Ben Franklin’s 200-year-old experiment, including his Boston trust, exposes why government can’t be asked to manage long-term trusts (like retirement plans). (Photo: Shutterstock)

Ben Franklin may have been teased into starting twin 200-year trusts in Boston and Philadelphia, but he nonetheless realized a great idea when he saw one.

He even recognized the potential obstacles that might present themselves to those tasked with executing his grand plan.

More important, we now recognize that, all other things aside, Franklin should be applauded for his eternal optimism in the nation he helped found.

The history of his legacy trusts – The Franklin Trust of Philadelphia and the Franklin Foundation of Boston – instructs us on the both the power of compound interest and the dangers of relying on public officials to manage money for the long-term (see “The True Legacy of Ben Franklin’s Last Will and Testament,”, August 22, 2017). We might even call it “The Tale of Two Trusts.”

By the end of the first hundred years (1890), the Boston fund was about three times more than the Philadelphia fund. A half-century later, Boston was  five times larger. A Boston banker claimed this success was due to his city’s success in “keeping the politicians out.” Oddly enough, though, when the two funds reached their termination date in 1990, Boston’s trust was only twice as large as the Philadelphia trust. In either case, they both lagged Franklin’s projection by a considerable amount.

What likely caused the trusts to miss their modest targets (remember, Franklin assumed only a mere 5% annual growth rate) could be attributed, at least in part, to the changing economic landscape.

This applies both to the nature of business and interest rates. The industrial revolution wiped out the need for small entrepreneurs (or “artisans” as Franklin called them). At the same time, overall economic growth reduced the cost of capital, bringing lending rates down to all but the riskiest borrowers.

These factors, however, were recognized and addressed within the first hundred years of the trust. Despite these impediments, Boston came within 57% of attaining Franklin’s 1890 goal. Philadelphia, however, missed the mark considerably, managing a very weak 18% of Franklin’s estimate.

From the beginning, it was clear the two funds would be managed in different styles, given the different corporate structures of the host cities.

Control of the Boston funds remained in private hands for the longest time.

Philadelphia very quickly placed responsibility for the Franklin Trust in the hands of a political committee.

Alas, as time marched on, the politicians marched in, and Boston’s Franklin fund could not escape this inevitability.

While Philadelphia had this struggle in the latter half of the nineteenth century, Boston went through this phase in earnest during the post-World War Two era. This had a dramatic impact on the outcome of the trust’s growth.

By the early 1950s, the Boston Trust was valued at five times more than the Philadelphia Trust and well on its way of making up ground lost at the 1890 accounting. At the time of the trust termination date, though, the Boston fund was only twice that of the Philadelphia fund. In the end, the Boston fund missed Franklin’s target by nearly 33%. Philadelphia missed it by almost 70%.

Still, it does show that an initial investment of about $9,000 in 1790 could grow to a total value of $7.25 million some two hundred years later. That’s certainly a testament to the power of compound interest – the very thing Franklin counted on and wanted to demonstrate.

Indeed, this obvious success inspired at least on copy-cat trust. On November 12, 1928, Jacob Friedrich Schoellkopf, Jr., an industrialist from Buffalo, New York, established the Jacob F.-Wilma S. Schoellkopf $100,000 Trust Fund for Buffalo. This fund was set up like the Franklin Trust save for one very important difference: It had no termination date. It would accumulate and reinvest all income for the first 100 years, upon which 50% of its value would distributed. From then on, the remaining undistributed portion would be reinvested and, every fifty years in perpetuity, half the value of the fund would be distributed.

Also unlike the Franklin trusts, there appear to have been no major restrictions on the type of investments in which the Schoellkopf Fund could be placed. In addition – and here is a key distinguishing difference – the Schoellkopf Fund was completely private. It involved no elected officials. Even the distributions went to a private foundation, not one run by political authorities.

Could this have given the Schoellkopf Fund an advantage in terms of its growth prospects? In the 1950s, Boston’s Franklin Trust grew 75%. The Schoellkopf Fund grew 285% during the same period.

It may not have been the intention of the ever-optimistic Ben Franklin, but the faithful execution of the codicil in his last will and testament proved, over its 200-year lifespan, there may be a greater harm to long-term growth prospects than either war or economic calamities.

The Franklin trusts, administered by public officials, may have demonstrated more than the success of compound interest. They may have revealed the potential for significant damage when we place elected officials in the position to oversee long-term monies.