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.

Index issues (part 2)

 

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Alright, so we know passive investing trumps active investing, and we know that index investing, while passive, has some serious deficiencies. So what’s left?
We want to own the market passively, but that doesn’t mean we’re restricted to index funds. There is a much more responsible way to allocate money to different companies and sectors – structured funds. Structured funds deal with each of the index funds issues:

1. Instead of an arbitrary grouping of companies, a structured fund can make it’s own set of rules to decide which companies are in an asset class or fund and which are not. The S&P 500 is 500 of the largest companies in the U.S., but what if that’s not the best way to own the U.S. Large growth asset class? The same question can be asked of any index. Instead of abiding by the arbitrary index rules, a structured fund makes its own rules based on a century of market data. Just like the S&P 500 has rules to decide which companies are in and which are out (largely based on that 500 number), a structured fund has a set of rules that a company has to meet (size, profitability, book to value ratio, etc.) in order to be included in that fund. It’s still passive (in fact, often more passive than index funds), the rules are what determine which companies are in and out not an advisor’s gut feelings, but it’s a different type of investing. And it’s based on actual market research instead of arbitrary measurements.

2. We know that small companies outperform large companies over time, but indexes, by necessity (because of cap-weighting), own the least amount of the small companies. Even small company indexes like the Russell 2000 (which owns the smallest 2,000 companies in the U.S.) have much more money invested in the larger several companies than in the smaller hundreds of companies. If you’re in a target dated fund (the ones with a year at the end) in a 401k or a total U.S. market index fund, you’re missing out on the best returns the market has to offer because of cap-weighting.

3. Structured funds are not as cheap to own, and they’re much more scarce than index funds. You’ll probably have to work with an advisor to gain access to them. They rarely let investors put their finger on the trigger. Over time, these funds outperform traditional index funds because they’re designed to maximize return. An index fund would have to pay you to achieve similar returns, even after the additional costs of structured funds are considered. And because investors can only access them through an advisor, the likely-hood that investors consistently realize the returns (instead of hopping in or out or all around at the wrong time) increases significantly.

Often times index funds are the only decent option available (this is true in many 401k accounts), but when the options are open, a good advisor offering good structured funds is the best option.

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.

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.

You should know something about ETFs

First things first, if you’re unsure what an ETF (exchange-traded fund) is, let me explain broadly. An ETF is something you can invest money into, it’s an investment vehicle. Like mutual funds, ETFs provide a way for investors to own multiple companies through one fund. You might even have some money invested in ETFs through your 401k or other investment accounts.

ETFs have quickly become a very popular investment option in the US. We hear a lot about robo-advisors these days, their offerings consist almost exclusively of ETFs. In 2016, seven of the top ten traded securities in the US market were ETFs. Assets deposited and held within ETFs have grown substantially within the last 15 years:

Besides all that, ETFs are cool. They’re based on algorithms, you can buy and track them through really nice apps, they’re usually super cheap, the list goes on. They’re the perfect investment for this generation. I’ll admit, they appeal to my millennial preferences too. But, there are a few important things to understand about ETFs before making any investment decisions, and there’s a reason we don’t recommend them.

Now let’s define ETF a little more specifically. The easiest way to explain them is by a comparison with mutual funds. Mutual funds have been around for much longer, they’re a little simpler, and probably a little more familiar. We’ll look at two distinguishing characteristics between mutual funds and ETFs:

1) Ownership.

A mutual fund owns shares of different companies. So if you buy one share of a mutual fund, you’re actually investing in each of the different companies that the mutual fund owns. Different mutual funds make different decisions on which companies they own. Some are actively managed, meaning there’s a manager buying and selling different shares within the mutual fund; some are passively managed, meaning they own a group of companies that are chosen based on a set of rules and the companies don’t change too much; some are index funds (which is a type of passive fund), which means they own the same companies that an index tracks (like the S&P 500); there’s no shortage to the type of mutual fund you can own, there are lots of them, and they’ve been a very popular investment vehicle for a long time. The thing to remember is that the value of a mutual fund is the value of the stocks it owns. Mutual funds actually own stock shares.

