New Arguments Against Low-Cost, Passive Investing Are No Better Than The Old Ones

Since the GFC, index funds have taken a huge slice of investable assets globally. And in my opinion, rightly so. There will be many that disagree with me on this, but let the evidence and data speak for itself I say. For every winning stock picker, there is a loser – it’s just how it works. Unless active funds dramatically reduce their fees, index funds will always be at or near the top quartile of long-term performance.

The premise of active management is essentially that with enough skill, it’s easy to consistently outperform the market, or the benchmark. When this view was challenged decades ago, it sparked a longstanding debate with strong believers on both sides, and some in between.

If you want to see some of the data, you can click here. The SPIVA (S&P Index Versus Active) Scorecard is a robust, widely-referenced research piece conducted and published by S&P that compares actively managed funds against their appropriate benchmarks on a semiannual basis.

Investors have been voting with their feet and ploughing money into index funds over the last 10 years. Vanguard, the primary beneficiary of this evolution, took in as much as its eight competitors in 2017.

In fact, over the last 8 years, Vanguard’s total Assets Under Management (AUM) has grown exponentially from US$1 trillion to over US$5 trillion. Mind blowing.

The more investors passive funds attract, the more they’re criticized. And all the new arguments you hear against low-cost, passive investing are no better than the old ones.

There are three reasons why indexing has become so popular. First, it costs less — often much less. High fees are a drag on returns; compounded over decades, they lead to a 20 to 30 percent penalty on total returns. Next, the alternative is active-stock or mutual-fund selection or some form of market timing. Academic research overwhelming shows that the vast majority of investors lack the skills or discipline to do that. Attempts at out-performance invariably lead to under-performance. Last, even among those who have the requisite skills, the discipline and emotional control necessary to successfully manage money is intermittent at best, absent at worst.

Market Watch recently published an opinion column arguing index funds are terrible for our economy and highlighted 3 key areas indexing is creating a risk to our markets and economy. Barry Ritholtz responds to each of these in order:

Index funds contribute to market melt-ups and meltdowns.

Really? That statement is at odds with the experience of most Registered Investment Advisors (RIAs) and index-fund managers. Indeed, we have experienced several bubbles and crashes, melt-ups and meltdowns, during the past few decades. The evidence is clear that passive-index investors behave better than active-fund investors or market timers, tending to blunt rather than aggravate volatility.

During the financial crisis, passive investors sat tight and for the most part didn’t sell. Indeed, they were net buyers, according to former Vanguard Chief Executive Officer Bill McNabb. As my Bloomberg colleague Eric Balchunas pointed out, during the 2008 credit crunch, the money flows were into index funds and exchange-traded funds, in part because they displayed less volatility; more than $205 billion was put into these funds while active funds experienced $259 billion in withdrawals.

“Index funds reduce the quality of stock analysis.”

If this were offered as a joke, we could ignore it. But this is a serious — and a seriously flawed — allegation.

Let’s be blunt: Stock analysis has been famously terrible for most of forever. Analysts are too bullish when things are going well, and perhaps too bearish when they are not. They are highly conflicted. Since research itself doesn’t generate income, analysts are paid out the funds generated by other parts of a securities firm’s business, such as investment banking. Their goal is to encourage more active trading, which generates commissions but also higher tax bills and lower returns. For a reminder of how problematic Wall Street research is, recall the analyst scandals of the late 1990s and early 2000s.

I believe this author has it exactly backward: Expensive and ethically compromised analysts were shown to be of so little help to investors that they actively contributed to the rise of indexing.

“Index funds contribute to poor corporate governance.”

Again, I think this is exactly backward — it’s the long-term owners of public stock, that is, index funds — that management must deal with year after year.

Consider what Dave Nadig, managing director of ETF.com (part of CBOE Global Markets) wrote earlier this year:

State Street voted against the slates of directors proposed by companies over 400 times, because those companies failed to add women to their boards. And BlackRock recently published an open letter to markets, putting every company on notice that they would be taking a hard, hard look at everything from executive compensation to community development to environmental impact.

Active managers and activist investors can threaten to sell their stock, and sometimes they do. But then what? The indexers are long-term owners — and they vote their proxies. Management has to acknowledge their permanence.

The complaints about indexing have become tiresome: Indexing is Marxist, it’s a bubble waiting to burst, it’s dangerous to the economy or the efficiency of the market, and so on. The need to relitigate every lost battle is telling. The people who want to sell you newsletters, expensive mutual funds, or costly trading advice have suffered greatly from the move toward low-cost, passive investing. No wonder so many of them refuse to accept the obvious benefits of indexing to average investors.

END

Next time you’re looking at your investment statement, take a moment to think about how much you’re leaving on the table – 10, 20, 30%? The fact that investors choose to, year after year, make voluntary donations via the sacrifice of returns from their portfolio to those that purport to be able to ‘beat the market’ astounds me.

