In defense of active investment management

The idea of picking an investment manager instead of investing in an index fund has been taking a beating, lately.

Under the assumption that investors can weather the market’s ups and downs without becoming euphoric or panicking, and assuming that most of them can’t tell a good from a poor investment manager, the case is growing that most people should invest in an index fund and watch better results roll in.

That case has a lot of validity, but it’s important to listen to the other side of the argument, too, in order to pick the right choice for you–the individual.

After all, we don’t all buy GM cars, or buy Apple computers, or eat at McDonald’s. Some people prefer other options. It all depends on what you want to accomplish, how much work you want to put into it, and what your abilities are.

With that in mind, I highly recommend an article by William Smead of Smead Capital Management titled, The Demise of Active Management is Greatly Exaggerated.

Not surprisingly, Smead is an active investment manager who is talking his book (just like most passive/index investors), but he has some interesting points to make and some thought-provoking data to go along with it.

Smead points out that quite a bit of academic data supports the case for investing in parts of the market that aren’t always priced correctly. He highlights that investments in businesses with low debt, high and sustainable profitability, and overall stability can do remarkably better than an index investment. 

Also, index funds market weight their holdings, which means they own too much of the things that investors love best right before they go off the cliff, and not enough of things most investors hate right before they take off–just think about 2000 or 2008. There are other methods for assembling portfolios that work better over the long run.

I’m not trying to make a complete case for active investing, here, but I am trying to point out the other side of the argument. Naive investors may think the case is closed and everyone should be a passive/index investor, when in reality it depends on your preferences and abilities.

Most may be incapable of beating the market, but not all. Most may be unable to pick managers who do better than an index fund, but not all. Most may not want to put the time and effort into doing better than average, but not all. 

Just as most–but not all–people love to eat at McDonald’s, most–but not all–people should probably be passive/index investors. The key is deciding which group you are a member of and thinking clearly about your options.

Nothing in this blog should be considered investment, financial, tax, or legal advice. The opinions, estimates and projections contained herein are subject to change without notice. Information throughout this blog has been obtained from sources believed to be accurate and reliable, but such accuracy cannot be guaranteed.

In defense of active investment management

Is stock picking dead?

Is it time to throw in the towel on stock picking (active investing)? Should everyone become an index investor (passive investing)?

As Vanguard Group, the king of passive investing, approaches $3 trillion in assets under management, and as mounting evidence shows that most investors should buy cheap index funds instead of trying to pick market-beating money managers, it’s a good time to ask the question: is stock picking dead (Jason Zweig asks just this question in The Decline and Fall of Fund Managers in the Wall Street Journal, today).

To advocates of passive investing, there is simply no argument. The average return of the average investor is average minus fees. Therefore, to maximize returns, most people should buy cheap index funds to minimize fees. 

The evidence fully supports this view. Investors do a terrible job of picking money managers and timing the market. They would be better off just buying an index fund with low costs.

Most money managers lose to the market. Many who do win over 3, 5, even 10 year periods do it by luck that isn’t repeated over the following 3, 5, or 10 years. Given that, the average investor is unlikely to successfully figure that out going forward.

Do some money managers beat the market? Yes. Do most of them do it by luck and not skill? Yes. Do any money managers do it by skill and over the long run? Yes. Are they almost impossible to pick ahead of time? For the vast majority of people, yes.

The money managers who do beat the market are unusually intelligent, think long term, are fiercely independent, and align their interests with their clients. Because most investors don’t look for those things (they tend to look at past performance or for friendly people), and most money managers don’t possess those traits, most investors should buy low cost index funds.

Suppose everyone invested in index funds? Would that make everything right in the world? The problem then would be that without anyone analyzing and pricing individual securities, securities markets useful function, price discovery, wouldn’t happen. That would be bad because markets need effective pricing to work.

But, how many people need to be picking stocks to still have securities markets perform their price discovery function? No one knows the answer precisely, but it is not zero. Someone needs to analyze and price securities, or markets wouldn’t work. But, the number of people doing this doesn’t need to be as great as it is now (an article in the Financial Analysts Journal (not free) by Charlie Ellis, points this out).

