What does ‘efficient market’ mean?

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‘Efficient market’ is one of the most important terms to understand when it comes to investing. It’s important because what you think about the efficiency of the market will dictate how you practically invest your money, which will shape your retirement and legacy.
So first, what does it mean? If the market is efficient it means that stock prices react to news and information really fast. For instance, news breaks that a company has committed fraud, and the stock price of that company falls immediately. It also extends to any small bit of news or public sentiment regarding the market or specific companies. Market prices are always moving based on new information and perceptions, and they move almost immediately upon receiving that new information. Those are signs of an efficient market. The speed at which information travels today has only made the market more efficient.
So why does that matter? Well, if the market really is super efficient, it means that picking stocks is futile. Think about it, if the market prices react and update immediately upon receiving new information, the only thing you can do to beat the market is to guess right. Unfortunately market guesses are less like investing and more like gambling. So if the market is efficient, the entire way you’ve previously thought about investing is not only impractical, it’s basically a roll of the dice. Instead of trying to beat the market, an efficient market would suggest you own the whole thing as efficiently as you can. You would diversify and hold stocks instead of research and pick stocks.
There is another important thing to recognize about investing in relation to the efficient market: people do beat the market sometimes, they sometimes pick the right stocks and get better returns than the market as a whole. It’s not often, somewhere around 90% of stock pickers underperform the market every year, but that leaves around 10% who seem to be doing something right. That 10% either figured something out, found some inefficiency in the market, or they got lucky. The thing is, it doesn’t really matter if they’re smart or lucky, and there’s not really any way to empirically test it anyways. Because the market is efficient, if a smart person does find an inefficiency it will close up before long, and if a lucky person gets lucky, they’ll also get unlucky at some point. Either way, by the time you’ve heard about their success, it’s too late. People who have beat the market in the past are much more likely to underperform the market in the future than to beat it again. In fact, they’re more likely to underperform even their contemporaries in the future. Any way you cut it, in an efficient market it simply doesn’t make sense to try to find or profit from market inefficiencies, regardless of whether or not they really exist, or to what extent.
So if the market is efficient, to whatever degree you agree, don’t try to beat it. Instead, own the efficient market as efficiently as possible.

Fishing and diversification

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I love salmon fishing. I love all sorts of fishing, but salmon fishing is special. Instead of the romantic image of fly fishing in a river, or the flashy idea of big-time bass fishing, or even the nostalgic memory of fishing off a rowboat with your grandpa, salmon fishing is more like a battle. Forget everything you know about traditional casting and reeling, salmon fishing involves rigging up multiple fishing rods, attaching them to downriggers and various mechanisms for getting the lures down deep, and a slow troll on open water. The key to catching fish has nothing to do with technique or sport, it’s about setting a broad array of bait covering many different depths. We call it a ‘spread.’ If you only had one or two rods you’d be poorly served, it’s simply not a sufficient level of depth diversification. Ideally, you want 8 to 12, or even 15 to 18 in the case of professional charter boats. Here’s a quick visual:

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Notice how the lines are prudently spread across varying depths? Investing is the same way! Stick with me here; the water is the stock market, the lines/rods are investment dollars, and the different depths are asset classes. We don’t know which depth, or depths, will produce fish, we just know the fish swim all over the place and that if we’ve got a good spread (lines at different depths) we’re bound to catch something. Same with asset classes! We know that they all perform over time, but we don’t know which one is going to hit next year or which one will be best over the next 5 years. So we own all of them. Imagine how dumb it would be to have one line out in the water trolling for salmon, it makes no sense. Even if that one line is set at the depth that has produced the most fish over the last few weeks, it still doesn’t make sense. Fish move around all the time, why would you not want to cover the whole water column/stock market? Just like downriggers and multiple lines ‘enable the whole water column to be covered when trolling,’ diversification allows you to own the whole market when investing! No guesswork, no hoping, no predicting, no gut feelings, no casting lots, no anxiety, just well balanced, widely diversified investments. I’m not saying it’s easy, salmon fishing is a lot of work, but when you’re eating your salmon dinner at the end of it, you’ll be glad you diversified.

Can investing be stress-free? (Part 2)

 

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Requirement 2: An understanding of your portfolio.

The vast majority of investors have little to no understanding of what they own in their portfolio, and even fewer have an understanding about why they own what they own. When you don’t know how or why you’re invested the way you are, the result is a murky, nervous, disposition towards investing. The only thing we know how to measure is the percentage marks, and any downward movement is going to be super stressful.

