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A Passionate Advocate for Investors
on November 3, 2010
This book covers a lot of ground, with 35 chapters addressing seven main themes over a total of 586 pages. If you are already very familiar with John Bogle (who has written many books and delivered countless speeches addressing investment topics over a very long career in investments), then there is precious little in this book that you don't already know. However, if you are an investor who isn't quite that familiar with Bogle, then you may find this anthology of his major essays and speeches over the last decade to be a very helpful introduction to important investment-related topics of today.
Without divulging too much detail about the book, here's a relatively short guide to Bogle's topics. The seven parts of the book address:
1. Investment illusions. For example, as Bogle makes clear mutual funds taken as a whole simply cannot earn the markets' returns--because mutual funds have their own expenses. Indeed, Bogle's simple formula--net returns to investors = gross returns on assets minus the costs of operating the financial system--is pretty obvious, but one that investors tend to forget. Another illusion cited by Bogle is that mutual fund investors actually earn the returns of their funds. That is, if the XYZ mutual fund earns an average annual return of 8% over a 10-year period, chances are that XYZ's shareholders didn't achieve that 8% annual return, due to the well-documented tendency of investors to add to their investments when they feel optimistic (and markets are high) and reduce their investments when they feel pessimistic (and markets are low). Simply put, buying high and selling low reduces one's return.
2. The failure of capitalism. Bogle is actually a champion of capitalism, not some anti-capitalist critic. However, Bogle maintains that self interest and free markets alone won't necessarily guide an economy effectively. Rather, he says, there is a need for a broad fiduciary standard applicable to market participants, so that corporate managers, brokers, etc. put the interests of their shareholders and clients before themselves. (Some would argue that sufficient fiduciary standards already exist, but Bogle doesn't buy that argument.)
3. What's wrong with "mutual" funds? For starters, Bogle observes that "mutual" typically refers to an entity that's owned by its participants. In that case, only the Vanguard Group of mutual funds, Bogle maintains, is truly "mutual." Surprise, surprise--Bogle helped found the Vanguard Group.
4. What's right with indexing? Traditional indexing has taken a lot of flack in recent years, so Bogle (who helped start the indexing movement) fights back. He says the intellectual theory of indexing is not dependent on the notion of "efficient" markets, but rather on the concepts of low cost, diversification and tax efficiency. I admire Bogle as an honest and passionate advocate for investors, but I should note that not everyone will agree about the importance of the efficiency argument to the concept of indexing.
5. Entrepreneurship and innovation. I am taking more of your time than I planned, so I'll become briefer. In this part of the book, expect yet more of Bogle's characteristic idealism concerning the determinants of innovation.
6. Idealism and the new generation. Here we go again. More of Bogle's passionate arguments.
7. Heroes and mentors. We all owe a lot to those who have inspired and guided us, and here Bogle describes four men who were influential to him: Walter Morgan, Paul Samuelson, Peter Bernstein and Bernard Lown.
In conclusion, if you are an investor who is concerned about the economic and investing environment in which you participant, and if you are not already familiar with John Bogle's thoughtful commentaries on a host of relevant topics, then this book would be well worth your careful consideration.