If there's one fund shop that's renowned for running high-quality, low-cost mutual funds with a fundholder-friendly bent, it's Vanguard. For years, the company's made its name pitching simple, heart-of-your-portfolio index funds, while eventually expanding to offer many high-quality actively managed funds as well. It's always excelled at avoiding trends, steadfastly refusing to jump into the newest "hot" area. But the times, they are a-changing, and there may be shifts occurring within Vanguard, too.
A changing environment
As a recent Ignites.com article highlighted, Vanguard may be trying to reinvent itself amid the investment world's ever-changing landscape. For years, Vanguard shunned the practice of chasing new investing trends, such as alternative asset classes. Firm founder Jack Bogle is known for decrying most active managers, including alternative investments and hedge funds, and urging investors to stay focused on more marketable securities. But as more and more wealthy investors are turning to different asset classes to juice returns, and as Vanguard faces more intense competition, the firm has begun exploring new avenues.
Vanguard has seemingly embraced the extraordinary growth of exchange-traded funds in recent years. In fact, since January 2004, the firm has introduced 31 exchange-traded funds, including several recently released bond-fund ETFs such as the Vanguard Long-Term Bond ETF
The firm has also filed with the SEC for a series of actively managed bond ETFs, an entirely new product for the ETF world. But that hasn't stopped Vanguard from continuing to release new index products. The company recently announced plans to launch three new mega-cap indices that will follow the largest stocks in the domestic market. Specifically, these three funds will track the MSCI U.S. Large Cap 300 Index, the MSCI U.S. Large Cap Growth Index, and the MSCI U.S. Large Cap Value Index.
Vanguard also recently adopted a market-neutral fund managed by Laudus Rosenberg, despite Vanguard's lack of a track record in the long/short equity arena. Word has it that some advisors have been unimpressed with Laudus Rosenberg's performance. Additionally, some have questioned the need for the three new mega-cap indices, since they're highly similar to some of the firm's existing large-cap indices. Could Vanguard actually be expanding beyond its core competencies?
If it ain't broke
I don't think Vanguard fundholders should worry too much about their much-vaunted firm losing their way -- at least, not yet. It's true that Vanguard is expanding into some formerly off-limits areas, but that's where the growth is right now. If firms in this business aren't growing, they may be dying. Vanguard executives would be short-sighted to ignore new areas of growth, simply focusing instead on the same business lines they've pursued for years.
Vanguard shouldn't forget what made it successful, nor ignore what it's done so well for so many years. But there's always room for new ideas and new ways of approaching investing. If Vanguard proves less than adequate at reaching into new corners of the investment world, the market has a nifty way of letting the company know that it should probably stop such efforts.
For the record, I think Vanguard is one of the best fund shops around. And it's not changing anything about its existing lineup of mutual funds, which should soothe current fundholders' most pressing concerns. So if you're in the market for a Vanguard fund, look at their time-tested funds, but stay away from the newer stuff for now. Investors shouldn't be scared by change, but a bit of skepticism and a cautious outlook never hurt.
Fool contributor Amanda Kish lives in Rochester, N.Y., and does not own shares of any of the companies or funds mentioned herein. The Fool's disclosure policy is at the vanguard of fiscal responsibility.