There are many good things you can say about John Bogle, the founder of the Vanguard Group and a zealous proselytizer for index fund investing, who died at age 89 this week. He exposed to the masses the lie that is market timing, demonstrating that investors who didn't seek to beat stock market indexes and instead simply match them would do better in the end than those who sought a major score. But perhaps most important is this: Bogle made investing tolerable for people who don't like to invest. In this way, Bogle was the right man at the right time.
When Bogle founded the Vanguard Group in 1974, only a minority of Americans invested in the stock market. But two things changed that. First was the individual retirement account, which debuted in 1975 — the same year that Bogle introduced the first index fund for the general public. A few years later came the 401(k). Both instruments allowed Americans to invest for retirement on a tax-deferred basis. They were intended to supplement corporate pensions and Social Security. Few expected at the time that they would become a primary means of financing retirement, as corporate pensions dried up and companies sought to make workers responsible for their own post-work finances. People were all but forced to invest in the stock market.
This change is not fully positive. The 401(k) is the sort of thing that sounds democratic but, in fact, is simply another way the rich get richer while everyone else gets left behind. For all the talk of the great era of the common woman and man in investing, the top 10 percent of the population still controls 84 percent of all stock market assets. Almost half of all American households don't invest in it at all. Vanguard reports the average investor has a little more than $100,000 saved for retirement in their 401(k). Reports of an upcoming retirement crisis are released all but daily, for those who are paying attention.
But there is little question that things would be even worse for retirement savers and other investors without Bogle. Bogle’s insight wasn’t simply that index fund investing — buying into a mutual fund that seeks to mimic a broad-based stock market index like the S&P 500 — made for a better strategy. It was that these semi-forced investors craved simplicity, stability and safety. They didn’t want to score big with their retirement savings. They didn’t aspire to be special. They were fine with being average. They just wanted to keep up with the Dow Joneses. Bogle gave them that ability.
What Bogle understood better than almost anyone else is that in many cases, it's not the middle-class investor, but the financial services industrial complex, that is greedy for more. And the industry, in turn, has many, many ways of making sure that over time, it ends up with a huge chunk of its clients' assets. It pitches managed mutual funds and other investments at less-than-savvy savers that come with annual fees that sound small but eat up close to a third of the entire gain over decades of investing. At the same time, those funds, managed by superstar managers who teased they could outperform the market, rarely do so consistently over a long period of time.
Then there were the men and women working for these companies, who were what used to be brokers, rebranded themselves as financial advisers and guided their clients, who believed they were acting solely on their behalf, toward many a less-than-ideal financial instrument that benefited their own and their companies' bottom line, something that remains perfectly legal. Among the causes Bogle devoted the final years of his life to was the expansion of the idea that financial advisers need to act in the best interests of investors. He lived to see the Obama administration embrace that principle for retirement savers - and the Trump administration take it apart.
Nonetheless, Bogle’s philosophy has benefited almost every investor. Index fund investments now make for just under 30 percent of the stock market. Investment fees have decreased somewhat because, in part, of the attention he paid to them. At the same time, his popularization of index funds for the masses meant that people who turned to the stock market to save for retirement, for college or for a home no longer have to be experts on investing - all the advice they needed, as Harold Pollack put it, could fit on an index card. (Reporter bias alert: I co-wrote a book with Pollack based on the card.) Taken altogether, many Americans are richer and the financial services industry is poorer thanks to Bogle’s existence. That’s quite a legacy.
Helaine Olen is a contributor to Post Opinions and the author of “Pound Foolish: Exposing the Dark Side of the Personal Finance Industry.” Her work has appeared in Slate, the Nation, the New York Times, the Atlantic and many other publications. She serves on the advisory board of the Economic Hardship Reporting Project.