They met at the sleek National Constitution Center - not the Racquet Club, that old-time money-managers' hangout - so you can't say leaders of the Financial Analysts Society of Philadelphia were just looking backward at their 70th anniversary gala Wednesday.
The main speaker was - who else? - John Bogle, investing celebrity and plainspoken founder of Vanguard Group, the $2 trillion low-fee fund giant and the biggest financial employer in this part of the country. He reminded guests how Philadelphia ranked with New York as a financial center when stock-and-bond-pickers first organized, and urged them, as ever, to be honest.
But it was left to Bogle's friend Ted Aronson, one of the city's most successful investment managers of the current generation, to ask the tough questions about the thinning of Philadelphia's once- robust investment business.
While other panelists noted plenty of Philly-area college grads get some kind of finance job, Aronson, founder of money-manager Aronson + Johnson + Ortiz, said the local scene still suffers the "brain drain" that followed the disappearance of the trust departments at Provident, Girard, Fidelity, and other banks. It was the financial minds of those firms, which once steered the fortunes of Philadelphia's manufacturing families for generations, that went on to found their own innovative firms, before they vanished in the take-the-money-and-run mergers of the late 1900s.
"Show me the jobs," Aronson told me afterward. His own firm, based at Broad and Chestnut Streets, just a stroll from his apartment, has had to open an office in Boston to attract expert talent, he said.
"The candidate pool is massively deeper in Beantown," where stock- pickers still proliferate at Fidelity and Putnam and the other big portfolio- management houses, Aronson maintains.
There are still stock-and-bond pros in Philadelphia. The venerable Delaware Investments fund family (now owned by Australia's Macquarie Group) still prospers in its Market Street offices. There are smaller fund groups and boutiques scattered around Conshohocken, Berwyn, the old Navy Yard.
But the two really big area money managers, suburban-based Vanguard and SEI, employ administrators and sales and tech people, mostly. Instead of hiring and training high-end money managers, they farm out that end of the business: to market index-makers like Standard & Poor's, or to specialty investment managers like Wellington Management Co., where Bogle worked under Walter Morgan before Bogle merged it with a larger firm - based in Boston - then left to start Vanguard.
Yet Philadelphia's deep investment roots still bear fruit from time to time.
The $90 billion-asset Hartford Funds mutual- fund group this year moved its headquarters to Radnor, from Connecticut. Boss Jim Davey tells me his goal is to be next door to the same group of Wellington stock-pickers Bogle used to work for, in the former Sun Co. office complex across Matsonford Road from Archbishop Carroll High, so they can develop new investment products to sell retirement investors.
"This consolidation allows us to develop our own culture, bringing marketing and product manufacturing and oversight together in one location," Davey told me.
Hartford has moved 100 people to Radnor from its fund's support group - the former Planco firm - near Chesterbrook, moved his own management group down from Connecticut, and hired for 50 new sales, support, and marketing positions.
How can Hartford Funds, now on the Main Line, hope to distinguish itself amid today's desperation and clutter?
"The best way to do that is to deliver strong investment performance," Davey said.
No matter where you're based.