In a somewhat surprising move, mutual fund titan The Vanguard Group announced some reshuffling at the top of its house. Last week, Vanguard chairman and CEO Jack Brennan announced that F. William McNabb III will take over the chief executive role within the next year. Brennan will remain Chairman, and will focus more on the company's strategic initiatives.
Under Brennan's 12-year tutelage, Vanguard has added more than $1 trillion in assets under management. That's an amazing figure for which Brennan should be lauded.
But did it all come at a cost?
Where have you gone, Jack Bogle?
Brennan was Vanguard founder John "Jack" Bogle's handpicked successor, but their relationship turned a bit icy when Bogle was forced to retire from Vanguard's board when he turned 70, Vanguard's mandatory retirement age. This might not be the only reason for a less-than-amicable relationship, however.
Bogle always beckoned the virtues of simple investing. A speech from 2000 summarizes his vision of Vanguard quite well: "Our central business philosophy is the essence of simplicity: Owning a share in the entire stock market, or the entire bond market -- and then holding it forever -- happens to be the surest route to long-term investment success."
Although Bogle's other tenet of proper asset management -- low cost -- has largely been upheld during the Brennan years, the same sure can't be said for simplicity.
Like 10,000 spoons when all you need is a knife
In May 2001, Vanguard entered the ETF arena when it launched the Vanguard Total Stock Market ETF, which attempts to follow the performance of the entire U.S. market and counts Exxon Mobil
Just four years later, there are 37 ETFs in Vanguard's bullpen, the most recent being the "Mega Cap 300" series. (Sounds like a brand of golf clubs, doesn't it?) Among these funds' top holdings are, once again, Exxon Mobil, GE, and Bank of America. Are you noticing a hint of redundancy here?
Even the more traditional Vanguard mutual fund lineup is looking less and less simple these days. Consider the 2007 launch of the Vanguard Market Neutral Fund, with top holdings including Amazon.com
2% expense ratio? Hedge fund? Vanguard?! Say it ain't so.
The end of an era, the turning of a page
Look, all this isn't to say that Brennan's moves to launch ETFs and other specialized funds were altogether bad. In fact, since Bogle's departure in 1996, a lot has changed in the industry, and Vanguard needed to keep pace. Indeed, competition is fierce today, with online brokers like E*Trade
As much as we might resist, the real changing of the Vanguard happened a long time ago. Investors considering the wide variety of Vanguard funds out there should be mindful of this fact and realize that not all the funds in Vanguard's lineup will provide their portfolio with broad diversification.
Many of Vanguard's current offerings are specialized and geared toward more experienced investors looking to cash in on a sector play or short-term market movement. For many, this short-term strategy is a loser's game. Fortunately, Vanguard's mainstays continue to be diversified funds like the 500 Index, Total Stock Market Index, and Total Bond Market Index. First-time investors would be wise to start there and then consider other Vanguard options.
Fool contributor Todd Wenning wishes the St. Joes Hawks luck against the St. Louis Billikens tonight. He does not own shares of any company mentioned, but does own Vanguard funds. Amazon.com and Apple are Motley Fool Stock Advisor picks. Bank of America is an Income Investor choice. The Fool's disclosure policy is about as simple as they come.