Transparency is a fancy word you hear a lot when it comes to corporations and government, but it just means being clear with people. Say what you do, then do what you say.
It couldn’t be simpler, but nothing is simple once money is involved. And the more money at stake, it seems, the less transparency there is.
John Bogle, the founder of investing giant Vanguard and a proponent of investment transparency for decades, addressed the issue of retirement investing fairness recently at the launch of the Campaign for Investors.
He spoke just as the U.S. Labor Department enacted the new fiduciary rule that requires investment fee transparency from retirement advisors.
Rebalance Managing Director Scott Puritz, my partner in the firm, joined Bogle and other industry leaders at the event and shared the stage with Bogle himself.
“Fiduciary,” of course, is another complicated word people like to argue about. To me, it’s simple: Say what you do and do what you say.
Unfortunately, most people investing for retirement with a stock broker have no clue what’s going on in their own accounts. It’s hard to understand because it’s often never explained. It’s mentioned in the fine print, sure, but not explained.
This is not by accident. It’s by design. “In our own experience, four out of five of our clients who come over from broker dealers had absolutely no idea what they were paying,” Puritz says.
“And when they were made aware of what they were paying in terms of the second-level fees and the fund-level fees — and they weren’t paying 1%, they were paying 2.5% — they effectuated change and become much more demanding consumers instantaneously. It was really about education and awareness tied to disclosure.”
I know my partner was thrilled to join Bogle onstage at the event, as were we all when Bogle brought up one of my own columns celebrating that his message of transparency and fair pricing was finally taking hold.
Not many years ago, the investment industry laughed off index funds as ineffective. How wrong they were!
“Jack Bogle, as he’s known, is just one of my life heroes, many folks’ life heroes. He’s in his 80s but has an incredible vibrancy, searing intellect, personal charisma and an unwavering commitment to the American investor,” Puritz says.
Bogle, reflecting on all these years of making the case for low-cost investing, was equally thrilled to see the fiduciary standard finally become the law of the land. “I’ve been seeking such a rule, arguably, since I wrote my senior thesis at Princeton University 65 years ago,” he told the assembled crowd.
Stay the course, press on
The result of that initial insight as a college student was Vanguard. He founded the company in 1974. Today it manages more than $3.4 trillion in assets for millions upon millions of retirement savers and investors.
Consider that stretch of time, from the mid-1970s to today. How much has changed? How fantastically different will the future be for our children and grandchildren? Given what’s at stake, it’s astounding that high-fee, high-cost investing has been allowed to keep its choke-hold on the retirements of so many Americans for so long.
Yet Bogle has soldiered on, confident that sunlight is the best disinfectant, that transparency wins in the end and that the fiduciary rule is here to say. As Puritz notes, once you make clear to people what they really pay and how much it hurts them financially, the cry for change becomes deafening.
As Bogle told the audience: “So fight on, it’s worth it, stay the course and press on regardless.” We could not agree more.