There are only two ways to invest (part 2)

 

carolina-pimenta-J8oncaYH6ag-unsplashSo we’ve identified the two basic ways you can invest. That’s great, but how do you know which one to choose? Let’s talk about the active option.

Active investing feels right. We’re active people after all. We shop around for deals, we love sales and Facebook Marketplace. We check weather forecasts on the regular, we set future plans on our calendars. We do research before we buy things (some of us perhaps to a fault), we read reviews, we ask our friends. All of these things are active. So then active investing just seems like the normal way to do things, look for underpriced companies, do some stock research, make a prediction about the future, nothing too out of the ordinary, right?

There’s just one small problem, investing isn’t like normal life. We’ve got really smart people positing that the stock market is efficient, which means there aren’t actually and sales or deals on underpriced companies. Sure, stock prices will generally move upwards, but not because a company is underpriced. New news and information comes into the market and affects stock prices, new things happen that we can’t know for sure beforehand are going to happen. Research into specific stocks is great, professionals are doing it all of the time, but no one person can possibly have a complete understanding of a company, let alone how unknown events in the future will affect the company. There’s just too much data to make picking stocks a long-term viable strategy. Predictions in the stock market are not like weather predictions, we don’t have a radar watching a storm-front move in. And if people believe there is a storm front coming, it’s already priced into the stock prices because again, the market is efficient.

It’s really tough to be a good active investor. Even professionals fail to outperform the market at an extraordinary rate (over the last 15 years, 92% of active funds trading in the S&P 500 have underperformed the S&P 500), and even those who seem to be good at it tend not to repeat their performance. So maybe you’ve guessed by now, I don’t advocate active investing. If you really believe that the market is not efficient and that you or someone you know has a special ability to buy and sell the right stocks at the right time then active investing is the way to test your belief. Unfortunately, the odds are not in your favor.

In part 3, we’ll talk about the alternative option.

Index bubble

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This passive investing/index bubble idea from a Michael Burry interview continues to circulate. The idea has appeal, not the idea that another recession is imminent, but the idea that we could accurately predict one coming, and that the cause could actually make sense to us. The argument is fairly simple. A larger percentage of people are buying index funds, especially the S&P 500, than ever before. Index fund investors tend not to analyze each company in the S&P 500, they simply buy the index which owns all of them. So Burry worries that since fewer and fewer people are conducting analysis on company fundamentals, the prices of these companies are going to be inflated by virtue of the simple fact that they’re included in an index, not because they’re good companies that people believe in. That makes sense. The question then, is how much analysis and trading do we need in order to maintain a decent level of price discovery in the market? If index funds stifle price discovery, how do we avoid a bubble? Here are a few responses:

  • Even a small amount of price discovery (studying fundamentals, making trades, supply and demand) makes a huge difference for prices to reflect value. We don’t need large swaths of the market conducting analysis.
  • If 100% of invested assets were in index funds the price discovery argument might hold some weight. You would have to assume that there would be almost no company fundamental analysis happening, not an unreasonable jump but still an assumption. However, the truth is that only about 45% of invested assets are in index funds, and there’s still a host of investors and dollars outside of passive index funds working to set prices.
  • Index investing actually adds data to the market, it contributes to price discovery. Instead of contributing data on specific stocks, it contributes to larger market sector data as people commit dollars to different indexes across the world, which is helpful market data.
  • Despite the growth of index fund investing, global stock trading volume has actually remained about the same over the last ten years. People use passive vehicles to actively trade. Many index fund dollars are in ETFs among the most traded funds on the market. Just because money is in index funds does not mean that it’s passive. The activity all contributes to price discovery.
  • Some passive investors (like us!) actually do use some fundamental analysis in constructing portfolios (structured funds). And even our passive investors occasionally make trades; in order to rebalance, when they make contributions or withdrawals, etc. Even the most passive investors contribute to price discovery.
  • If the market was losing efficiency and price discovery as a result of growing index fund investors, we would expect to see an uptick in active money manager performance. Active managers would find the mispriced companies in the index and reap corresponding rewards. But the data shows no improvement, active managers have performed slightly worse over the last three years than before.

Despite the uptick in index and passive investing, price discovery is as strong as it ever has been in the stock market. Michael Burry’s comments on the index bubble are interesting and even sound plausible, but upon close inspection look misguided. Passive investing is still the way to go, though you do have permission to dump those index funds.

Are you track-record investing?

