401k accounts good and bad. They’re mostly good because they provide an avenue for people to save and invest money for their future, but there are some things to watch out for.
- The main benefit of a 401k is that it allows you to invest qualified money. You could just invest money on your own, but investing in your 401k accounts means that you get some significant tax advantages (no capital gains on the growth of your investments and an income tax break). The same advantages apply to IRA accounts, but 401ks include two other significant advantages.
- Many employers offer a matching contribution. For example, if you contribute a certain small percentage of your income (say 5%), the employer may kick in an additional small percentage into your 401k account (say 4%). That’s free money, and you should definitely take it.
- 401k contributions are capped at $19,000 per year by the employee, employer contributions can exceed that. IRA contributions are capped at $6,000 per year. Not all of us are maxing out our qualified retirement accounts, but the larger cap offered by 401k accounts is certainly an advantage.
- 401k accounts offer a limited number of investing options, and they’re almost never great. 401k Plan sponsors (employers) are typically concerned with one thing when choosing a plan: cost. If the plan seems expensive it will be harder to explain to the board, regardless of the value or benefits of the portfolio and the advisor.
- Your money is locked up for as long as you work at the company. You’re stuck with the options available and you can’t move the money elsewhere unless you leave or retire.
- Investors have little to no help deciding which funds or options to use within the 401k so they end up in default options, which are usually target dated funds. You may have seen these funds that end with a future year, like 2045, which you’d be in if you were expected to retire sometime around 2045. A target dated fund is not the worst investment you could be in (which isn’t saying much) but it’s far from ideal. A target dated fund will load you up in U.S. large growth companies (essentially the S&P 500), sprinkle in some international large growth companies, and decide what percentage of your money should be in bonds based on the target year. Unfortunately, in the history of the market, large growth company asset classes are among the lowest-performing of any asset classes over time. A target dated fund is usually made up of index funds (along with their inherent problems) so at least it’s not active, but it will sacrifice large amounts of return over time because of its poor diversification.
Don’t be afraid to use your 401k account, especially if your employer offers a matching contribution (again, free money). But if you’ve obtained the maximum matching contribution, think about investing additional money into a better portfolio through an IRA. Unfortunately, your 401k is probably loaded up in the wrong asset class.
So 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.
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.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
In the last five years, we’ve seen the explosion of alternative investment avenues, especially through apps. While technological advances (computers, algorithms, the internet, you get it) certainly make investing a better and easier experience than it’s ever been, they’ve also promoted some troubling trends in popular consumer investing apps.
Here are a few ways your investing app is ruining your retirement:
- Investing apps are built for active trading which loses money compared to the market. In order for investing apps to be interesting, they promote active trading. No one wants or needs an app to help them buy and hold and never make trades. Unfortunately, active trading is a recipe for disaster. Even professionals lose to the market when they actively trade stocks, not because of any inherent flaws in themselves, but because it’s literally impossible to consistently beat the market.
- No great offerings. Because they’re designed to encourage active investing, investing apps don’t offer many great investing options. Even if you could ignore all the crap, the best funds aren’t in there. Sure, you can find some cheap ETF and index funds, which aren’t the worst options in the world, but they’re definitely not the best. And investing apps know you might try them out, but ultimately you’re going to be moving money around.
- Your earliest years are the most important years and you’re wasting them. Investing apps appeal unilaterally to younger people. The great thing about investing when you’re young is that money invested early will compound far more significantly over time than money invested later. Unfortunately, many young people fall prey to these investment apps which do the opposite of maximizing investment dollars.
- Mis-education, worthless news. In order to make active investing seem legitimate, investing apps often share news and information regarding the market. Unfortunately, the news is not helpful for investing. Instead of learning about how the market works and how to prudently invest money over time, these excerpts simply validate terrible investing strategies.
- Encourage bad behavior. This is the biggest problem. Instead of educating investors, investing apps take advantage of them. Active investing feels right, it seems legitimate, and investing apps only encourage that feeling. Unfortunately, the feelings of investors have no correlation with successful investing, if anything they’re negatively correlated.
So dump the investment app. Learn about important investing concepts like Efficient Market Hypothesis, Modern Portfolio Theory, the Three-Factor Model. Get a good advisor who will get you into the best funds and help you remain disciplined through scary markets. Take your purpose seriously, it’s probably something worth more than speculating and gambling with your investments.