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.

Human capital

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What’s human capital?
To start, we need a definition. Here’s what Wikipedia has to say: “Human capital is the stock of habits, knowledge, social and personality attributes (including creativity) embodied in the ability to perform labour so as to produce economic value.” A little tricky, but basically human capital is the economic value of a person based on their skills and ability in the workplace.

So who gets paid for human capital?
In a free-market economy, everyone gets paid based on their own human capital. We each own our own skills and abilities and we collect income based on our ability and value when we work. Regardless of whether we work for a company or ourselves, we’re compensated for the value we’re able to provide.

So far so good. Now let’s tie this into investing. Without some understanding of the market, people tend to believe that they can beat the market by picking the right stocks. Consistent success (beating the market) in stock picking is actually impossible, but let’s pretend for a moment that’s not. If the market was beatable, there would naturally be people who were especially endowed with the skills and/or training to beat it. Those people would often become money managers and they would be highly sought after by the general public looking for great returns in their portfolios. But who would collect the premiums for additional returns achieved above-market returns? Stock picking would be a human capitalist skill! The brilliantly skilled money manager would collect some serious fees for his valuable ability, fees almost exactly in line with the amount of return he was able to achieve above the market. The additional return of the portfolio wouldn’t end up in the pockets of investors, it would go to the brilliant manager with the impressive human capital skills.

So here’s the point: the stock market is efficient and so it’s not consistently beatable, but even if it was, investors would not be the beneficiaries. The super-skilled money managers would rightly collect large fees, highly correlated to the additional value they were able to provide based on their human capital skills.

The prediction problem

Investing is hard. If you’ve visited this blog in the past you’ve probably noticed a lean against active types of investing (buying and selling stocks all the time). Trying to predict the market, pick winning and losing stocks, find the best times to be in or out of different market sectors is really hard. Actually, the data suggests that it’s impossible, or at least no one has ever consistently been able to do it (Efficient Market Hypothesis). So prudent investing doesn’t leave space for active investing, the two don’t mesh. For many people, that’s not a satisfactory conclusion. We like to think we actually can pick winners, maybe not every time, but at least most of the times. We like to think we actually can see trends and understand market movements. We like to think we can make predictions. Well, call me a downer, but those instincts aren’t very helpful.
I’ve been reading through Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World – and Why Things Are Better Than You Think by Hans Rosling, a scintillating read. Rosling makes the helpful point that predictions about anything are never certain (he even specifically references the market), and advises readers to be especially wary of future predictions that don’t acknowledge that fact. So here’s my question: why is the future so tough to predict? Here’s my stab at it, with some helpful input from Rosling: the future tough to predict is because the world is far more complicated than we like to think. Rosling notes that the complexity of the systems involved make accurate future predictions essentially impossible. It’s impossible to predict the market because there are billions of factors to consider, all moving and changing every second. Even if we were able to consider each of the billions of factors, we would still have trouble guessing which direction they’ll each move because none of us knows the future. It just doesn’t make a ton of sense to actively trade stocks based on our limited understanding of market factors, not even for professionals. But there’s still happy news here. Even though we don’t know how the market will move today or next year, we do know that the long term general stint of the market is up. So we can actually stop worrying about predictions and news and market trends, those things ought to be the least of our concern, all we have to do is own the whole market as efficiently as we can and stay on for the ride. Owning the market efficiently is a separate discussion, that’s something professionals can actually help with, but the first step is to admit the prediction problem.

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.