Is Wall Street Killing America?

Wall Street’s relentless drive for short-term profit is ruining corporate America and the consumer experience, according to John Bogle, founder of the Vanguard Group. The overseer of one of the world’s largest mutual funds appeared on Bill Moyers Journal to discuss a New York Times investigation that revealed substandard care at nursing homes owned by investment firms. According to Bogle, the trend is not contained, and has dire long-term consequences:

The financial sector of our economy is the largest profit-making sector in America. Our financial services companies make more money than our energy companies — no mean profitable business in this day and age. Plus, our healthcare companies. They make almost twice as much as our technology companies, twice as much as our manufacturing companies. We’ve become a financial economy which has overwhelmed the productive economy to the detriment of investors and the detriment ultimately of our society.

From the transcript:

JOHN BOGLE: Well, let me say it very simply. The rewards of the growth in our economy comes from corporate, largely – from corporations who are a very important measure, from corporations that are providing goods and services at a fair price innovating and bringing in new technology — providing a higher quality of life for our society and they make money doing it. I mean, and the returns in business in the long run are 100 percent the dividends a corporation pays and the rate at which its earnings grow.

That still exists. But, it’s been overwhelmed by a financial economy. The financial economy, which is the way you package all these ways of financing corporations, more and more complex, more and more expensive. The financial sector of our economy is the largest profit-making sector in America. Our financial services companies make more money than our energy companies — no mean profitable business in this day and age. Plus, our healthcare companies. They make almost twice as much as our technology companies, twice as much as our manufacturing companies. We’ve become a financial economy which has overwhelmed the productive economy to the detriment of investors and the detriment ultimately of our society.

BILL MOYERS: By the financial sector, you mean?

JOHN BOGLE:Banks, money managers, insurance companies, certainly annuity providers. They’re all subtracting value from the economy. They have to subtract. To be clear on this now — I don’t want to overstate it. To be clear on this, they have to subtract some value. But, the question is–

BILL MOYERS: What do you mean they subtract some value?

JOHN BOGLE:In other words, — you’ve go to pay somebody something to provide a service. It’s just gotten totally out of hand. My estimate is that the financial sector takes $560 billion a year out of society. Five hundred and sixty billion.

BILL MOYERS: Where does it go?

JOHN BOGLE:It goes into the pockets of hedge fund managers, mutual fund managers, bankers, insurance companies. Let me give you this just one little example. If you didn’t make a $129 million last year — I’m presuming that you didn’t. You don’t rank among the highest paid 25 hedge fund managers. A $129 million doesn’t get you into the upper echelon.

Half a trillion dollars is no chump change, representing almost a quarter of the government’s entire annual operating budget.

BILL MOYERS: This seems to me to be your great concern, that this self correcting faculty that is built into both democracy and capitalism is in jeopardy?

JOHN BOGLE:Actually, I think it’s fair to say it’s in jeopardy. But there’s one sense that it’s not in jeopardy. And that is, ultimately, the system will correct. The bigger the boom, I fear, the bigger the bust. In other words, you pay the price. It’s not a self sustaining system at this kind of a level.

BILL MOYERS: Do we need new rules?

JOHN BOGLE: One thing is, I believe, to have a federal standard of fiduciary duty for money managers. They’ve come from eight percent ownership of American business to 74 percent ownership of American business. It’s staggering, over unbelievable change. Without any rules as to how they’re supposed to behave. We have state laws of proven investing and fiduciary duty and things of that nature. But they don’t seem to be working. And our founding fathers actually thought about having a federal statute– a federal corporate chartering statute. I think we probably need one because if some of the states step up and say improve their governance provisions, corporations will move to another state. So the state system I don’t think can prevail.

So a federal standard of fiduciary duty which demands that our pension trustees and our mutual fund directors make sure that those pension funds and mutual funds are operated in the prime interest of those who have entrusted their money to them. And that includes responsibility for corporate governance. And it will ultimately turn to be focused more on long term investing.

When I came into this business in the 1950’s, it was a business focused on the wisdom of long term investing. We changed in that period to a business that is focused on the folly of short term speculation. And think about this for a minute. If you’re a true investor holding a company for the long term, you’re well aware that the value in that company is company’s earnings compounded over time, developing new products and services, developing efficiencies– trying to size up the proper corporate strategy, you know, making the company more valuable. But, in the folly of short term speculation, you’re just thinking will that stock be worth more or less six months from now or a year from now?

Give you a very specific example. In the first 15 years I was in this business, the average mutual fund held the average stock for seven years. Call that long term investing. Now, the average mutual fund holds the average stock for one year. That’s short term speculation. So, if you’re a speculator, you don’t care much about ownership interest. You don’t care so much about corporate governance. Why vote a proxy, for example, if you’ll not even be holding a stock in three months?

The other part of it is,and this is really makes it a very difficult problem to solve. And that is a little about of — I guess it’s Pogo — we have met the enemy and they are us. These mutual fund companies– these management companies are now owned largely by corporate America. Or international corporations — Deutsche Bank — AXA, big international companies who have bought their way into the US financial system, which is– don’t mean to demean that. But, they own these public corporations– giant public corporations like insurance companies, big banks– foreign insurance companies and banks own 41 of the 50 largest mutual fund managers.

Now, what is the job of a corporation when they buy into a mutual fund management company? It’s to earn a return on the capital they invest in that company. It’s not to earn a return on the capital of the investors who invested with that mutual fund. Now, in fairness, they want to earn as much money as they can for the fund shareholders. But, not at their own expense.

What we’ve done is have you know, what I call in the book, a pathological mutation of capitalism from that old traditional owners’ capitalism to a new form of capitalism, which is manager’s capitalism. The evidence is quite compelling that today corporations are run in a very important way to maximize the returns of its managers at the expense of its stockholders.

BILL MOYERS: Its CEOs.

JOHN BOGLE:Its CEOs, well, the upper level of five or six top officers. And they get enormous amounts of pay for actually doing very little. I’m a businessman. Listen, we all– we chief executives get an awful lot of credit that we don’t deserve. Real work in companies is done by the people who are getting themselves together and doing the hard work of making companies grow–

BILL MOYERS: And, yet, these–

JOHN BOGLE: every day.

BILL MOYERS: These are the people who most often get laid off, right?

JOHN BOGLE:They get laid off. And, of course, the ironic part of that is they often get laid off — used to be called downsizing. But, of course, in today’s America, it’s called right sizing. They get laid off. That reduces expenses. That increases earnings and that means the CEO gets more.

Just think about the country for a minute. For an agricultural economy, 95 percent, 98 percent agricultural when this country came into existence. And even by 1850, half agricultural. Now it’s about, they moved from agricultural economy, to a manufacturing economy, to a service economy. And now to a financial service economy. And the financial service economy is what troubles me. Because it’s diverting resources from the investors to the capitalists. To the entrepreneurs. To Wall Street. To the investment bankers. The hedge fund managers. To mutual fund managers. And that is a negative to our societal values.

Where agriculture and manufacturing and services, I mean, I’m perfectly willing to give a high value, for example, to art and poetry and literature. They add value to society. It may not be easy to measure it in a society that measures too much of what’s not important. And not enough of what is important. As the sign in Einstein’s office says– “There are some things that count that can’t be counted. And some things that can be counted that don’t count.”

Straight from a pillar of the financial sector: a relentless focus on profit ultimately erodes value. We have long argued that improving the customer experience benefits the bottom line. Apparently, it also benefits society.

Transcript – September 28, 2007 [PBS]
Watch The Interview [PBS]