Fidelity's new president quietly changes old ways

Abigail Johnson has taken over the family business after it lost the top slot in managed assets; finally plans to embrace ETFs

Oct 20, 2013 @ 12:01 am

By Bloomberg News

When Abigail Johnson began her apprenticeship at Fidelity Investments 25 years ago, the firm founded by her grandfather was the nation's biggest mutual fund company, and star manager Peter Lynch was enjoying a performance streak at the Magellan Fund — a 29% average return over 13 years — that ranks among the best in the industry's history.

A year ago, Ms. Johnson, now 51, was named president of a very different Fidelity. Under her father, Edward C. Johnson III, known as Ned, Fidelity has surrendered its leadership and much of its iconic status as a money manager. Fees for investing client money in its own funds now produce less than half of Fidelity's revenue, and rivals BlackRock Inc., Pacific Investment Management Co. LLC and The Vanguard Group Inc. have shot past Fidelity in assets managed in the course of the past five years.

When Abigail Johnson began her apprenticeship at Fidelity Investments 25 years ago, the firm founded by her grandfather was the nation's biggest mutual fund company, and star manager Peter Lynch was enjoying a performance streak at the Magellan Fund — a 29% average return over 13 years — that ranks among the best in the industry's history.

A year ago, Ms. Johnson, now 51, was named president of a very different Fidelity. Under her father, Edward C. Johnson III, known as Ned, Fidelity has surrendered its leadership and much of its iconic status as a money manager. Fees for investing client money in its own funds now produce less than half of Fidelity's revenue, and rivals BlackRock Inc., Pacific Investment Management Co. LLC and The Vanguard Group Inc. have shot past Fidelity in assets managed in the course of the past five years.

RETIREMENT PLANS

The firm, in the meantime, has become the nation's biggest administrator of 401(k) retirement plans and one of its largest discount brokers, offering clients hundreds of funds in addition to its own.

Few people outside Fidelity know what Ms. Johnson plans to do to turn around the 67-year-old firm's fund business. In addition to being the 13th-wealthiest woman in the U.S., she is also among the most mysterious executives in finance. Fifteen months after being named president, in charge of all of Fidelity's key business units, Ms. Johnson has said nothing publicly about her vision or goals for the company. She declined to grant an interview and has rejected all such requests since she became president.

PROFITS DOWN

The challenges Ms. Johnson faces are clear without her enumerating them. Assets in Fidelity Investments' actively managed stock funds fell 16% in the past five years, and management and advisory fees were down an estimated 13%. Operating profit for all of Fidelity fell 31% in 2012 to an estimated $2.3 billion. Near-zero interest rates have forced the firm to waive fees for managing the $427 billion in its money market funds to keep the funds' returns positive. In April, Standard & Poor's lowered the outlook for the ratings on Fidelity's long-term debt to negative, from stable.

And Fidelity is the last of the big money management firms to take advantage of one of the most significant developments in personal finance: the shift into exchange-traded funds, which trade like stocks and were first offered in the U.S. in 1993. Total investment in U.S. ETFs had grown to $1.55 trillion as of Oct. 4, from $65 billion in 2000. Just one of the 1,300 U.S. ETFs is managed by Fidelity.

Donald Putnam, co-founder of Grail Partners LLC, which invests in money managers, said Ms. Johnson clearly needs to shake things up if she wants Fidelity to be a leader in investment management again.

“Since the 1980s, I don't believe there's been a significant strategic development at Fidelity,” he said. “I'm not saying it's not a good company, but as a strategic matter, it has long since lost its way.”

Ronald O'Hanley, head of asset management at Fidelity, said his boss is taking action. He said she's behind Fidelity's effort to raise its fee income with a service in which Fidelity advisers will help clients set up portfolios made up of mutual funds, ETFs and other investments that are customized according to their appetite for risk.

Mr. O'Hanley said Ms. Johnson is also driving Fidelity's recent push to sell its products through social media. As for ETFs, Mr. O'Hanley said Fidelity, which already sells other firms' ETFs through its brokerage arm, will soon begin offering Fidelity-branded funds in collaboration with BlackRock, whose iShares ETFs dominate the market.

Still, Ned Johnson's daughter has given no indication that she intends to fundamentally change the Fidelity that he built, a firm that earned more than half of its 2012 estimated $13.24 billion in financial services revenue from administering brokerage accounts, pensions and 401(k) retirement funds. In a rare speech at a Miami conference in 2010, before she ascended to the presidency, Ms. Johnson said she was especially fond of the non-investing side of the firm.

“I like analyzing and managing large-scale transaction-processing platforms, record-keeping administration and brokerage trading services,” she told the audience, according to The Boston Globe.

Ms. Johnson needs to articulate a broader mission than she has publicly, said James Lowell, a financial adviser and editor of the independent Fidelity Investor newsletter. That task requires that she be a more visible and dynamic leader, he said.

“She's clearly competent,” Mr. Lowell said. “What's also required is a more defined form of leadership. You can't be an amorphous, faceless place.”

The fact that Ms. Johnson is a quiet person who doesn't make herself the face of the firm shouldn't be held against her, Mr. O'Hanley said.

“Abby's not a yeller,” he said. “She's careful to listen to others and let others speak, and absorb what they have to say. In my mind, that's just a much more effective leadership style in a company that has so many ways of touching customers.”

Don Phillips, president of research at Morningstar Inc., who has followed Fidelity for more than 25 years, said Fidelity doesn't need a “hero CEO” to address its recent financial difficulties.

“I don't know that Abby needs to reinvent the business the way her grandfather or father did,” he said. “What's required is a sense of stewardship and a long-term view, which I do think she brings to the table. For her to pretend to be something she's not would fall flat.”

