Index Issues (part 1)

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Passive index investing has seen significant growth over the last 30 years as an alternative to active (stock picking) investing. Studies surrounding active investing have shown that on the whole, active investors underperform the market significantly, for two main reasons: high fees and poor stock selecting. As people come to grips with the problems inherent to active investing they naturally turn towards index funds, which seems to solve both of the problems listed above. Index funds are typically very cheap to own (solves the fee problem), and instead of actively picking stocks, they simply own sections of the market (solves the poor stock picking problem). Sounds pretty good, right?
Well, it’s definitely better than an active investment strategy but index funds are not without their problems, and they’re certainly not the best way to invest your money. Here are a few issues:

  1. An index is arbitrary. The S&P 500 Index (the most popular index out there) was created more as a measurement than an investment vehicle. It’s simply a list of 500 of the largest companies in the U.S., there’s no magic to the number 500. But that’s the thing, indexes were not created to maximize investor returns or diversify into asset classes in the most strategic way, they’re just arbitrary measurements.
  2. Index funds are almost all cap-weighted. This is an important thing to note. What this means is the larger the company, the larger percent of the index it takes up. In the S&P 500, the largest 10 companies take up 20% or more of the entire index while the bottom 10 companies take up less than 0.2%. In any index, most of your money is going into the most valuable several companies instead of being evenly diversified. A total U.S. market index fund, while seemingly offering lots of diversification, is almost entirely loaded up in the largest companies because of its cap weighting.
  3. Index fund investing often puts your finger on the trigger. Many index fund investors do their investing on their own since you can own an index fund yourself for a fraction of the cost you could pay an advisor to put you in the exact same fund. I’ve made this point in the past, but when it’s as easy as the click of a button to pull money out of an investment account, people tend to make mistakes. The S&P 500 for instance, has averaged about a 10% return per year for almost 100 years, which is fine, not great, but fine. However, from 2000 to 2009, it averaged a -1% return per year. It doesn’t matter how low the fees were or how well it compared to the stock-picking accounts, precious few of us would have stuck around for those returns over 10 years if we could move the money with the click of a button. Successful investing requires good coaching. Good coaching should include a better portfolio than a bunch of cheap mutual funds.

So what’s the alternative? Stay tuned for part 2.

Value Investor

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Value investing sounds really cool. It sounds savvy, it sounds smart, it sounds responsible, it sounds like it makes a lot of money. I mean, Warren Buffet is a value investor!

So what is a value investor? Well, a value investor is someone who invests in value companies. So what’s a value company? I’m glad you asked. Essentially, a value company is one whose stock price is about the same (could be a little higher or lower) than its intrinsic, or book, value. A lot of words there but stick with me. The intrinsic value of a company is what you get when you add up all the company’s assets, its land, warehouses, products (which can include patents), equipment, cash, etc. It might seem a little odd that a company’s stock price wouldn’t always be close to its intrinsic value, but the stock market prices of growth companies (the opposite of value companies) can actually trade multiples of 8 times higher than its intrinsic value. This happens because the market expects the growth company to continue growing. Value companies aren’t typically expected to grow much, they’re often characterized as distressed. So value investors are analyzing these value companies and deciding which ones they think are actually undervalued and which ones could bounce back. Again, it sounds great, they’re the brilliant nerdy guys reading all of the fine print and finding the deals in the stock market, the companies that are underpriced. All you have to do is hitch up to their wagon and ride those value companies up when everyone else figures out how valuable they actually are. Sounds pretty responsible, right?

A semi-famous value investor, Michael Burry, featured in the Big Short (as Christian Bale) crushed the growth stock market from 2001-2005. In the middle of 2005, he was up 242% when the U.S. large growth market (S&P500) was down 6.84%. Michael Burry is the quintessential weird genius that we love to fall in love with, and hand our money over to. He did things differently, he didn’t take normal massive fees, he was incredibly awkward with people in person, he kept to himself, he obsessively studied the interworkings of the companies he invested in, just about everything you would expect from the next market genius. He’s most famous for predicting, and attempting to short, the housing crash in 2007. And now’s he’s rich, and famous, and still investing. He recently stated that passive investing is a bubble, that he’s concentrated on water (you get it), that GameStop is undervalued, and that Asia is where it’s at. While these investment tips might accord with the laws of value investing, they hardly seem prudent.

Michael Burry is definitely smarter than I am, but here’s what I know:

1) Ken French, a professor of finance at the Tuck School of Business, Dartmouth College, who has spent much of his adult life researching and publishing in the sphere of economics and investing, conducted a study of mutual-fund managers (Luck versus Skill in the Cross-Section of Mutual Fund Returns) and found that only the top 2% to 3% had enough skill to even cover their own costs. Eugene Fama, another father of economic and investing academia, who co-wrote the paper with Ken French, summarizes their findings this way: “Looking at funds over their entire lifetimes, only 3% demonstrate skill after accounting for their fees, and that’s what you would expect purely based on chance.” Of the managers who do exhibit enough skill to cover their own costs, it’s hard to determine whether an actual skill is at work or it’s simply a facet of luck; most free-market scholars lean towards luck.

