Category Archives: Active Investing

Understanding How Fund Performance Comparisons Overstate Returns

May 13, 2014

Every investor has, I hope, read the standard disclaimer on mutual fund and ETF performance documents that ‘past performance does not predict future performance,’ or other text to that effect. Still, when you read a fund company’s statement that ‘x% of our funds have out-performed their category average’ or that ‘x% of our funds are rated 4- and 5-star by Morningstar,’ this seems meaningful. Similarly, if you read that the average small value fund has returns ‘y’% per year over the last 10 years, this also seems significant. There is a major factor that is missing in many of these types of comparisons of fund performance, however, that tend to make active funds look better than they really are (as compared to low-cost index funds) as well as making a mutual fund family’s managers look more skillful than they might actually be.

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Is Twitter the Canary in the Coal Mine?

Investors are shrugging off the suggestion that stocks are over-valued or that the technology innovators are a one-way path to riches if the year-to-date performance of Tesla Motors (TSLA) and Facebook (FB) are any indication. Twitter’s stock (TWTR), which soared from a $45 closing price on its first day of trading (November 7, 2013) to a high of $73.30 on December 26, has fallen 32% since the start of 2014. Twitter is now trading at slightly below $45. Given the excitement surrounding the Twitter IPO less than six months ago, what does this apparent reversal of (expected) fortunes suggest? It is certainly too soon to conclude that a business model that made sense at the IPO has proven to be faulty. Does Twitter’s dramatic decline signal a shift in investors’ willingness to bet heavily on a future earnings stream that is almost impossible to predict? Continue reading

Economic Inequality

Income inequality is increasingly acknowledged as a key economic issue for the world.  The topic is a major theme at Davos this year.  Economic inequality is also an increasingly common topic in U.S. politics.

A new study has found that economic mobility does not appear to have changed appreciably over the past thirty years, even as the wealth gap has grown enormously.   The authors analyzed the probability that a child born into the poorest 20% of households would move into the top 20% of households as an adult.  The numbers have not changed in three decades.

On the other hand, there is clearly a substantial accumulation of wealth at the top of the socioeconomic scale.  The richest 1% of Americans now own 25% of all of the wealth in the U.S.  The share of national income accruing to the richest 1% has doubled since 1980.  In contrast, median household income has shown no gains, adjusted for inflation, since the late 1980’s and has dropped substantially from its previous peak in the late 1990’s.

Why is this happening?

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Estimating the Real Costs of Investing

One of the least-understood aspects of investing among individual investors is the total costs associated with building and maintaining a portfolio.  In comparison to the huge rises and falls that we see in the market, the expenses associated with mutual funds or brokerage costs may sound small.  Over long periods of time, however, the ups and downs of the market tend to average out.  The effect of those costs  however is persistent and continuous. 

There are a range of costs associated with investing in funds beyond the stated expense ratio.  In a new article in the Financial Analysts Journal, John Bogle presents a new summary of the average all-in costs associated with investing in stock index funds and in actively-managed stock funds.  Mr. Bogle is a long-term and tireless advocate of the idea that actively-managed mutual funds are a mistake for investors, so the content of the article is not surprising.  He has written similar pieces in the past.  In this article, he provides updated numbers, backed up by a range of academic analysis.  His summary of costs is provided in Table 1 of his article:

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There are three types of expenses, in addition to the standard expense ratio.  First are transaction costs, which are simply a fund’s trading costs.  This cost includes brokerage fees incurred by the fund, the impact of the bid-ask spread, and related expenses.  Mr. Bogle estimates this cost at 0.5% per year for active funds and at 0% for index funds.  He justifies the zero cost for index funds on the basis of the fact that the long-term returns of index funds are essentially identical to the performance of the index net of the index funds’ expense ratio.  The second source of additional cost for active funds is cash drag.  Many actively managed funds are not fully invested all of the time and carry a portion of their assets in cash.  To the extent that this cash does not accrue returns comparable to the equity index, this is a drag on performance.  Mr. Bogle estimates this lost return due to cash holdings at 0.15% per year.  The final additional cost that Mr. Bogle includes is sales charges / fees.  This cost is supposed to capture sales loads and any incremental costs associated with an investment advisor such as advisory fees.  Mr. Bogle freely acknowledges that this cost estimate is exceedingly open for debate. 

When he adds all of these costs together, Mr. Bogle estimates that the average actively-managed fund costs investors 2.27% per year as compared to the market index, while the index fund costs only 0.06% per year. 

The Investment Company Institute (ICI) estimates that the asset-weighted average expense ratio of actively-managed mutual funds is 0.92% per year, for reference.  The ICI also reports that the most expensive funds can have much higher expense ratios.  They find that the most expensive 10% of equity funds have an average expense ratio of 2.2%. 