PRIVATE OWNERSHIP

No one outside the family is in a position to dislodge Ms. Johnson. She owns about half of the family's shares in FMR LLC, Fidelity's holding company, according to regulatory filings. The family's stake totals 49%, with the rest of the shares held by former and current employees. Based on a comparison with publicly traded peers, Fidelity is worth about $32 billion, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

Combined with her holdings in Fidelity International and other enterprises, Ms. Johnson's net worth of about $9.4 billion ranks her No. 13 among women in the Bloomberg Billionaires Index, and she's the only one of the 13 whose fortune is in finance. Ms. Johnson was No. 124 on the overall billionaires list as of Oct. 7. Her father, Ned, 83, who remains chairman of FMR, was worth an estimated $6.4 billion on that date.

Ms. Johnson lives up to the image of the New England Yankee embarrassed by public displays of wealth. She owns a number of homes, including a waterfront property on Nantucket, worth about $13 million, according to real estate website Zillow.com. Most of the time, she lives in a house that once belonged to her grandfather, in Milton, Mass., worth about $2 million. Neither property stands out from its surroundings.

That discretion applies to her philanthropy, as well. Though the family foundation, the Edward C. Johnson Fund, and the Fidelity Foundation, also started by the family, have given away more than $425 million since 2000, according to Bloomberg data, the foundations don't advertise their charity.

Fidelity employs 40,000 people in the U.S., managed $1.7 trillion in assets directly as of June 30 and administered a total of $4 trillion worldwide. In addition to its financial services income, the FMR holding company took in an estimated $4.52 billion in revenue last year from private-equity investments, including real estate and a building-materials company.

The firm has struggled to increase money management assets. Vanguard, which surpassed Fidelity as the biggest U.S. mutual fund company in 2010 and offers mostly index funds and ETFs, has been a beneficiary of the shift into passive funds. Its assets surged 73% to $2.6 trillion from the end of 2007 to June 30. BlackRock, the world's biggest money manager, more than doubled assets to $3.9 trillion in the period. Pimco, whose funds are overseen by co-chief investment officer Bill Gross, has seen its assets more than double to $2 trillion.

By contrast, Fidelity's directly managed assets rose 11% in the six and a half years.

LYNCH LEGACY

Ms. Johnson's firm last stood out as a fund manager during the days of Mr. Lynch, in the 1980s and early 1990s. In recent years, even its star managers have had difficulty beating the soaring S&P 500. William Danoff, manager of the Fidelity Contrafund, had an average annual three-year return of 15.1% net of fees as of Oct. 7, compared with 15.5% for the S&P 500, including reinvested dividends. Joel Tillinghast, manager of the Fidelity Low-Priced Stock Fund, had average annual returns of 17.3% during the three-year period ended Oct. 7 and 27% for the one-year period.

Of the firm's 50 largest stock and bond funds, accounting for $671 billion in assets, 44% beat their benchmark indexes during the three-year period ended Sept. 30 and 46% outperformed during the five-year period though that date, according to Bloomberg data. The Magellan Fund (FMAGX), once the biggest U.S. stock mutual fund, had shriveled to $15 billion as of mid-October, from $68 billion at the end of 2003. It trailed 71% of growth fund rivals during the five-year period through Oct. 7. It returned 20.5% for the one-year period.

As in the days of Mr. Lynch, Fidelity's funds business is focused on actively managed stock funds. The firm has missed out on the explosion of ETFs, popular with both retail and institutional investors, who use them as short-term tactical investments and as hedges. BlackRock managed $853 billion as of mid-October in its iShares ETF subsidiary, which it bought from Barclays in 2009. Vanguard — although it didn't get into the ETF business until 2001 — manages $310 billion in ETFs, about 12% of its assets under management.

Fidelity's only entry is the $252 million Nasdaq Composite Index Tracking Stock ETF (ONEQ), a tech fund that returned 21.8% for the one-year period ended Oct. 7.

Fidelity probably stayed away from ETFs because it didn't want the low-margin index funds to divert customers from the actively managed funds that earn higher fees, Mr. Lowell said.

BLACKROCK COLLABORATION

Mr. O'Hanley said Ms. Johnson is committed to expanding the firm's footprint in ETFs. In March, Fidelity struck a deal with iShares that allows Fidelity's brokerage customers to trade any of 65 iShares ETFs commission-free. BlackRock will pay Fidelity an undisclosed portion of the fees it earns when it sells its ETFs through Fidelity.

Ms. Johnson is also working with BlackRock to introduce ETFs that track single industries and to design Fidelity-branded ETF portfolios, or funds of ETFs, which are among the fastest-growing product categories in asset management. Fidelity also received permission from regulators in May to introduce a series of actively managed ETFs, of which there are only a handful now.

Exotic offerings such as actively managed ETFs were unheard of when Edward C. Johnson Jr. started Fidelity. A lawyer and the son of a wealthy Boston merchant, Mr. Johnson established the company in 1946 around the Fidelity Fund, a mutual fund he took control of in 1943.

Ms. Johnson first joined Fidelity as an equity analyst after earning her master's degree in business administration at Harvard Business School. She managed a series of stock mutual funds from the 1980s until 1997, averaging 17 months in each stint. A hypothetical investor who put $10,000 with her when she started would have had a balance of $35,960 after fees when she stopped managing the funds, according to the firm. The same amount invested in funds that tracked her funds' benchmark indexes, with no fees deducted, would have produced $38,652.

Ms. Johnson moved out of investments to lead the asset management business starting in 1997. Her father tapped her to run the retirement unit in 2005. In 2010, she took over the brokerage and other institutional services.

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