2) Fama continues: “Even the active funds that have generated extraordinary returns are unlikely to do better than a low-cost passive fund in the future.” Some managers do well enough to cover their own costs and beat the market in a given year. Unfortunately, their success languishes quickly and they regress to the same plane that active managers, on the whole, occupy, underperforming the market.

So is Michael Burry, or any value investor, the weird, brilliant savant that we desperately want to attach our life-savings to, or is he one of the 3% of managers who have done well enough to cover their own fees, but who the data says is more likely to regress to market underperformance mean than to do it again? I know which side I’m playing.

Financial Advisors aren’t evil (mostly)​

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I met a stranger this morning (the beauty of Facebook marketplace). He had looked me up in advance, not to be creepy (he assured me), just to make sure he wasn’t meeting a crazy person. He saw that I’m a financial advisor and wondered if I had ever met his financial advisor, whom he trusts very much. In fact, he trusts his financial advisor so much he recently handed over full discretion, meaning the advisor no longer needs his permission to make trades and move money. It was becoming cumbersome to give the okay every time the advisor wanted to make a trade. I informed him that I had not met his financial advisor, and he assured me that his advisor is a great guy.
Here’s the thing, I’m sure he is a great guy, I’m sure his intentions are (mostly) pure. Many financial advisors are really great, and they really care. But that little discretionary bit he shared with me is alarming. When it becomes cumbersome to approve every trade your advisor wants to make, that’s a problem. According to the data, financial advisors who actively trade routinely underperform the market, even advisors who are really great guys. Don’t work with an advisor only because he or she is a great person. Find an advisor who is a great person, but who also understands how the market works, how to most efficiently capture returns, how to avoid stock picking and market time and trying to beat the market, and most importantly, how to coach you. Your future depends on more than the integrity of your advisor. He may not be evil, but he may also be submarining your retirement.

The commission trap

So you’re an investor, and you’ve got seemingly unlimited options for your money. Some seem awesome, some look a little suspect, and for the most part, you’re not really sure what’s going to work and what to stay away from. Typically, you’d talk to some type of financial advisor. Or you’d succumb to your own hubris and decide to get online and do this whole investing thing yourself until it becomes clear that you’ve made a huge mistake, then you’d talk to some sort of financial advisor. But now instead of trying to figure out how and where to invest money, you’re trying to figure out how to pick a trustworthy advisor who can help you with the investing part. Well, I’ve got one piece of advice: watch out for the commission trap.

There are several different ways that financial professionals are paid, the two most common are through fees and through commissions. Some advisors only charge one way or the other, some do both.

A fee-based advisor means that if you’ve got money invested, the advisor collects a fee (usually a small percentage) from your investments every year. It’s a pretty simple, pretty common model, and it makes sense because the advisor is invested in your success. It definitely doesn’t mean that the advisor is trustworthy, but you can at least take comfort in the fact that it’s a sensical payment model.
On the other side is the commission trap. There are a few bad things about commissions:

  • It means you’re buying a financial product. Advisors who collect commissions only get paid when a client buys something. Financial products, while veiled as beneficial to the customer, are generally not the best option. They prey on people’s desire for security and charge a hefty premium for it (annuity). What a financial product offers can almost always be had for a fraction of the cost with a much higher ceiling for growth by simply investing in the market. Not every product is always bad, but you definitely shouldn’t be buying lots of financial products.
  • It means the advisor is collecting a large commission. These products, specifically annuities, will pay out massive sums to advisors who can peddle them. Commissions between 5% and 10%, and sometimes even more, are common. That means if you take your $500,000 investment account and buy an annuity, the advisor could be collecting between $25,000 and $50,000. That’s a lot, suspiciously a lot. Brokers will pay advisors these kinds of fees is because the product is extremely lucrative for brokers, which means it’s probably not super beneficial for customers. 
  • It means there’s a conflict of interest for the advisor. They’re stuck with the tough decision (or maybe not so tough) of educating and caring for their client and promoting their best interests or putting food on their own table for their own kids, or taking a super nice vacation, or whatever else you could get excited about buying for $50,000. Unfortunately, the advisor’s interest will likely lean toward the $50k. Better not to put yourself, or the advisor, in a conflicting situation like that. 
  • It means that you’re probably not getting coached. Advisors who sell products aren’t evil (mostly), but they have to function more like salespeople than advisors or coaches in order to survive. Best case, the salespeople are catering to clients, giving them what they want without trying to rip them off. Worst case, the salespeople are manipulating or aggressively pushing bad products to people. Either way, coaching doesn’t enter the equation. There is no correlation between a customer’s desire for or the suitability of a product and the long term success of a client. So instead of coaching and educating clients, financial salespeople end up helping clients orchestrate their own financial purgatory, never making progress towards their goals. 

