There are only two ways to invest (part 3)

 

carolina-pimenta-J8oncaYH6ag-unsplashSo there are two basic strategies to invest, and your first decision as an investor is to decide which road to take. In part 2 we talked about the active option, in part 3 we’ll cover the alternative option: passive investing.

Whereas active investing feels right, passive investing is a little counter-intuitive. You actually don’t have to do anything to be a successful passive investor. You should probably have an understanding of how the market works and have a conviction about why you’re investing the way you are, but as far as activity goes you’re taking it real easy.

One of my favorite analogies for passive investing is salmon fishing. Salmon fishing is not sport fishing, it’s almost like harvesting, like work. The importance is not in casting and reeling (a staple of sport fishing), the importance is in how well you’re set up. You need to have varying types of bait at varying depth of water, you might try variations in boat speed, variations in direction, variations in water depth, etc. The important thing is to be equipped to catch a fish at any moment by diversifying your offering as much as possible. Once you’re all rigged up, you sit back and let the market do its work.

The basic question here is about whether or not you’re confident in the fact that the market is efficient. If you believe the market is efficient (which data supports) any attempt to outperform the market by actively picking stocks or timing the market is vain. Instead of spending time on all different types of analysis and market trends, the focus can be on how to design the most efficient portfolio possible, how to diversify in the best possible way. Instead of trying to bet and predict the market, you simply need to own the market as efficiently as possible. It’s an entirely different game.

Passive investing is a wonderful thing, it reduces a great deal of stress. A poor year of returns is simply a result of the market, it’s not the result of some poor guesses by you or anyone else. A recession is no longer terrifying because you’re well-diversified and you understand that the market always bounces back, that the average market downturn lasts less than a year. Your retirement is no longer a question of ‘if,’ but of ‘when.’ A passive investor is free from analyzing endless piles of company data, the uneasiness about the market sectors they’re invested in. Passive investors don’t have to worry about how the riots in Hong Kong, or Bolivia, or Lebanon, or Iraq will affect their portfolio. It’s an entirely different way of being.

So the first decision you’ve got to make as an investor is whether you’ll be active or passive. That’s certainly not the last question you’ll have to answer, but it’s a very important one and one that set the direction of your investing journey and your financial future.

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.

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.