ETFs also invests in different companies, and different ETFs have different criteria for the companies or sectors they invest in (the most popular ETFs track with the S&P 500). However, ETFs don’t actually own stock shares in those companies. Instead, they own pledged assets, which are contracts to provide shares. Essentially, ETFs own rights to shares. This brings benefits like low expense ratios within ETFs (no fees for buying and selling stocks since the only things that trade within an ETF are contracts) and occasional tax savings (if you have a taxable account).

2) Fund type.

Mutual funds are their own separate type of investment, they’re not like stocks. Mutual funds are only valued once per day, after the close of market. Then all the stocks and investments within the fund are added up and the value of the mutual fund is determined anew. Because of this, you can only buy and sell mutual funds once per day, when the value has been calculated. Mutual funds are a longer type of investment by design. That doesn’t mean the holdings within the mutual fund are long term, a mutual fund manager could be making trades inside the mutual fund at any time, but the mutual fund itself can’t be day-traded or hedged or anything you might do with stock holdings.

ETFs however, are traded on an exchange, which means they act like a stock. You can make inter-day trades, the value is moving whenever the market is open, you can hedge and short and order stops, and engage in all sorts of risky stock market things. It also means there’s a fee for each trade, which isn’t necessarily a problem, but you wouldn’t want to be executing lots of ETF trades. This extra trad-ability makes mutual funds appealing for many. The trade costs are a bit of a deterrent, but you can actually day-trade with ETFs.

So that’s what ETFs are. The rise of ETFs in one of the most significant changes in the world of investing over the last 20 years and many people are excited about the opportunity. Here are a few reasons why I’m less excited, and why we don’t recommend ETFs for our investors.

Regulation surrounding ETFs has proven insufficient. I’m usually not a big proponent for the increase of regulation, but when it comes to ETFs, the lack of regulation is a real problem. There currently isn’t even an official legal definition for ETFs so they’re regulated individually, fund by fund, under mutual fund rules. As you’ve seen above, ETFs differ from mutual funds in significant ways, and mutual fund regulations simply can’t account for the discrepancies.

Since ETFs own contracts for shares instead of actual shares, the value of an ETF is tied to the viability of its contracts to perform, its arbitrage mechanism. Theoretically, the value of an ETF should be the value of the promised shares (like mutual funds are valued based on the shares they own), and usually, it is, but not always. When the price diverges, the arbitrage mechanism has to kick in to bring it back. So there’s a whole new type of risk involved, the reliability of the arbitrage mechanism, which can also dramatically affect the price. The fact is, when the market is stressed, the arbitrage mechanism can fail, causing massive swings in the pricing of ETFs, unrelated to the underlying stock assignments. That’s not just a hypothetical, it has happened, and continues to happen. August 24, 2015, is one specifically egregious example. It’s not entirely clear how or why these things happen from a market perspective, and the differing regulations (even between funds with the same pledged assets) only cause more uncertainty. The whole system is shrouded. What we know is that the inconsistent regulation, the cloudy definitions, and the unreliable arbitrage mechanisms have created more risk for ETFs. Unfortunately, it’s impossible to quantify the additional risk in any meaningful way because there are still too many unknowns. Investopedia even admits in reference to ETFs, ‘the perceived increase in volatility needs further research.’ In its current state of affairs, the ETF market is simply not reliable enough to recommend as a vehicle for a person’s life savings. There seems to be increasing support for research and regulation surrounding ETFs so the issue is certainly not over-with, perhaps we could even end up recommending ETFs to all of our investors in the future, but for now, stick with some good old mutual funds.

 

Sources:

Financial Times: The $5tn ETF market balances precariously on outdated rules

Financial Times: Market turbulence revives fears over ETF structural issues

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