Mr. Bogle, in his examples, assumes that stocks will return an average of 7% per year.  This number is highly uncertain.  The trailing 10-year annualized return of the S&P500 is 6.8% per year, but the trailing 15-year annualized return for the S&P500 is 4.2%.  A 2.2% total expense is more than 30% of the total return from investing in the stock market if the market returns 7%.  Because of compounding, the long-term impact of these costs increases over time. 

The average costs from Mr. Bogle’s article are not unreasonable.  There are probably many investors paying this much or more.  On the other hand, there are plenty of investors in active funds paying considerably less. 

Where does all of this leave investors?  First and foremost, it should be clear that costs matter a great deal.  There will always be expenses associated with investing, but they vary widely.  Over a lifetime, managing the expenses of investing can have a dramatic impact on your ability to build substantial savings.  Whether or not you believe that actively-managed funds are worth their cost, every investor should know their own asset-weighted expense ratio. 

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Gaming The System

Guest post by Contributing Editor, Robert P. Seawright, Chief Investment and Information Officer for Madison Avenue Securities.

When I was a kid I had a paper route.  One of my customers was a barber who made book on the side.  Shocking, I know.  The giveaway was the group of guys always hanging around but not getting their hair cut and the three telephones on the wall that rang a lot.  Even as a kid I could tell that something was up. Continue reading

Saving and Investing for Retirement: Part Four

Generating Income: Part Four of Our Special Five Part Series

During their working years, investors focus on saving and investing with a goal of building wealth.  As they enter retirement, either by ceasing paid employment entirely or by scaling back paid employment, investors shift their focus to using their portfolios to provide a reliable long-term stream of income.  This transition from building wealth to income generation is the subject of a great deal of research in retirement planning.  Once investors are at or near retirement, the most significant financial challenge is using their accumulated savings to provide substantial income for their retirement years.  Continue reading

Saving and Investing for Retirement: Part Three

Realities of Investing: Part Three of Our Special Five Part Series

In the various calculations that project retirement portfolio accumulations through time (such as the two discussed in the previous article), there are assumptions about how investors will allocate their savings and how those investments will perform.  In the case of the Fidelity study, no specific asset allocation is provided that would achieve the assumed risk-free 5.5% annual return.  In the Ibbotson study, the authors assume that investors hold a combination of a stock index fund and a bond index fund that progressively allocates less to stocks and more to bonds as investors get older.  The Ibbotson study also assumes that the stock index (the S&P 500) will have an average annual return of 10.96% per year and that the bond index will have an average return of 4.6% per year.  The Ibbotson study ignores expenses associated with investing. Continue reading

Saving and Investing for Retirement: Part Two

Figuring Out Whether You Are On Track: Part Two of Our Special Five Part Series

Fidelity just came out with a study that estimates that people will need about eight times their final salary level, assuming they work until age sixty seven, to be able to retire and subsequently to have 85% of their pre-retirement income provided from retirement savings plus social security.  Fidelity also helpfully provides estimates of what they believe people need to have acquired at different ages. Continue reading

Sector Watch: Spotlight on Defensive Strategy

About four and a half years ago, Folio Investing launched an equity (e.g. stock) portfolio that focused on reducing the impact of market volatility.  So-called defensive stocks are those which tend to be fairly insensitive to the mood of the market as a whole.  Conventional wisdom suggests that demand for band-aids, electricity and paper does not go up when the market is exuberant, but neither does it collapse when the market swoons.  The conventional wisdom also suggests that these stocks will tend to under-perform the broader market during rallies and, over the long-term, that a portfolio of these stocks will deliver modest returns.  Our research suggested, however, that it was possible to create a portfolio of defensive stocks that would provide returns to keep up with rallies in the broader market, while still substantially reducing the impact of market volatility.  Folio Investing launched the Defensive Strategy Folio that incorporated this research on February 28, 2008. Continue reading

The Challenge of Long-Term Income: Part II

In Part I of this article, I explained why I have issues with the traditional idea that individuals should provide for their required level of retirement income (beyond what is provided by Social Security and any pensions) entirely with assets with zero risk of loss of principal (e.g. Treasury bonds).  In Part II, I discuss the alternative approaches.

There are two investments that have zero loss of principal: traditional Treasury bonds and Treasury Inflation-Protected Securities (TIPS), which are Treasury bonds with embedded protection against inflation.

I agree with the notion that people need to save and invest so as to be able to provide a very reliable and consistent income stream in retirement.  Zvi Bodie has presented a compelling argument that investments in stocks do not become less risky as you hold them for longer periods, so that investors cannot rely on stocks as part of their required income stream.  I have performed detailed analysis of Bodie’s argument and I agree with his argument: the magnitude of loss that you can face with an equity-heavy portfolio increases the longer you hold the portfolio.  As I noted in Part I, William Bernstein has recently advocated for a portfolio in which all of your required income is provided by Treasuries and annuities, largely consistent with Bodie. Continue reading