Track record investing is the third and last detrimental investment trap I’ll discuss here. Like stock picking and market timing track record investing is as it sounds, using track records or past history to determine whether or not a money manager or specific fund is a good investment.

Track record investing is tricky because we evaluate track records all the time, they’re a normal part of our lives. I use Apple computers instead of windows computer for a few reasons, not least among them is the track record of Apple devices to outlast their windows counterparts. I buy specific products on Amazon only after reading far too many reviews to determine the track record of said product. Track records are not bad, they’re actually super helpful. But, when it comes to investing, it’s dangerous to rely on the same mechanism we use to evaluate Amazon products to decide whether or not a money manager or mutual fund is a good investment. Here are a few reasons why:

The number one disclaimer in the world of investing is “past performance is not indicative of future results.” Why is that phrase posted everywhere? Well, first, because it’s the law. But more importantly, it’s because we so badly want to use track records to determine which mutual funds to invest in, and it doesn’t work. Like we learned about stock picking, people can’t consistently predict the market. If a mutual fund manager does well one year it does not indicate that the manager has figured something out, it means he or she got lucky. People can make guesses about the future, and they do, but no one knows the future, and the market will move based on things that will happen in the future.

A fun example of this past performance issue is Morningstar’s famous five star rating system. Morningstar has long rated funds year after year with one to five star ratings, and it’s a big deal to earn the coveted five stars. However, since 2010 Morningstar has stated that the cost of a fund is a better predictor of its future success than Morningstar’s star rating, essentially admitting that the rating system is useless for evaluating future performance. Track records cannot help when it comes to choosing specific investments.

Another issue with this past performance stuff has to do with the data consumers actually see. Investment companies are notorious for practicing something called selection bias. Selection bias means that if a mutual fund does really poorly, the investment company will kill it and expunge its data from their records so that it has no effect on the overall statistics consumers see. Unfortunately those dead mutual funds often have a drastic effect on returns for real people. The worst 200 funds that were killed between 1923 and 2016 averaged a cumulative return total of -81%. Not only does past performance have nothing to do with future results, but the data consumers see only muddies the water.

So should we shun all data when it comes to investing? Definitely not. It’s important to make a distinction between past performance data, which relates to specific funds or managers or even whole firms, and long term market data, which teaches us about how investing works and where returns come from. I use historical market data all the time, not as if those are returns my firm has achieved since the 1920’s, but to help people understand what to expect from the market, and to show them why diversification is so important. So just remember, past performance really isn’t indicative of future results. Look for an advisor who understands the academics of investing, not one who shovels you past performance data.

Pay attention to asset classes, not returns

When people think about deciding between investment advisors, or mutual funds, or even stocks, the temptation is to look at past performance. That’s the default. And it seems basic, you’re looking for returns, what else would you look at? What else could you even look at?

The problem is the past performance we see is short term. You’ll see three to five year histories on your account statements, Morningstar defaults at a ten year history (if the fund has been around that long), and the news rarely talks about anything further back than the last year. Those are relatively short periods of time, especially when we’re talking about market returns. Instead of comparing past performance in advisors and mutual funds over the past ten years, we should be looking at long-term historical returns of asset classes.

An asset class is a group of similar securities that tend to move together. The main general asset classes are equities (stocks), fixed income (bonds), and cash. Each of these, but especially the equities group, can be broken down further. In equities, we see large vs small, value vs growth, U.S. vs international. For an example, a very popular asset class is U.S. Large Growth, which is basically the S&P 500. We have returns data on these asset classes all the way back to the early 20th century. That information can tell us much more than the past ten years. We can see which asset classes tend to outperform others, we can see how the different asset classes correlate to each other, and we can know what returns and risk a fund or portfolio can expect over long periods of time. A ten-year history of returns is almost irrelevant. Over ten years any asset class could outperform any other, but we don’t know when or which. So to look backward at the performance of a fund is not only unhelpful, it’s more often hurtful. A good ten-year history on a fund, or even an asset class, deceives us into thinking the performance will continue in the future. The short-term history the only information we know to use, and besides that, it seems to make sense. But that’s the opposite of a good investing strategy. Instead, let’s analyze the asset class data going back as far as it goes, understand where returns come from, and diversify our portfolio’s in a way that’s consistent with the data. Then we let the market perform and deliver results. Our balanced diversified portfolio won’t always be the big winner year by year, but over the long haul, it will outperform anyone trying to predict market movements based on ten-year histories, or any other material information.