The case for passive investing has been well put forward by this long standing bet between the Sage of Omaha and Protege Partners.
“Over a ten-year period commencing on January 1, 2008, and ending on December 31, 2017, the S&P 500 will outperform a portfolio of funds of hedge funds, when performance is measured on a basis net of fees, costs and expenses.”
So the story goes that Mr Buffet postulates that within a 10 year period, the index of S&P 500 will perform better than a portfolio of selected stocks by portfolio managers. He actually bet US$1 million on that with Protege Partners, a hedge fund company.
To put simply, passive investing is to follow the stock market blindly by investing in all the companies listed on a particular index, such as the S&P 500. The S&P 500 index comprises of the 500 largest companies listed on the US stockmarket by market capitalization. By investing in the whole index, you are basically going to be tracking the performance of the stock market, ie. if the stock market does well, so will your investments, if it does poorly, your investments will follow suit. There is no activity in actively selecting stocks, hence the ‘passiveness’ of the investing.
On the other hand, to buy individual stocks or to invest in a mutual fund with a manager, you be will subject to picking stocks. You would be trying to better the performance of the stock market. (If not, what’s the point of picking stocks in the first place right?) However, to beat the performance of the stock market (which would the average performance of all the stocks), you would need to pick the stocks with ‘above average’ performance. To attempt to do that, you would need up to date information on the companies, knowledge on how the markets/companies/industries function, analyse all the above and then make a judgement which would be companies with the ‘above average’ performance and then you need luck as well for things to go well as you planned. And to make sure you achieve that on a year on year basis, you would need to do that and reassess things regularly again and again.
Reasons the average investor would do better with passive investing compared to active investing more often than not:
- Current fees for passive investing via tracker funds costs as low as 0.07% (Total Expense Ratio) for instance for the Vanguard S&P 500 UCITS ETF. This is compared to managed funds which can be from anything from 1-2%. One of the more popular equity income funds Woodford Equity income fund has a Annual Management charge (AMC) of 0.75%. The Vanguard UK FTSE 100 tracker has a fee of 0.09% to compare with.
- Hence the active funds have to perform signifcantly better perhaps 1-2% than the average market performance before fees just to meet the same returns as the index tracker fund. And this has to happen EVERY SINGLE YEAR to justify the fees.
- The greater diversification of index tracker funds over hundreds and hundreds of companies makes the risk of investing less than choosing just a few companies. You have to be careful of certain indexes which may be overly populated by certain sectors, eg Tech stock in in S&P, Financial in the FTSE. Basically this is a case of spreading your eggs across as many baskets as possible. The first rule of investing is to protect your capital and we do this by spreading the risk.
- Not needing to choose
- Not having to choose is a brilliant strategy! You avoid choice paralysis, you don’t get bogged down by inertia, you don’t have to worry about the specifics of each and every company if you are not interested at all. Owning a slice of every company on the index means you get the benefit of getting the average returns from the market regardless of what happens. And being average is mostly good enough.
As of end of 2015, the S&P index fund has been outperforming the hedge funds the past 8 years. It is surprising and perhaps counter-intuitive as to how such a simple strategy can be more potent then doing some research and picking out the better performing companies. This is apparently better shown after there has been year after year of changing market conditions. The active funds, just can’t keep up!
On of my favourite writers on investing proposes that active investing is a Zero Sum Game. When there is a buyer, there has to be a seller. When someone profits from the sale, someone will lose from the buy or vice versa. The total net effect is that there is no gain or loss in the market. The only net gain is from the dividends being paid out from the companies. The price of the asset on the market will be volatile depending on peoples valuations. However the tendency of prices is to go up as companies become more valuable and produce more and as inflation pushes the prices of assets upward. Joining the active game is where you might just as well be the winner or the loser just the same at the cost of a fee to the active managers or transactions costs brokers charge!
We might as well settle for average and let time do the compounding for us.