Fidelity Investments recently made a big change at the top, and the media made an even bigger deal of how the move was the firm's response...

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Fidelity Investments recently made a big change at the top, and the media made an even bigger deal of how the move was the firm’s response to recent challenges.

The real story is that Fidelity is positioning itself for the future and that the path it is charting isn’t what you might expect.

Most importantly, it looks increasingly like that future involves the eventual sale of the firm.

Abigail Johnson, the daughter of Fidelity Chairman Edward “Ned” Johnson III, moved from being the president of the firm’s core money-management business to head the arm that services retirement and benefit plans.

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The younger Johnson has long been considered the heir apparent to her father. Together they control 37 percent of the private firm, with Abigail holding about 25 percent of the stock and Ned 12 percent.

Remaining family members hold roughly 8 percent of the company, which analysts have valued as being worth about $50 billion.

Most media reports said Abigail Johnson’s transfer was reflective of some hard times at the Boston company, most notably Fidelity’s slide to third among fund-management companies, where it now trails the Vanguard Group and the American Funds in assets under management.

Results at Fidelity’s funds have been decidedly mixed, with a few strong leaders — and outstanding performance from most the bond funds — but an equal number of disappointments, led by Fidelity Magellan.

Fidelity’s management change won’t mean much to the day-to-day fund operations. Johnson’s replacement, Stephen Jonas, is a longtime insider. Any alterations will have less to do with his arrival than with the brass simply deciding the time has come for a change.

But if you try to read the tea leaves at Fidelity — and it’s hard to do because the company is notoriously secretive — it’s clear the Johnson transfer wasn’t motivated by current events.

The transfer puts Abigail Johnson in charge of Fidelity Employer Services, the fastest-growing segment of the company’s business, which is saying something because it already accounts for more than 40 percent of Fidelity’s assets under management. (Fidelity Investments oversees more than $1.1 trillion in assets.)

It also puts her in charge of some of Fidelity’s most important business relationships, the ones that will be crucial in what happens next.

Mind you, Fidelity could roll on, largely unchanged, for years. No one in the firm will utter even a hint of any plans for a future that doesn’t include ownership by the Johnsons.

Ned Johnson is 74, fiercely independent and committed to staying that way. The power behind Fidelity, he’s effectively chairman-for-life, and there won’t be any deals giving away control until he’s gone.

But after Ned is gone, the younger Johnsons, who do not seem to have his zeal for the business, may look to do something different.

Though Fidelity would clearly attract many interested parties if it went on the block, most observers say that no one is romancing the Boston fund firm the way Bank of America is.

That makes sense: Bank of America has been outstanding in every phase of the investment business except one: mutual funds. In the businesses where both companies are strong, a merger makes them that much more powerful.

Chuck Jaffe is senior columnist at CBS Marketwatch. He can be reached at or Box 70, Cohasset, MA 02025-0070.