John C. Bogle counted himself among the 1 percent of wealthiest Americans a couple of decades ago. You might not guess that today, when you hear the 82-year-old founder of the mutual-fund company Vanguard rail against economic inequality.
He can sound almost like an Occupy Wall Street protester: “Our markets have gone crazy, and there is 200 times as much speculation as there is investing,” he says.
It has been 15 years since the low-cost investing pioneer stepped down as CEO of Vanguard. Bogle launched the first index mutual fund in 1976. Vanguard Group has since grown into the largest fund company, managing nearly $1.7 trillion in U.S. fund assets.
Bogle is paid a modest retainer to run Vanguard’s Bogle Financial Markets Research Center, a research group in Valley Forge, Pa.
Edited excerpts from a recent interview with Bogle:
Q: What do you think about the discussion over tax fairness?
A: I believe the rich should pay more, but that’s not a good platform for tax policy. What has gone wrong is that we’ve failed to recognize the difference between earned income and unearned income. Is it really fair for gamblers on Wall Street to pay a 15 percent rate when they make a winning investment, and an honest working person — a bricklayer, for example — may pay an equal or higher tax on his wages than a gambler? That’s absolute absurdity.
Rates may have to be changed, but we also need to look at what is taxed, and how. Dividend income should be taxed at the same rate as ordinary income. As for capital gains, there ought to be some distinction between capital made by people who start businesses, and contribute value to society, and capital made by gamblers on Wall Street, some of whom win. Earned capital income should carry the regular dividend rate, but capital income gains by trading, and particularly short-term trading, should pay a higher tax, even than the present ordinary income rate.
Q: What’s your take on the Occupy movement?
A: I’m happy to say that my current income puts me in the 99 percent group. So maybe I’m not so happy, I don’t know.
This movement has brought to the surface some very serious problems in our country about disparities in opportunity and income. So many young people are having a terrible time getting a job.
Young people have great idealism, and the Occupy movement has been a bit unrealistic at times. So what? I can’t imagine a worse America if our younger generation didn’t have great idealism. I salute them for their enthusiasm, and their mission.
The negative side is that they just pushed too hard for too long. It’s very difficult for any movement without any seeming leadership — other than a good idea — to have any sense of taste or judgment. Who’s to say, ‘This is going too far’? In some places, it’s just gone on too long, and it’s been too disruptive. So I think it’s good that we’ve been cleaning up the plazas where the Occupy movement set up.
Q: What’s the focus of the book you’re writing?
A: That our financial system has gone off the rails. It’s something we think of as providing capital for new businesses, that will enable people to finance new companies or add to the capital of existing companies. We do that to the tune of about $200 billion a year in financing through Wall Street, or through the financial system. And yet we do some $40 trillion worth of trading every year. I’m selling my investment to you, and you’re buying it from me, and it creates no value for society. Indeed, it subtracts value, because the guy in the middle gets his piece.
Many mutual funds turn over 100 percent of their portfolios each year. When I got into this business, it was maybe 18 percent a year. It’s amazing. This industry is a big part of the problem. What we need is a transfer tax on trading. We need to tame the trading and speculative element in our financial system. (northjersey.com, 261212)