Bogle on the Financial Sector’s Threat to Democracy – Brian Klepper

Some years back I was mortified to realize that it would be all-but-impossible to fix health care without first fixing America’s patronage system, that puts virtually all policy up for sale to the highest bidder. In 2006, American corporations spent $2.5 billion lobbying Congress, nearly $5 million per Senator and Congressional representative. More than $350 million of that figure came from the health care sector, and half of that ($180 million) came came from the drug, device and supply industries. All this information is handily cataloged at the excellent site,

A couple weeks ago I published a letter in the New York Times – yes, I was astounded too – arguing that we won’t have health care reform until the leaders of the non-health care business community come together and roll over the health care industry.

Now, the always astute Greg Pawelski brought my attention to a superb Bill Moyers presentation, describing a parallel problem. America’s financial sector leverages its strength to take huge amounts of capital out of the system, without providing much in the way of value. The message is delivered by John Bogle, who created The Vanguard Group. Here’s the background:John Bogle, 77, created The Vanguard Group, Inc., in 1974, which today
is one of the two largest mutual fund organizations in the world, and
was was the first index mutual fund. He retired as Chairman and Chief
Executive Officer of the fund in 1996, yet remained Senior Chairman
until 2000.

Bogle explains the broader implications of The Carlyle Group’s buyout of Manor Care Nursing Homes. More and more, Wall Street is taking control of corporations, making Main Street pay the price, and making health care less attainable. The financial sector – banks, money managers, insurance companies, and certainly annuity providers – takes $560 billion a year out of society. They all subtract value from the economy.

Read Mr. Bogle’s recent article in DAEDALUS, "Democracy in Corporate America."

Take the time to watch this worthwhile piece and possibly to read Mr. Bogle’s lucid article. All the stuff we talk about on this and related sites are moot unless we understand and ultimately address these deep cancers on our system.

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9 replies »

  1. I’m with Bogle. You can’t let Wall Street off by saying “well, someone has to allocate capital and risk, and they’ve done a good job of providing efficient, transparent markets.” That’s not even true: there was a front-page article in the Wall Street Journal yesterday about how transparency and efficiency have declined dramatically due to hedge funds taking large positions in thinly-traded, enormously complex derivatives that are basically impossible to value. All the major investment banks have been writing down tens of billions of dollars of these securities over the last few weeks precisely because they turned out to be worth much less than all those Ivy League MBA’s expected. That’s pure greed in action, and a disgusting willingness to play roulette with investors’ money.

  2. History will show whether Alan is correct in the long term, but I believe his motive in writing the book is to secure his legacy which is already being criticized.
    And then there is Warren Buffett, who estimated about 7 years ago that “investors are dissipating almost a third of everything that the Fortune 500 is earning for them… handing it over to various types of chair-changing and chair-advisory ‘helpers’. (A chair is a stock position)….. And none of the damage I’ve described so far counts the…..myriad other charges that the ‘helpers’ manage to think up.”
    He calls these “frictional costs.”
    Those numbers may have changed somewhat since, due to competition among ‘helpers’ for the investor’s fee dollar, but this is not providing “value” to the economy.

  3. Bev,
    There are occasional excesses in every field. In the financial sector, the recent market turmoil related to securities backed by sub-prime mortgages was not exactly our finest hour. There are also some aspects of the hedge fund and private equity businesses that need attention, especially related to the tax treatment of partners’ profits. However, to suggest that the finance, banking and insurance businesses take $560 billion out of society each year as though they add no value whatsoever is outrageous and unfair. It is equally unfair to suggest that all corporate executives are crooks because of the actions of a few bad apples an Enron, Worldcom and Tyco. Or, if some doctors enrich themselves by sending patients for unnecessary tests to labs or imaging centers that they own or have a financial interest in, it doesn’t mean that all doctors are greedy moneygrubbers who put their own financial interests first.
    I didn’t mean to suggest that the financial sector is perfect or doesn’t have room for improvement. Certain pieces of it may indeed charge fees that exceed the value delivered to clients. Overall, however, I think banks, insurers and other financial firms add enormous value to our economy. Indeed, no less a luminary that former Federal Reserve Board Chairman, Alan Greenspan, suggests in his book that many of the financial instruments and capital market improvements made over just the last 25 years made the entire global economy more resilient and less cyclical than it was historically before that.

  4. Yes, Barry, I have a lot of respect for you, but I think you’re wrong this time. I know it’s hard for your own industry to be attacked, but join the club, I’m in it too! I’m no business major, but the WSJ tells me that the very reason for the recent credit crunch was that the finance gurus created instruments so complex, that NOBODY knew how to value them, including the rating agencies or the people who created them.
    Bogle has been around a long time. I think you should think carefully about what he has to say. On my basic level, I have had the same thoughts for some time now while watching the rich-poor gap steadily widen – he just articulated those thoughts and gave them some credence. I am sure there are lots of other citizens who share this opinion.