So keep an eye out for the commission trap when you’re evaluating an advisor.

Are you stock picking?

Stock picking is the art of choosing stocks that you believe will outperform (in which case you’d buy) or underperform (in which case you’d sell) the rest of the market, at least for a period of time. Whether you decide based on some special analytics or just follow your gut, it doesn’t really matter, you buy stocks you think will do well or dump stocks you think won’t. To put it another way, you’re looking for inefficiencies in the stock market. You believe that the stocks you plan to buy are underpriced; if everyone else knew or believed what you do the stock price would already be higher. Or you plan to sell stocks you believe are overpriced; again, if everyone knew or believed what you do, the stock price would already be lower. Naturally, once you’ve made your move, you expect the rest market to catch up and the stock prices to move accordingly.

Stock picking is a normal practice throughout the investing industry, even the prevailing practice. Professionals have been engaging with it since the inception of the stock market, and, with the advances in technology, more non-professionals than ever also have access through convenient investing apps and websites. Stocking picking is everywhere. In fact, most people think stock picking is investing, that they’re one and the same. The above definition of stock picking sounds like investing, doesn’t it? Here are a few reasons why that’s a problem:

1) Stock picking is built on the premise that the market is not efficient, that smart people can find deals and make money buying and selling the right stocks at the right time. The problem is that’s a false premise, the stock market is actually efficient. An efficient market means that stocks are never overpriced or underpriced, there are no deals, there is no right or wrong time to buy. Stock prices move based on future news and information (no one knows the future) and they react to the new news and information very quickly. If you purchase a stock based on an intuition about the future, that’s just guessing. If you purchase a stock because you believe it’s poised for growth based on a new report you read, the stock price has already adjusted to the report’s information, the price has already moved. With improving technology and additional regulation the market is more efficient now than ever before. News is disseminated immediately and trades can be placed instantaneously. There are differing beliefs as to the level or scale to which the market is efficient, but research continually supports the Efficient Market Hypothesis. Since the market is efficient, stock picking doesn’t work by definition.

2) Research into the results of stock picking has been impressively depressing. Study after study shows that no one, not even professionals, has consistent success picking stocks over time. People will outperform the broader market occasionally, maybe even for a few years in a row, but because of the number of people trying that’s a statistical probability, it’s not based on any skill. Professor Russ Wermers stated in a 2008 mutual fund study, False Discoveries in Mutual Fund Performance: Measuring Luck in Estimated Alphas, that “the number of funds that have beaten the market over their entire histories is so small that the False Discovery Rate test can’t eliminate the possibility that the few that did were merely false positives.” He’s basically saying that there are so few active stock pickers who have outperformed the market that they were more likely a product of luck than skill. And that’s the professionals. Stock picking doesn’t work because it’s built on a false premise and the research agrees.

3) Research into the costs associated with stock picking is also grim. William Harding, an analyst with Morningstar, said that the average turnover ratio for managed domestic stock funds is 130% (Apr 23, 2018). That’s a terrifying number. It means that through the course of a year the fund will replace all of the stocks it owns, and then re-replace another 30%. It means that the average stock is held for only 281 days. There is a lot of trading going on here. One of the reasons stock picking fails is because of the additional expenses it incurs for all of these trades. Active funds charge an expense ratio, which is normal (although active funds typically charge higher expense ratios than passive funds because of the additional work it takes to actively trade), but they also incur significant trading costs, which is unique to active funds. The expense ratios are published but the trading costs often aren’t. A 2013 study, Shedding Light on ‘Invisible’ Costs: Trading Costs and Mutual Fund Performance, discovered that the average trading costs of mutual funds amounts to 1.44%, that’s in addition to the already higher expense ratio. Even worse, funds owning higher performing long term asset classes (see Three Factor Model) have even higher trading costs, 3.17% on average for small cap funds. These additional trading fees are debilitating to fund returns.

So stock picking is built on a false premise, it doesn’t work by definition, and it charges a premium for its lackluster results. On top of all of that, there’s a massive cost of lost opportunity when your portfolio is stuck stock picking. While your funds are engaged in the losing strategy the rest of the market is consistently earning great returns over time, returns that can be captured simply with diversification, rebalancing, and discipline. Unfortunately, large swaths of the investing industry still promote the active stock picking strategy, in fact, you’ve more than likely got stock picking funds in your 401k portfolio. There’s a better way to invest.