Sunday 7 September 2014

Way Of The Dodo

Once again, the US Yahoo Finance pages have a post on the topic of indexes and the futility of outsiders trying to beat them long-term with individual stock picks. It’s tucked away as section 4 of an article called “The four most useless things financial advisers tell you”:
Why accept “mediocre” returns when you can beat the market? Fortunately, this canard is going the way of the dodo, but there are still some holdouts among newsletter writers, bottom feeders at brokerage firms, and in corners of the financial media. Their claim: By buying index funds, you’re settling for mediocrity when you can beat the market with well-chosen stocks or exchange traded funds (selected by them, of course).
Academic research has demolished the whole notion of market-beating stock picking, of course, and now the trend toward index funds is unstoppable. But those with a vested interest are clinging to the old ways by appealing to Americans’ desire to be “better than average.”
Oh, if only they were truly mediocre! My MarketWatch colleague Chuck Jaffe wrote recently about how badly investors perform, mostly because they move in and out of stocks at exactly the wrong time, missing much of the up side that’s part of every bull market. If they really bought and held, their equity holdings could keep up with the market while their wealth grew over time.
Some financial advisers will tell you exactly that. But too many are busy trying to proffer complex strategies suitable for only their wealthiest, most sophisticated clients. Instead of the useless ideas outlined above, I’d suggest buying and holding far less than 60% to 70% of your money in equity index funds; waiting until you turn 66 or 67 (not 70) to take Social Security, and saving as much as you can in a tax-deductible IRA [Individual Retirement Account] or 401(k) [a Personal Pension / Retirement Savings Account] while you’re employed. Do all that and you’ll be way ahead of the game — and almost everyone else.
Wealthier clients such as the Sultan, and those like Emp for whom beating the market is so easy, it's amazing that not everyone is above average, can obviously ignore academic research and this advice, but for mere mortals like most of us, it’s pretty solid.

Start as early as you can, invest 10% or more of everything you earn in stock index funds, and forget about it. You won’t go far wrong.

The Chuck Jaffe article referenced above on how investors perform badly is here:
Fund shareholders should know what bad investment behaviors look like. To find them, most people simply need to look in their own portfolio.
Whether it’s buying funds with above-average expense ratios or chasing performance by rotating toward hot funds — instead of trying to “buy low” by purchasing whatever the market has put on sale — hyper-actively managing a portfolio, or going for money managers who haven’t proven capable of living up to their fund’s promises, there’s hardly anyone out there who without one or two classic blunders thrown into their investment history somewhere.
The question is whether that’s actually so bad.
That question was raised for me most recently by some new research by the Vanguard Group — the world’s largest fund company — on the effects of performance-chasing.
The report analyzes “more than 40 million return paths” to cover every possible trade that could have been made among diversified domestic stock funds from 2004 through 2013. Vanguard used a three-year holding period, because that is roughly how long the typical investor hangs onto the average equity fund.
Effectively, the research assumes that anyone whose fund delivers below-average performance over three years would dump the lagging fund in favor of something that has done better in the same asset class.
It’s not a real surprise that the trading investor — the one who gives up on a fund after three years to buy something “better” — does worse than the one who overcame their disappointment to let the money ride.
The differences are big, too, with buy-and-hold delivering a 7.1% average annualized return in large-cap growth, for example, compared to 4.3% for a performance-chasing strategy.
There’s some fault in the methodology. I have seldom heard from an average investor who was interested in swapping a lagging large-growth fund for another one in the same asset class; normally, they’re so disappointed with results that they are dumping the fund and either rebalancing or just going for what’s been hot lately. That’s why so many investors left stocks as the financial crisis of 2008 was unfolding, moving into bonds and, in many cases, missing out on the subsequent bull market as a result.
There’s not much fault, however, with the conclusion that investors typically hurt themselves by trading, rather than helping themselves.
Now we could argue the reasons that investors make mistakes; because they’re irrational, not particularly knowledgeable and more. We can show that the numbers suggest that they would “do better” if they invested in lower-cost funds and held them for a long time.
But just because it’s right doesn’t mean the average investor can do it.
Intuitively, by now, investors know that buying index funds makes sense, because so few money managers consistently beat their benchmark.
But buying an index fund is a bit like riding a rollercoaster in the amusement park; you may know that the coaster is the biggest, best ride, but plenty of people simply can’t buckle themselves in and take the ups and downs.
Right or wrong, using an active manager instead of an index fund gives many of those people a sense of controlling their downside risk. If they are able to buy-and-hold the active fund — when a downturn might convince them to bail out of the index — then their results are likely to be better in an active fund, regardless of what any study says about which is the “best investment.”
Simply put, some people would rather ride the Ferris wheel and the carousel, others want only the coasters, and still others want to ride everything. All can have a good time in their own way doing the same thing in the investment theme park.
What most of these studies miss is that no one actually sets out to make investment blunders; most of the time, you are looking at honest mistakes.
If those errors blow up the portfolio, it’s a disaster; if they result in “sub-optimal returns,” it’s more like an unfortunate circumstance.
“People are given the tools to hurt themselves on a daily basis these days,” said Karl Mills, president of Jurika, Mills & Kiefer in San Francisco. “Your portfolio can tweet at you now. … You get messages about every market move and you can have stock advice sent to your phone. … The temptation is to do something which almost always will backfire on your long-term thinking.
“For a lot of people, they keep hearing ‘This will help you’ and ‘This will make your portfolio better,’ and they look at this like ‘I’m making my portfolio better,’ even if they’re not,” he added.
In short, investing is like the proverb in which perfect is the enemy of good.
If you are always in search of something better, there’s a good chance you’ll hurt your portfolio precisely by doing things you expect to help it.
So long as you reach your financial goals — whether it’s because of those maneuvers or in spite of them — and you can sleep at night along the way, that’s okay.
Having “the best results” is less important than having a strategy that is “good enough” for you.


Prabhat said...

Cassini, you're remarkably good at ignoring nuances when they don't suit you and spotting them when it does.

Before I say anything else, I am offended by being classed with 'Sultan'. I am not seeking anyone to 'invest' in me or to fund my activities or buy advice or any such thing, I'm not selling anything and am not self-promoting with an agenda.

I'm just philosophically opposed to this defeatist philosophy which implies that because of 90% of people suck, no one should even try and be good, because they are bound to fail. This sort of statistical reasoning is based on everything else being equal, which it never is, and the most competent people tend to be those who try to be good.

I am not the disputing academic research, just pointing out it DOESN'T prove that no one can beat the market, just the average person (or fund) obviously won't. As I have pointed out before, the fact that people systematically choose bad times, is itself proof that it's obviously possible to choose good times(if you adopted different decision-making frameworks than most people).

Finally, I am not making any advise as to what anyone should do with their money; just pointing out the fact that you won't become truly rich doing what everyone else is, so if that is one's goal than they had better try and be smarter than everyone else.

Prabhat said...

Also, while we are on the point, I have to note that all these guys who are saying 'you can't beat the market' of course have their own 'low cost index funds' that they want you to invest in...what do you think they are going to say, when their business depends on fund collection from the masses in a major bull market?