In an era of low-cost index funds, it’s tough to be best known for your stockpickers. Fidelity Investments, the 72-year-old family-controlled company, made a splash in August with the industry’s first zero-fee index funds. Abigail Johnson, who succeeded her father as chief executive officer in 2014, gave a rare interview to Bloomberg Markets and brought along Kathleen Murphy, who leads the personal investing unit responsible for the new funds. Fidelity earned a record $5.3 billion in operating income in 2017, but investors continue to pull money from its active equity funds. The company also grappled with sexual misconduct allegations last year. At their Boston headquarters, Johnson and Murphy, who turn 57 and 56 in December and January, respectively, discussed the challenges of their changing industry. “We need to find other ways to get people to give us a try,” Johnson says.
BLOOMBERG MARKETS: One of the biggest investing stories this summer was the launch of the first two zero-fee index funds, by Fidelity. For a lot of people, it was a surprise that it was Fidelity. Why the free funds?
KATHY MURPHY: We wanted to have more people give Fidelity a try by offering these funds, but it wasn’t just the funds. There were three components of that announcement: the zero-fee funds themselves; being the first in the industry to eliminate all [investment] minimums and account fees; then the third thing, which is probably the most influential on the market, is the reduction [in the number of share classes] of all of our index funds. As we’ve grown our index funds, we’ve doubled the assets in our index funds. We’re the No 2 provider of index funds in the country.
ABBY JOHNSON: I felt strongly about getting rid of the minimums. I just felt like they had outlived their purpose. When you get as big as we are, and we’re trying to reach so many different people, to have a barrier like that just felt wrong.
I’m very down on conventional advertising. Kathy still spends a lot of money doing it, and her team members make a very cogent pitch that it’s actually money well spent, but I think that conventional advertising will be less and less the way of the world.
We need to find other ways to get people to give us a try. Having a no-minimum, no-fee offering seemed like a pretty good way to get people to consider us with the minimal amount of friction possible.