There’s a great book by Fred Schwed Jr. titled, Where Are The Customers Yachts?, which exposes the folly and hypocrisy of Wall Street. The title refers to a story about a visitor to New York who admired the yachts of the bankers and brokers. Naively, he asked where all the customers’ yachts were? Of course, none of the customers could afford yachts, even though they dutifully followed the advice of their bankers and brokers. Full of wise contrarian advice and offering a true look at the world of investing, in which brokers get rich while their customers go broke, this book continues to open the eyes of investors to the reality of Wall Street.

Source:

  • Bloomberg – https://www.bloomberg.com/opinion/articles/2018-12-12/index-investing-critic-takes-aim-fires-misses
  • Market Watch – https://www.marketwatch.com/story/your-love-of-index-funds-is-terrible-for-our-economy-2018-12-10
  • Morningstar
  • SPIVA

25 Things You Probably Know & Don’t Know About Investing

If you are ready to give up everything else and study the whole history and background of the market and all principal companies whose stocks are on the board as carefully as a medical student studies anatomy – if you can do all that and in addition you have the cool nerves of a gambler, the sixth sense of a clairvoyant and the courage of a lion, you have a ghost of a chance.

– Bernard Baruch

Making money in the modern market is tough. As investors, there are so many things we think we know, yet very few spend time thinking about the things they don’t know. Jim O’Shaughnessy, founder, Chairman, and CIO of O’Shaughnessy Asset Management recently shared what he thinks he knows and doesn’t know about the financial markets. I think investors should take note. Here they are:

  1. I don’t know how the market will perform this year. I don’t know how the market will perform next year. I don’t know if stocks will be higher or lower in five years. Indeed, even though the probabilities favor a positive outcome, I don’t know if stocks will be higher in 10 yrs.
  2. I DO know that, according to Forbes, “since 1945…there have been 77 market drops between 5% and 10%…and 27 corrections between 10% and 20%” I know that market corrections are a feature, not a bug, required to get good long-term performance.
  3. I do know that during these corrections, there will be a host of “experts” on business TV, blogs, magazines, podcasts and radio warning investors that THIS is the big one. That stocks are heading dramatically lower, and that they should get out now, while they still can.
  4. I know that given the way we are constructed, many investors will react emotionally and heed these warnings and sell their holdings, saying they will “wait until the smoke clears” before they return to the market.
  5. I know that over time, most of these investors will not return to the market until well after the bottom, usually when stocks have already dramatically increased in value.
  6. I think I know that, at least for U.S. investors, no matter how much stocks drop, they will always come back and make new highs. That’s been the story in America since the late 1700s.
  7. I think I know that this cycle will repeat itself, with variations, for the rest of my life, and probably for my children’s and grandchildren’s lives as well.
  8. Massive amounts of data have documented that while the world is very chaotic, the way humans respond to things is fairly predictable.
  9. I don’t know if some incredible jump in evolution or intervention based upon new discoveries will change human nature but would gladly make a long-term bet that such a thing will not happen.
  10. I don’t know what exciting new industries and companies will capture investor’s attention over the next 20 years, but I think I know that investors will get very excited by them and price them to perfection.
  11. I do know that perfection is a very high hurdle that most of these innovative companies will be unable to achieve.
  12. I think I know that they will suffer the same fate as the most exciting and innovative companies of the past and that most will crash and burn.
  13. I infer this because “about 3,000 automobile companies have existed in the United States”, and that of the remaining 3, one was bailed out, one was bought out and only one is still chugging along on its own.
  14. I know that, as a professional investor, if my goal is to do better than the market, my investment portfolio must look very different than the market. I know that, in the short-term, the odds are against me but I think I know that in the long-term, they are in my favor.
  15. I do know that by staking my claim on portfolios that are very different than the market, I have, and will continue to have, far higher career risk than other professionals, especially those with a low tracking error target.
  16. I know that I can not tell you which individual stocks I’m buying today will be responsible for my portfolio’s overall performance. I also know that trying to guess which ones will be the best performers almost always results in guessing the wrong way.
  17. I know that as a systematic, rules-based quantitative investor, I can negate my entire track record by just once emotionally overriding my investment models, as many sadly did during the financial crisis.
  18. I think I know that no matter how many times you “prove” that we are saddled with a host of behavioral biases that make successful long-term investing an odds-against bet, many people will say they understand but continue to exhibit the biases.
  19. I think I know the reason for the persistence of these “cognitive mirages” is that up to 45% of our investment choices are determined by genetics and can not be educated against.
  20. I think I know that if I didn’t adhere to an entirely quantitative investment mythology, I would be as likely—maybe MORE likely—to giving into all these behavioral biases.
  21. I know I don’t know exactly how much of my success is due to luck and how much is due to skill. I do know that luck definitely played, and will continue to play, a fairly substantial role.
  22. I don’t know how the majority of investors who are indexing their portfolios will react to a bear market. I think I know that they will react badly and sell out of their indexed portfolio near a market bottom.
  23. I think I know that the majority of active stock market investors—both professional and aficionado—will secretly believe that while these human foibles that make investing hard apply to others, they don’t apply to them.
  24. I know they apply to me and to everyone who works for me.
  25. Finally, while I think I know that everything I’ve just said is correct, the fact is I can’t know that with certainty and that if history has taught us anything, it’s that the majority of things we currently believe are wrong.

