This is the final post on active v. passive investing but before moving on let me briefly summarize.
- Academic evidence points overwhelmingly to indexing being the best way for the vast majority of people to invest. Index funds should form the biggest part of every portfolio.
- Mathematically, after costs, the average returns of a passive investor have to exceed the average returns of an active investor.
- The market cap-weighted index reflects the consensus view of the market and therefore is the ideal starting point for a passive investor.
But the cap-weighted index isn’t perfect and, depending on how much risk you’re prepared to take, you may want to tilt the portfolio towards other types of risk, or beta, such as small company or value stocks.
Again beta is a measure of overall market risk. But what about alpha? That’s the name given to any return provided by an investment over and above the benchmark index.
First and foremost you should be indexing. Alternatively you could tilt your portfolio towards different types of risk.
But is there ever a case for chasing alpha - either by choosing stocks yourself or by employing an active fund manager?
Professor Ken French from Tuck School of Business says: “That’s a great question. Does it make sense for the average investor to invest in an active fund? What I know is that the active investor who does invest in an active fund has to expect to lose relative to a passive strategy.”
Professor John Cochrane from the University of Chicago says: “I take a dim view of active management. For any investor to invest, you have to understand why the person you’re giving your money to is in the half that’s going to make money, and not the half that’s going to lose money. What’s special about him? What’s special about you that you know how to evaluate him?”
Much evidence is stacked against active fund management. But, say for example, in spite of everything academia has said, you still want to take a gamble with part of your portfolio, how do you choose an active fund from the thousands of funds available?
Daniel Godfrey from the Investment Management Association says: “Well certainly not just by looking at past performance. A consumer would need to do a number of things. Firstly they can just offset the decision-making altogether and go to an independent financial adviser, and many do. And they will select funds for them, and that may be a mix of active and passive funds, and that’s a perfectly sensible thing to do.”
Value investing is particularly worth investigating - as are the writings of the man usually credited with founding it - the British-born American academic and professional investor Benjamin Graham.
Like Sharpe and Fama, Graham’s aim was to take the guesswork out of picking stocks. He famously inspired one of his pupils, Warren Buffett. And Buffett’s subsequent success is testimony to the validity of Graham’s approach.
Buffett has described Graham’s book The Intelligent Investor as by far the best book about investing ever written. In it Graham wrote that investment is most intelligent when it is most businesslike.
In his preface to the fourth edition of the book, Buffett said: The sillier the market’s behavior, the greater the opportunity for the business-like investor. Follow Graham and you will profit from folly rather than participate in it.
Whichever route you go down - passive, active or somewhere in between - your behavior is absolutely critical - particularly at times when emotions are running high. Everyone knows the idea is to buy low and sell high, but time and again we do the precise opposite.
Many investors pile in just as the market reaches a top. Then, even worse, they bail out just as prices reach the bottom and are bound to rise again. That kind of behavior is sadly all too typical, and even the professionals are prone to it. The effect on the long-term value of our investments can be catastrophic.
So, how do we as investors curb that sort of self-destructive behavior? Well, one way is to have an automated approach to investing. So, once you’ve chosen a strategy and the level of risk you’re prepared to take, you leave your investments exactly as they are. Either once or no more than twice a year you should rebalance your portfolio to realign it with your risk tolerance. But again, this can be done automatically.
Merryn Somerset Webb from MoneyWeek says, “There are lots of styles that work over the long term. Value works, dividend investing works, momentum investing works if you get it right. All sorts of things work. But they only work if you stick with them."
It also helps to have a financial adviser to keep you on track. Charles Ellis says: “There are two main roles for an adviser. One is to help individuals understand themselves and what their real financial purposes are, and what their anxieties would be. And the second is to hold the client’s hand and encourage them to stay in it for the long term.”
Vanguard founder Jack Bogle says: “Why in the name of peace do we pay any attention to the stock market? It's a giant distraction to the business of investing.”
Of course it doesn’t help that we’re constantly hearing about the markets. There are specialist magazines. Almost every major newspaper has a money section. There are radio shows and, of course, entire television channels devoted to the latest on the markets and where the so-called experts think they’re heading.
And that, in a nutshell, is the secret to winning the loser’s game. First, choose a strategy that’s based on evidence - ideally one designed to capture the returns of the whole market - and then tailor it to your attitude to risk. Secondly, stick to your strategy through thick and thin. Rebalance your portfolio, yes, but most important of all, stay the course.
CBlakely CFP®, CTFA 02/2015
Sources: Winning the Loser’s Game – Charles D. Ellis; Robin Powell: How to Win the Losers Game – SensibleInvesting.tv Link to the video