EVERY once in a while, if only for sanity’s sake, it is wise to leave our bankrupt era behind and seek out a bit of wisdom from a moral authority. It’s a challenging exercise, given that so many formerly stellar reputations are now shipwrecked and that all those once-smart guys and gals have been reduced to bull-market geniuses.
And yet there are a few voices of reason and integrity left in this upside-down world. One is John C. Bogle’s. He is the founder of the Vanguard Group, an author and an investor advocate. With almost 58 years in the money management business, Mr. Bogle has kept his reputation intact. That alone sets him apart.
But Mr. Bogle is also worth talking to because he is a thinker, a sort of financial philosopher. And earlier this month he lectured at Columbia University about, not surprisingly, the financial crisis and its causes. What he said was illuminating.
In his talk, he cited the usual suspects: borrowers, lenders, securitizers, regulators and Wall Street traders. But he also identified one group that hasn’t been singled out for shame: the institutional money managers that allowed the nation’s financial companies to amass enormous risks on their balance sheets and pay gigantic compensation based on false profits. The big funds let this happen without uttering a word.
“When I read the causes of the recent unpleasantness, I haven’t seen one single person who has said that the owners of these corporations, including the banking corporations, didn’t seem to give a damn about how they were being run,” Mr. Bogle said in an interview last week. “We own all this stock but we pretty much do nothing.”
That “we” he talks about really refers to those in charge of our retirement accounts, pensions and savings: mutual funds and professional money management firms that, as institutional investors, control 70 percent of the shares of large public companies today.