What is it about investing and financial markets that you don’t know?

The Hayne Royal Commission Could be Taking Things too Far. Here’s Why.

When you want to help people, you tell them the truth. When you want to help yourself, you tell them what they want to hear.

– Thomas Sowell

As the royal commission on financial advice continues to crucify the banks and their executive teams, I’ve been watching with great interest and can’t argue with the revelations to date. Late last week I came across this article, which irritated me a little to say the least.

Source: AFR

As grandfathered commissions are all but dead – and I would argue they should never have been grandfathered to begin with, the Hayne royal commission seems to now be moving its shiny bazooka toward ongoing fees charged by financial advisers.

The financial industry has evolved from not charging clients anything at all and being remunerated via product commissions, to percentage of assets under management (AUM), to no commissions whatsoever and simply charging their clients a flat dollar monthly/annual retainer (with some charging a combination of percentage of AUM and flat dollar).

At my firm we charge a flat dollar monthly retainer as we think it removes most if not all conflicts of interest. It means we remain outcome focused rather than product focused. It also removes the vested interest to gather as much ‘AUM as we can. We’re free to advise clients across all asset classes instead of guiding them toward assets we would otherwise control/manage (and charge a fee on).

The commission is exploring the idea of overhauling ongoing advice fees, so financial advisers, like accountants and lawyers, must provide the service before they can invoice their customers.

When NAB chief executive Andrew Thorburn tried to defend ongoing fees as a “transparent upfront fee” of $12,000 a year that is paid $1,000 monthly, Mr Hodge challenged the need for such expensive financial advice.

“How many Australians do you think really need to be paying a thousand dollars a month for financial advice?”

Here’s the transcript:

Source: AFR

Mr Hodge, my neighbour thinks paying $13.99 per month to Netflix for unlimited streaming of movies, documentaries, and shows from all around the world is expensive and unnecessary. He also thinks paying Spotify $9.99 per month for unlimited streaming of music from all around the world is expensive and unnecessary. In fact, he even thinks paying $100 per month for a gym membership that will help him get back into shape is expensive and unnecessary. You see Mr Hodge, regardless of the cost of a service, the customer or client must see value in the service. There’s an old saying, “price is an issue in the absence of value”. This also applies to financial advice.

Charging a fee for service via a retainer promotes engagement, it encourages dialogue, and it incentivises clients to pick up the phone and ask questions without the fear of being invoiced and charged for a phone call (or meeting). It’s the basis of a true partnership.

What’s interesting to me is the number of accounting firms we speak with who are moving to the financial advisers’ fee model – a monthly retainer. The concept of charging clients after the work is done is great for one off transactions, and if that’s the business you’re in – good for you. This, however, is not the business we’re in. We’re in the business of ongoing advice, ongoing oversight, ongoing discussions, ongoing dialogue, ongoing debate. Our clients’ financial lives are not a one-off transaction Mr Hodge. Global financial markets, economics conditions, and the ever changing legal landscape are not a one-off transaction.

Mr Hodge, more Australian’s need to and should be paying $1,000 per month (if not more) to a good quality financial adviser. To help them make good decisions with their money. To help them avoid speculation and grow their wealth the slow way. To help them avoid buying and selling at the wrong time and chasing investment returns.  To act as their sounding board when they are faced with options and confusion. To help guide them toward their financial goals. And to save them time, energy, and anxiety with managing their money and financial affairs.

Show me the incentive and I’ll show you the behaviour.

– Charlie Munger

Finally, some of the responsibility needs to fall on the consumer. If you are engaging a professional to help you with your financial matters, and you are paying them a fee to do so, yet you are not receiving a service, it’s up to you to call it out. Here are 16 questions you need to ask your financial adviser.

Despite all the negative press aimed at financial advisers, it’s not that hard to find a good quality, ethical adviser. Here are just a few of them:

Chronos Private

Marasea Partners

Your Family CFO

Rasiah Private Wealth

ICG Financial Planning

There are many of us that pride ourselves on our ethics, transparency, drive, and our purpose. And we won’t allow uneducated and misinformed points of view dictate the great work we do for our clients.

Next time I turn on Netflix or Spotify, and I’m not receiving the service I am paying for, I will not be waiting for a royal commission on the cloud streaming industry, as a consumer I will be on the phone to find out what’s going on. You need to do this same. You deserve better.