So stock picking isn’t dead, it just doesn’t need to be done by as many analysts and portfolio managers as are currently doing it.

Is passive investing the right choice for most investors? Yes. Does that mean stock picking is dead? Definitely not.

Nothing in this blog should be considered investment, financial, tax, or legal advice. The opinions, estimates and projections contained herein are subject to change without notice. Information throughout this blog has been obtained from sources believed to be accurate and reliable, but such accuracy cannot be guaranteed.

Is stock picking dead?

Ignore the news for better returns

When people picture successful investors, they think of someone watching all the news all the time, especially when the market is open. They picture someone reacting to that news, too: “a bad storm hit Florida, short orange juice futures now!” or “Alcoa just announced bad earnings, dump our position!”

The reality is just the opposite. The best investors want to know all about the companies they invest in, but they don’t trade that news or react quickly to it (people who make a living trading do, but those folks aren’t investors, and, if you are reading my blog, you probably aren’t a trader).

I always get a surprised look from clients and prospects when I tell them I don’t check prices all day long. I suppose they think that is what good investors do, but that’t not true (see a recent article by Chuck Jaffe and MarketWatch).

One reason is that investing is long term oriented. It’s not about what happened today, but what will happen over time. Investors focus on years of earnings, not one quarter’s. Their attention is on competitive positioning and economic value-creation, and their view is unlikely to change because of one data point on one day. To successfully invest over the long term, you need to think and act long term, not on the range of the moment. 

Another reason is that good interpretation of new information takes time. A good investor needs to integrate new information into a mosaic of information they’ve already assembled and thought about. Does this new information contradict what I think I already understand? Do I need to reconsider my opinion? What other information would confirm or deny this new data? Thought and interpretation can take days, weeks and even months–not seconds.

Headline information is also likely to already be priced into securities. By the time the news reaches people like us, it has already been acted upon by the traders who focus in that area. Like Baron Rothschild, they are tied into information networks that cost a lot of money and disseminate information much more rapidly. By the time we see it, prices have almost certainly already moved (usually hours or days ago).

Someone once asked Warren Buffett when was the last time he checked the price of his holdingw. He said he thought it was a couple of weeks ago. When you are focused primarily on the fundamentals, you don’t need daily or minutely price quotes. The best investors have the same attitude. 

If you focus on the fundamentals and not the daily news, I can almost guarantee you’ll get better investing results, too.

Nothing in this blog should be considered investment, financial, tax, or legal advice. The opinions, estimates and projections contained herein are subject to change without notice. Information throughout this blog has been obtained from sources believed to be accurate and reliable, but such accuracy cannot be guaranteed.

Ignore the news for better returns

Market timing success equals long term failure

People just love a good story.

The story of the boy who cried wolf. The legend of Atlantis. The myth of a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow. Who can forget such great stories?  

Even though we know these are just myths, we are fascinated nonetheless.

In investing, the favorite legend is: the myth that people make money timing the market.

People love legends about investors who sold at the top and bought at the bottom. Don’t confirm the facts. Don’t dig into the details. It’s entertainment, after all.

The reality is that people don’t make money timing the market (see my most recent client letter for some background). Even assuming someone gets lucky enough to sell at the top, they never get back in until they’ve lost the advantage they gained in selling. Or, if they buy at the bottom, they sell too soon or too late and lose that advantage, too. Check the facts.

The people who claim to sell at the top or buy at the bottom do worse than buy and hold (as highlighted by Mark Hulbert in the Wall Street Journal, subscription required).

Why do people persist in believing the myth? It’s entertaining. It makes for great cocktail party fodder. People want to believe. 

The reality is that good investing is boring. You save by spending less than you make. You invest it wisely after a lot of study. You initially look stupid. Then, over time, your wealth grows and you become financially independent.

Where’s the pizzazz?! The lasers? The alien invasions? 

Nowhere to be found.

Good investing is not high entertainment. But, becoming financial independent is very entertaining.

Nothing in this blog should be considered investment, financial, tax, or legal advice. The opinions, estimates and projections contained herein are subject to change without notice. Information throughout this blog has been obtained from sources believed to be accurate and reliable, but such accuracy cannot be guaranteed.

Market timing success equals long term failure