  5. JOHN BOGLE: …ultimately, the job of capitalism is to serve the consumer. Serve the citizenry. You’re allowed to make a profit for that. But, you’ve got to provide good products and services at fair prices. And that’s… what businesses do in the long term.
    But, in the short term, there’s all these financial machinations in which people can get very rich in a very short period of time by creating highly complex financial instruments, providing services that can be cut back easily… not measuring up to basically their duty.
    We all know that in professions, the idea has been service to the client before service to self. That’s what a profession is. That’s what medicine was. That’s what accountancy was. That’s what attorneys used to be. That’s what trusteeship used to be inside the mutual fund industry.
    But, we’ve moved from that to a big capital accumulation – self interest -­ creating wealth for the providers of these services when the providers of these services are in fact subtracting value from society. So, it doesn’t work.
    My estimate is that the financial sector takes $560 billion a year out of society… it’s going straight into the pockets of the top 1 percent, or the top 1/10th of a percent…those are the people who alreay have all the money in this country but just can’t get enough; and they get it by taking it from nursing homes, or taking it from our soldiers in Iraq or from airline employees, or wherever.
    The issue is not GREED. It is way much beyond GREED.

  6. Barry, I’m sympathetic to your rejoinder generally, but reflect that one man’s ‘vibrant’ housing market is another man’s “predicated on a thin tissue of ‘irrationally exuberant’ credit’ chicanery….
    of greater concern is you assertion that “the system would break down” if “there was nobody trying to value individual securities to determine at what price they should sell.” What you’re staring at in the relatively rudimentary form of NASDAQ is the proof that the well-paid financial intermediaries you defend may have served a necessary function, but are becoming less & less necessary with each passing day.
    Bogle, the man who practically invented low-fee mutual fund investing, is not straying far from his career-long mantra here. You’re correct that 1% is not a very large number, in the grand scheme of things; but $560 billion is real money, and Bogle might counter that given the ‘services rendered’ for the money, wildly over-generous.

  7. The financial sector – banks, money managers, insurance companies, and certainly annuity providers – takes $560 billion a year out of society. They all subtract value from the economy.
    While I have a lot of respect for both John Bogle and Vanguard, I strongly disagree with the statement above. The financial sector performs two key functions in our economy – capital allocation and risk transfer.
    Capital allocation is accomplished by lots of smart people evaluating stocks, bonds and other investments. Prospects are assessed and judgments are made as to where they should sell in the marketplace in order to provide investors with an appropriate risk adjusted return on their capital. The public can, in effect, free ride on this process by placing their savings earmarked for equities or bonds into an index fund that will capture the benchmark return (or very close to it) for a low management fee compared to fees charged by actively managed equity and bond funds. This works fine as long as enough money remains actively managed in order to insure that the capital allocation process works properly. Suppose everyone tried to buy an index fund and there was nobody trying to value individual securities to determine at what price they should sell. The system would break down. Or, suppose there were no such thing as a home mortgage. How vibrant do you think the housing market would be? Not very.
    With respect to risk transfer, we are talking about everything from auto, homeowner, health, disability and life insurance to product liability insurance to interest rate swaps to credit default swaps to futures markets. There are a whole host of risks that both individuals and businesses are subject to that they would like to insure against or transfer to someone else better able and more willing to take them on (for a price).
    The total value of both financial and real assets in our economy is about 4 times GDP or $50-$60 trillion. I don’t know where Bogle got the $560 billion figure that the financial sector “takes out of society,” or what it includes but, assuming it’s accurate, it amounts to roughly 1% of the society’s aggregate assets. For the risk transfer functions it provides and for providing the broadest, deepest, most liquid, most efficient and most transparent capital markets in the world, 1% is reasonable compensation, in my opinion. Could the system be even more efficient than it is? Yes, there is room for improvement just like in every other area of economic activity.

  8. Bogle interview is, indeed, very interesting. Thanks for bringing it to our attention.

  9. “America’s financial sector leverages its strength to take huge amounts of capital out of the system, without providing much in the way of value.”
    This economic model of profit over value, I assert, is the basis for the American healthcare payment system. As you have said in the past, Brian, delivering value (cost-effective) care is the path to financial ruin.
    My latest blog post– “Think Small and Don’t Rock the Boat”–discusses two recent articles about the demise of consumer-centric RHIOs due to the lack of a financial case for providers to exchange patient information with the goal of improving care quality and efficiency. This is because the current payment system ties profits to inefficiency and waste.