How Index Funds Disrupted Wall Street


Ken Teegardin | Flickr

Every maker of change in the business and technology world today fancies him or herself a disrupter. But Jack Bogle, the Vanguard founder who made index funds the dominant feature of today’s investment landscape, was disrupting things long before that word came into fashion. In an interview with Bloomberg, Bogle recalls how hard it was to round up support for the first-ever index fund in 1976.

Indexing is bad for the brokerage business and the mutual fund managers, but retail investors love it. Today the low-cost passive-investing approach Bogle pioneered has won nearly $3.5 trillion in assets at Vanguard and lots more elsewhere. He says the transformation unleashed by index funds is still gathering momentum, steadily “shifting the allocation of stock market returns away from Wall Street and toward Main Street.”

This shift could also usher in a new era of shareholder activism. Index funds can’t follow the old advice that “If you don’t like the management, sell the stock.” That, Bogle argues, means they will realize that they have a new responsibility to “fix” companies that go astray.

Uber’s Got a Bad Reputation, Survey Finds

Uber’s culture is “bad.” That’s what 3/4 of participants said in a survey of “150 anonymous employees and managers based in Silicon Valley” — all users of Blind, an app that encourages “anonymous work talk” (Hackernoon). Actually, 26 percent said Uber’s work culture is “bad” and 47 percent more said it’s “very bad.”

This negative view translates into a distinct lack of enthusiasm among the same survey takers for working at Uber. Blind shares lots of survey results, but not as much detail about methodology as one might wish. It would also be nice to compare this info with anonymous results from people who actually work at Uber and have first-hand experience with its culture (like, say, Glassdoor provides). Either way, at the very least, Uber clearly has an image problem among the influencers of the tech industry.

Work Is The Problem, and Jobs Aren’t the Answer

The goal of “putting people back to work” has driven economic policy since the financial crisis a decade ago. But what if that’s the wrong mission? James Livingston (Aeon) writes, “Securing ‘full employment’ has become a bipartisan goal at the very moment it has become both impossible and unnecessary”: impossible because automation, which has already eliminated jobs at the lower end of the economic ladder, keeps climbing higher up the pay scale; unnecessary because the taxation and distribution mechanisms for basic income support are already in place.

What’s really standing in the way of such a liberation from work? Livingston argues that it’s our fear that a work-free world will be somehow immoral. U.S. culture is thoroughly infused with the Protestant work ethic. Without jobs, we wonder “what social scaffolding…will permit the construction of character?” If you believe that we have an inborn instinct to work — to make things, help people, and take care of the world — then maybe the question is a little different: If the old structure of jobs-for-income is outmoded, what new structures for organizing, allocating, and incentivizing work make sense?

Fascism and the Media Go Way Back

If you want to understand the role media platforms have played in promoting “fake news” and shaping the recent U.S. election’s outcome, Stanford historian Fred Turner says, look to the 1930s and ‘40s (Initialized Capital). That’s when American intellectuals, believing that the uniformity of broadcast media had helped bring fascists to power, tried to imagine a different kind of individualized mass media — a “surround” or multimedia environment that would encourage personal decision-making and thereby “promote democratic personalities.”

This multimedia movement had a long semi-underground history as a kind of counterpoint to the dominant stream of TV and radio. It finally emerged into full view with the rise of the internet — which, ironically, is now being credited as a driver of the new populism that elected Donald Trump, who, Turner says, is a kind of 21st-century Mussolini.

As this conflict plays out across today’s social media, Turner maintains, the engineers who build those platforms have become “reluctant, but necessary, brokers of public discourse.” Now they just need to own that role, and use it responsibly.

An Open Letter to IBM CEO Ginni Rometty

IBM CEO Virginia Rometty’s letter to president-elect Donald Trump inspired one IBM employee to write her own letter of resignation. Here’s why (NewCo Shift). “When the president-elect follows through on his repeated threats to create a public database of Muslims,” asks Elizabeth Holli Wood, “what will IBM do?”

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