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.

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.

Value Investor

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Value investing sounds really cool. It sounds savvy, it sounds smart, it sounds responsible, it sounds like it makes a lot of money. I mean, Warren Buffet is a value investor!

So what is a value investor? Well, a value investor is someone who invests in value companies. So what’s a value company? I’m glad you asked. Essentially, a value company is one whose stock price is about the same (could be a little higher or lower) than its intrinsic, or book, value. A lot of words there but stick with me. The intrinsic value of a company is what you get when you add up all the company’s assets, its land, warehouses, products (which can include patents), equipment, cash, etc. It might seem a little odd that a company’s stock price wouldn’t always be close to its intrinsic value, but the stock market prices of growth companies (the opposite of value companies) can actually trade multiples of 8 times higher than its intrinsic value. This happens because the market expects the growth company to continue growing. Value companies aren’t typically expected to grow much, they’re often characterized as distressed. So value investors are analyzing these value companies and deciding which ones they think are actually undervalued and which ones could bounce back. Again, it sounds great, they’re the brilliant nerdy guys reading all of the fine print and finding the deals in the stock market, the companies that are underpriced. All you have to do is hitch up to their wagon and ride those value companies up when everyone else figures out how valuable they actually are. Sounds pretty responsible, right?

A semi-famous value investor, Michael Burry, featured in the Big Short (as Christian Bale) crushed the growth stock market from 2001-2005. In the middle of 2005, he was up 242% when the U.S. large growth market (S&P500) was down 6.84%. Michael Burry is the quintessential weird genius that we love to fall in love with, and hand our money over to. He did things differently, he didn’t take normal massive fees, he was incredibly awkward with people in person, he kept to himself, he obsessively studied the interworkings of the companies he invested in, just about everything you would expect from the next market genius. He’s most famous for predicting, and attempting to short, the housing crash in 2007. And now’s he’s rich, and famous, and still investing. He recently stated that passive investing is a bubble, that he’s concentrated on water (you get it), that GameStop is undervalued, and that Asia is where it’s at. While these investment tips might accord with the laws of value investing, they hardly seem prudent.

Michael Burry is definitely smarter than I am, but here’s what I know:

1) Ken French, a professor of finance at the Tuck School of Business, Dartmouth College, who has spent much of his adult life researching and publishing in the sphere of economics and investing, conducted a study of mutual-fund managers (Luck versus Skill in the Cross-Section of Mutual Fund Returns) and found that only the top 2% to 3% had enough skill to even cover their own costs. Eugene Fama, another father of economic and investing academia, who co-wrote the paper with Ken French, summarizes their findings this way: “Looking at funds over their entire lifetimes, only 3% demonstrate skill after accounting for their fees, and that’s what you would expect purely based on chance.” Of the managers who do exhibit enough skill to cover their own costs, it’s hard to determine whether an actual skill is at work or it’s simply a facet of luck; most free-market scholars lean towards luck.

2) Fama continues: “Even the active funds that have generated extraordinary returns are unlikely to do better than a low-cost passive fund in the future.” Some managers do well enough to cover their own costs and beat the market in a given year. Unfortunately, their success languishes quickly and they regress to the same plane that active managers, on the whole, occupy, underperforming the market.

So is Michael Burry, or any value investor, the weird, brilliant savant that we desperately want to attach our life-savings to, or is he one of the 3% of managers who have done well enough to cover their own fees, but who the data says is more likely to regress to market underperformance mean than to do it again? I know which side I’m playing.

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.

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.