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Don Phillips: We’re All in the Behavior Modification Business

Longtime fund observer Don Phillips on the importance of investor psychology, the uptake of passive and ESG investing, and Jack Bogle's enduring legacy.

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Our guest for this week's installment of The Long View podcast is Morningstar managing director Don Phillips. Don was Morningstar's first mutual fund analyst and eventually became CEO of the firm; he established Morningstar's independent voice and mentored scores of analysts. He also helped develop many of the tools that investors today take for granted, such as the Morningstar Style Box and the Morningstar Rating for stocks (also known as the star rating). Throughout his career Don has worked to enact positive change in the fund industry, speaking out on issues such as misleading advertising and high-fee funds as well as the need for better shareholder disclosures.

In this broad-ranging interview, Don discusses his path from a paper boy investor in Templeton Growth Fund to a job analyzing mutual funds at Chicago startup Morningstar in the mid-1980s. He also opines on the industry's evolution from the opaque, sales-driven culture that he encountered 30-plus years ago to its current emphasis on transparency and very low costs.

Early influences
• The paper-boy years: Don’s early investing influences (1:40) • The magic of mutual funds: “Sir John Templeton is my personal money manager” (2:45) • “I had gotten married”: How an aspiring literature professor became Morningstar’s first mutual-fund analyst (4:00) Building Fund Research • “Dark days”: What it was like in the fund industry of the 1980s (5:20) • Democratizing data: When the freshest fund stats were nine months old (7:10) • Getting them to answer the phone: How Morningstar’s fund database was built (8:30) • “Putnam wouldn’t talk to us”: How pull demand (i.e., a reporter’s background notes) changed that (9:45) • “My first job was to read 777 mutual fund prospectuses” (11:20) • Don’s “el-train” indoctrination to investing (12:10) • “Not interested (click)”: Opening doors in the early days (13:00) • “It’s who you surround yourself with”: How to build a team (14:20) • “Their funds are better than some, not as good as others…”: Morningstar’s approach to serving the financial journalists that called on it (16:10) • “They found us”: Connecting with our audiences, finding our voice (17:00) Analyzing Funds, Finding Our Voice • “Let’s add a gold fund”: Behind the development of the Morningstar Style Box (18:00) • “You had to be an insider to know that Windsor was a value fund and Janus was a growth fund”: Turning the tables on fund-company marketers (19:05) • “Lies, Damn Lies, and Fund Advertisements”: Facing down a fund company’s libel suit (21:45) Achieving Better Outcomes • Low-cost trend means “better and better deals for the investor” but beware unintended consequences (23:00) • It’s not the only thing: “You can have a low-cost portfolio that’s wildly inappropriate for an investor that leads to a disastrous outcome” (25:00) • “We’re all in the behavior-modification business”: Helping people chart a path to their goals (26:40) • “I would have closed the (Vanguard) Growth Index Fund”: How the experience you create for investors determines your success in the fund industry (36:30) • Avoiding the “arms-dealer mentality”: How fund companies can ensure investors have better experiences (39:30) • “The best thing I can do for my clients…is to go on vacation”: On the wisdom of investing without tinkering, and the hazards of information overload (41:00) Active vs. Passive Investing (and Remembering Jack Bogle) • “Passive is getting more active every day”: Finding ways to evaluate algorithms and indexes (28:00) • “Jack is very much with us today”: Remembering Jack Bogle and his impact on investors and Morningstar (29:10) • “You can’t get away from arithmetic”: If cost is the enemy then investors probably aren’t overdoing it in fleeing active funds for passive (31:30) • “To me it’s not an either/or battle”: Don on the mix of active and passive funds in his personal portfolio (32:50) • Personalization as the new active: “The art of investing is matching investment to investor” (35:00) The Future of Funds, Advice, and Research • Imagining the fund industry in 10 years (and its similarity to the music business’s radical transformation): “It may be that the mutual fund is like the old LP” (42:20) • “Investors have a right to know” the ESG consequences of where their money is going (45:00) • “Digitizing process”: Using big data to assess the investment process (46:10) • “When you’re reading literature, you’re seeing the world through different eyes”: The importance of diversity to decision-making and life (47:30) • “Put it on a little piece of paper and put it in a drawer”: How investment committees can avoid knee-jerk reactions and make better decisions (48:30) • “The art of investing is the match between investment and investor”: New frontiers in fund research (52:00) • “There is fee pressure, but there’s also a lot of satisfaction”: How the advice industry evolves amid automation and declining prices (56:30) • “Fiduciary standards in general are hard to enact”: The intentions are good, but beware bureaucracy, red tape, and unintended consequences (58:30) References • Don Phillips, recipient of 2016 Matthew R. McArthur Industry Pioneer Award • Sir John Templeton • Wall Street Week • Joe Mansueto • Don’s love of the liberal arts, literature, and business • Don Phillips, “Reflections on Fund Management, Five Lessons from 25 Years” • The Wiesenberger Books • Morningstar Mutual Fund Sourcebook • Charles Royce • The Morningstar Style Box • Vanguard Windsor Fund • Court of Appeal, Second District, Division 7, California.; Morningstar, Inc., and Don Phillips, Petitioners, v. SUPERIOR COURT of the State of California, for the County of Los Angeles, Respondent. PILGRIM GROUP, INC., Real Party In Interest; No. B075691. • ESG Investing • Morningtar Blog: Sustainable Investing • Janus Funds, Super Bowl XXXI (1997), “Eyes” ad • “The Evolution of Robo-Advisors”, Morningstar blog (July 2018) • “The Importance of Asset Allocation” by Roger G. Ibbotson, Financial Analysts Journal, May/June 2010 • “Why Diversity and Inclusion Matter to Investors” by Dan Lefkovitz, Morningstar blog, Dec. 18, 2018 • Cathy Odelbo • John Rekenthaler • Lori Lucas • A Global Guide to Strategic-beta Exchange-Traded Products • “Strategic-Beta Exchange-Traded Products Continue to Grow, but Show Signs of Maturity” by Ben Johnson, Morningstar blog, Mar. 27, 2019 • “Vanguard Founder Jack Bogle Passes Away” by Dan Culloton and Alec Lucas, • Invesco QQQ Trust (which tracks the Nasdaq 100 Index) • Jack Brennan, former Vanguard CEO [to find] • Sheryl Garrett