Vanguard vs. Fidelity

We are going to use this blog, and the next one, to speak more about pricing. Over the years, we have learned some surprising things about pricing. For example, in the average market, price moves much less share than most people assume. (See the Perspective, “The Price Segment” on In most markets, the true price-driven market share volatility is 15% or less of the current volatile, changing, market share. You might ask how that can be. But the explanation is relatively easy. Most of us buy most of the things we purchase on the basis of a unique Function, better Reliability, or more Convenience, before we even get to Price. Did you buy your last car on the basis of Price? How about those snow skis? Were they the cheapest on the market? Do you stay in the cheapest hotels or drink the cheapest beer? True Price buyers are in the minority. And before these buyers get to Price in the decision sequence, they have satisfied themselves that there is no important difference among competitors on Function, Reliability or Convenience.

Even more surprising to most people is that in a hostile market, one with severe overcapacity and intense price competition, price moves even less share. We have worked in many hostile markets. In all of them, the true price-based volatile market share was less than 5% of the available volatile share. The reason for this phenomenon is that in a true hostile marketplace, virtually all competitors have learned to copy lower prices, or face an immediate loss in market share. (See the Perspective, “Why Price Cuts Don’t Build Share” on For an example, look at the airline industry. When one airline offers a price discount, all the other peers of that airline offer the same discount on the same flight to the same locations.

Now I am going to offer what seems to be an exception to these “guidelines” I have just set down. The exception appears to be Vanguard in its competition with Fidelity Investments and the other money managers. This year, Vanguard Group replaced Fidelity as the largest U.S. mutual fund company. Fidelity had held that number one ranking since 1988, when it passed Merrill Lynch. At one time, the Fidelity Magellan fund, while it was run by Peter Lynch, was the world’s largest mutual fund. In 2000, it reached $110 billion under management. Lynch had a phenomenal record, but his successors did not. Today, the Fidelity Magellan fund has less than $30 billion under management. The biggest mutual fund today is the Vanguard 500 Index Fund at $87 billion under management.

The big difference between a managed fund and an index fund should be performance. A managed fund is supposed to earn more than an index fund. Some do, most don’t. So many investors have been migrating to the lower-priced index funds. Stock index funds charge an average of 29 cents per hundred dollars invested. Actively managed funds charge more like 95 cents.

Vanguard has unseated Fidelity by offering low-cost funds. Fidelity offers mostly managed funds. Vanguard is the ensign bearer for index funds. Investors seem to pay more attention to management costs when returns are already low. Over the last ten years, Vanguard has taken in more than $4 in new money to manage for every $1 Fidelity has gained. Almost 80% of the new money coming to Vanguard this year went to index funds. Exchange traded funds, ETFs, are even cheaper than many index funds. Vanguard has over $100 billion in ETF funds. Fidelity has side-stepped that business.

So Vanguard appears to be winning in the market due to pricing. How does that jibe with the guidelines we talked about? The key rule is that a customer does not buy on Price until after the customer has satisfied herself, that there is no important difference to the customer on Function, Reliability or Convenience, so the customer decides on Price. Vanguard has proven to many investors that it is the Functional equivalent of Fidelity, that its returns are Reliable and that it is equally Convenient to purchase, so many customers buy on Price. The price markets here are the index funds and the exchange traded funds. Fidelity needs to offer exchange traded funds to stay in the game. What really is happening is that Fidelity is “failing” on Price while Vanguard beats the other competitors on the basis of Reliability and Convenience.

Posted 11/8/10