren't putting money away" to have enough in their retirement accounts either, Bogle said.
Bogle on Hamilton
Bogle doesn't just work. (He's at least nominally retired, but he seems busier than ever.) Even he has fun sometimes.
Somehow Bogle managed to see Hamilton, the smash Broadway musical about the first Secretary of the Treasury, while Lin-Manuel Miranda was in the cast.
Bogle said he admired Miranda and has been thinking about something he said at the White House in 2009. Then, Miranda described the musical that he was writing. He said he admired Hamilton's remarkable rise from an illegitimate birth in the West Indies to become a founding father of the U.S. How did he do it? "All on the strength of his writing," Miranda said of Hamilton. "I think he embodies the word's ability to make a difference."
Bogle, who has written prolifically for a popular and academic audience, and who still pugnaciously defends index funds, also believes in the power of writing to change minds.
"If you're a missionary and have missionary zeal," you can go far, he said. "We investors are pretty stupid as a group" and love chasing returns. But with some discipline and a commitment to low fees, Bogle argued, investors can succeed. His Bogle on Mutual Funds was updated and rereleased in 2015 to help push investors toward lower-fee options. He's still preaching the same message as when the book was released more than 20 years ago.
Bogle on Bogle
Bogle mentioned that both billionaire Warren Buffett of Berkshire Hathaway (BRK.A) (BRK.B) and Yale Chief Investment Officer David Swensen have supported his indexing and low-cost strategies. Buffett will leave 90% of his wife's inheritance in Vanguard index funds. And Swensen has recommended index funds, and Vanguard in particular, for investors.
"If I've got Swensen and Buffett on my side.... who can be against us?" Bogle asked.
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