Several studies found that only the top 2 to 3 percent of active-fund managers have enough skill to cover their costs. It’s hard enough to save for a house or retirement. So why pay big fees for subpar investment returns? Maybe think about low-cost investing, with an eye toward index investing.
To quote Nobel Prize winning economist Eugene Fama on active managers: “You’re charging people for stuff you can’t deliver.”
We are in the early stages of a move toward low-cost investing as huge sums of money have been flowing out of actively managed mutual funds and into index funds. According to Barry Ritholtz, “we are in the middle of the Copernican Revolution about the proper way to invest or at least the rational way to invest.”
It’s easy to think — by seeing the ads and reading newspaper articles — that if you’re just clever enough, you’re going to win. The delusion comes in the form of how the stock markets actually work. We don’t understand the negative-sum nature of active investing. Whatever you win, I lose. Whatever I win, you lose, and we both pay to play that game. So the negative-sum nature of investing is one problem that’s often overlooked.
And then there is the second problem, which is, most people suffer from overconfidence, particularly in noisy environments where the feedback is weak. That describes the stock market. It’s incredibly noisy and it’s really easy to misinterpret what the return on your portfolio means.
Simple, perhaps, but elusive. In part because the alternative — the gamble of picking stocks — is so seductive. Which may explain why it took so long for index funds to really catch on. The index fund is more predictable, and boring — which, as Jack Bogle sees things, is its virtue. “It diversifies away the risk of individual investments. It diversifies away the risk of picking a hot manager and diversifies away the idea that you can pick market sectors like healthcare, technology, or whatever it might be.”
And then there’s the cost comparison. According to Vanguard founder Jack Bogle, “They charge a lot for this service. We estimate the average expense ratio is almost one percent for an actively managed fund. Then these active funds, all of them have sales loads. The index funds do not. The active funds further turn over their portfolios at a very high rate and that’s costly. You add that all up and the cost of owning a mutual fund on average is two percent. You can buy an index fund of, an S&P 500 Index Fund, let’s say, for as little as four basis points, four one-hundredths of one percent. In a 7 percent market, you’re going to get 6.96 percent.”
That difference — two percent versus four one-hundredths of one percent — may not sound like a lot. But over time, those numbers are compounded by what Bogle calls the “relentless rules of humble arithmetic.”
Again according to Jack Bogle, “if the market return is 7 percent and the active manager gives you 5 after that two percent cost, and the index fund gives you 6.96 after that four basis point cost — you don’t appreciate it much in a year — but over 50 years, believe it or not, a dollar invested at 7 percent grows to around $32 and a dollar invested at five percent grows to about $10. Think what an investor thinks about when he looks at that number. He says, “Wait a minute! I put up 100 percent of the capital. I took 100 percent of the risk and I got 33 percent of the return.” Well, anybody that thinks that’s a good deal, I’ve got a bridge I want to sell them.”
To paraphrase Bogle, here’s the reality of the actively-managed mutual fund business, you get precisely what you don’t pay for. So, if you pay nothingⁱ, you get everything!
Now there are those who can and some people have and have for long periods of time. Look no further than Warren Buffett. The challenge is being able to identify in advance who will outperform the market, for them to beat the market consistently year over year, and then to do it in excess of costs, fees, taxes, commissions. How can an investor tell when it is luck or skill?
The bottom line is most people are better off with low-cost indexing for most of their invested money. Active investment management may have a role in asset allocation and portfolio construction, but only when it’s low cost, adds diversification and is not used to exacerbate behaviors detrimental to accumulating wealth.
C. Blakely CFP®, CTFA 10/2017
ⁱ - by nothing, I mean almost nothing.
Sources: Bloomberg View - Ritholtz, Freakonomics – Bogle interview, Fama Interview