So an understanding of your portfolio, how and why it’s constructed as it is, could alleviate some of the stress. Unfortunately, it could also magnify the stress if you find out the portfolio is an actively managed, non-diversified disaster.

Stress-free investing involves an understanding of your own portfolio, but also an understanding of how a portfolio should look.

  • An actively managed portfolio cannot reduce stress. When the bad years come, and they will come, you will necessarily feel stressed that either your money manager or yourself is not living up to the task. Not only will the bad years cause stress, but they’ll also be more frequent because actively managed portfolios routinely underperform the market over time.
  • A non-diversified portfolio will cause stress because of the large increase in volatility and the possibility of random outcomes (especially if you only own a few different stocks, or worse, options). I mentioned in part 1 that over long periods of time (10+ years) the market is always up, but it’s important to remember that individual sectors of the market (like the S&P 500) could have droughts even longer than that. From 2000 to 2009 the S&P 500 averaged about -1% per year, for 10 years! And individual stocks can do a lot worse.

These two components, passive management and global diversification, work wonders to reduce the stress of investing. We understand the market has its ups and downs, but we can rest assured that the passive, globally diversified portfolio will trend up and perform best over time. Don’t be afraid to look under the hood of your portfolio.

The Investor Behavior Question

So we looked at the problems with stock picking, market timing and track-record investing. The evidence strongly suggests we should avoid these investing pitfalls. So why do people still engage with them? Many people aren’t familiar with the research, which is an indictment on the investing industry, but the problem goes deeper than that. Even people who understand the research, even people who understand and assent to the research, still don’t consistently comply. Why is this? The industry calls it investor behavior, and it’s big business. I hear a lot about bad investor behavior, but I don’t hear much about why investor behavior is bad, or how to think helpfully about it. Here are a few reasons why I think it’s tough to be a good investor today:

1) The practice of buying low and selling high is ingrained in us. We’re deal shoppers. We see a good deal, something that’s worth more than its sale price, and we can feel great about the purchase. We’ve got TV shows that show us how to buy cheap houses and storage units in order to flip them for a profit. The booming fantasy football business teaches us to perform hours of research before drafting players (no? only me?) in order to find the underpriced guys who will overperform. We’ve got side hustles flipping cars, furniture, clothes, electronics, you name it. We’ve got sale adds spilling out of our mailboxes. That’s just how our world works, we shop for deals, things that are underpriced. Another way to say it, we’re always on the lookout for inefficiencies. But the stock market in not inefficient (see Are you stock picking?). It’s the one place we shop where there are no sales or discounts. It makes sense that we would apply our standard buying principles to investing, but unfortunately, our instincts aren’t helpful here.

2) Active investing feels right. Trading in a portfolio is exciting, especially if you think you’re good at it. A big win in the stock market makes for a really nice adrenaline hit. It’s similar to gambling. You can do it from your favorite chair in your living room, or a bustling coffee shop; it feels meaningful; it provides a perfect excuse to be constantly checking the news; you get to use your favorite tech gadgets (that’s what gets me). And even if you’re not the one making the trades, it just seems responsible to watch the news and track your returns every day. It seems right to talk predictively about the market, to decide on an investing strategy for the upcoming year. We’re not lazy people, we do our due diligence; unfortunately, with investing, we diligently do the wrong things.

3) We’re inundated with encouragement to engage in active investing. Financial news networks and websites were not created to educate their viewership, they exist to drive traffic. Since patience, diversification, minimal trading, (aka the staples of a good investment strategy) are really boring, news outlets lean heavily towards the predictive and active trading slant. Specific stock recommendations and bold market predictions fuel our instinct to do something with our investments. Again, it feels right to try to figure out where the market is going and how to profit from it. The news only tickles that itch.

Investing is counterintuitive and human behavior is often the trickiest part in investing. Sometimes we simply lack the knowledge required to be a good investor, but more often it feels like we should be doing more. When something needs fixing, we put our heads down and figure out how to fix it. Before we decide to buy something we do our research. But the way we make buying decisions in our every-day lives doesn’t work in the stock market. While we constantly look for inefficiencies, sales, discounts, deals, etc., the stock market is efficiently moving along on its unpredictable upwards trend. Instead of working to beat it, let’s ride it.

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.