Hordes of worshipful investors descended on Omaha last week for a joyous event marking the 50th anniversary of Warren Buffett taking control of Berkshire Hathaway. Meanwhile, not a single investor descended on Malvern, Pa., to celebrate a round number event of far more investor significance: the 40th anniversary of the founding of index fund king Vanguard Group on May 1, 1975.
Hello? Why did Buffett and his acolytes have a massive “capitalist Woodstock” to mark his 50th while there was zero public celebration of Vanguard’s 40th by its 20 million investors? “How do you think we keep our expense ratios so low?” Vanguard spokesman John Woerth quipped .
Sure, Omaha is a lot easier place to hold a big party than Malvern, the leafy Philadelphia suburb where Vanguard is based. But the real reason for the difference is that comparing Buffett with Vanguard is like comparing a matinee idol who glories in his performance with a wallflower who devoutly wishes to be nothing but average. And average, as you know (or should), is the whole shtick of index funds, which aim at replicating the results of a stock index rather than trying to top its performance, as active managers do.
The contrast in returns between Buffett and the Standard & Poor’s 500-stock index — the most widely used investment benchmark — is, in fact, totally amazing. And totally unique.
Since Buffett took control of Berkshire, a share of the company has risen in price to about $220,000 from $12 or so. Through the end of last year, Berkshire says, one share of what is now called Berkshire A stock had returned 1,826,163 percent (21.6 percent a year) during Buffett’s tenure, compared with a mere—mere! — 11,196 percent (9.9 percent a year, including reinvested dividends) for the S&P 500.
As a brief statistical aside, this shows us how relatively small differences can compound over time. Although Berkshire’s annual return was just 2.2 times the S&P’s, Berkshire returned 163 times as much as the S&P since Buffett took over. That’s what happens when differences compound for 50 years.
Even though Vanguard is much less fun than Buffett, it’s far more important to retail investors. Why? Because Buffett is a one-trick pony — though it’s a great trick — while Vanguard offers lots of easy-to-buy, low-cost index fund choices. Or, if you insist, relatively low-cost actively managed funds. That’s why its investor body is measured in the millions, while Buffett’s is in the thousands.
One of the reasons that I decided to link Berkshire with Vanguard is that there’s actually an important lesson in the comparison. To wit, that there are different roads to success.
Buffett has prospered by being extraordinary. And Vanguard has prospered — and helped millions of people, including my family and me, prosper — by being totally ordinary. Just matching the returns of various indexes has allowed Vanguard, a mutual company owned by its investors, to become the biggest mutual fund operation in the country. It has $3.1 trillion under management, two-thirds of which is invested in 79 index funds, the first of which opened in 1976.
And now, for the link between Buffett and Berkshire. In February 2014, Buffett, who was then 83, disclosed that he has recommended that after he dies, his then-widow put 90 percent of what he leaves her into a low-cost S&P fund. “I suggest Vanguard’s,” he wrote.
That set off what Vanguard calls “the Buffett effect.” Its S&P fund attracted $7.3 billion of new money in the March-to-June quarter of 2014, Vanguard says, compared with only $1 billion for its closest fund rival, Fidelity Spartan. On a proportionate basis, Vanguard’s S&P fund attracted about three times as much money as Fido’s did.
Buffett certainly had the right to preen even more than usual last week to mark his half-century at the helm. And who knows? Given what a statistical outlier he is, people may be writing about his Jubilee celebration a decade from now. Anyone selling cheap 2025 tickets to Omaha?