Posts filed under ‘Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs)’

Rise of the Robo-Advisors: Paying to Do-It-Yourself

Battery Operated Toy Robot

Robots and computers are taking over our lives. We see it in areas of our daily living, including the use of digitally driven cars, cell phones, automated vacuums, and electronic self-serve kiosks at the grocery store. And now robots have come into our investing and financial lives in the form of robo-advisors. With a few clicks of a computer mouse or taps on a smartphone, investors are hoping to find their way to financial nirvana.

What sites am I talking about? Here is a brief, albeit rapidly growing, list of popular robo-advisor sites:

Not all of these robo-sites invest individuals’ money, but nevertheless, there are several factors contributing to the upsurge in in these financial advice websites. For starters, there is a whole new, younger demographic pool of savers who have grown up with their iPhone and shop exclusively online for their goods and services. Many of these financial sites are trying to fill a void for this tech-savvy group looking for a new app to bring wealth and riches.

Another factor contributing to the rise of the robo-advisors is a function of the 2008-2009 financial crisis and the explosive growth of the multi-trillion dollar exchange traded fund (ETF) industry. Many baby boomers who were planning to retire were hit brutally hard by the financial crisis and subsequently asked themselves why they were paying such high fees to their advisors for losing money. With the stock market now increasing for five consecutive years, some investors are gaining confidence in pursuing other lower-cost solutions to their investments outside of the traditional human advisor channel.

Too Good to Be True? The Shortcomings

On the surface, the proposition of clicking a few buttons to create financial prosperity seems quite appealing, but if you look a little more closely under the hood, what you quickly realize is that most of these robo-advisor sites are glorifying the practice of doing-it-yourself (DIY). After conducting some due diligence on the various investment bells-and-whistles of these robo-sites, one quickly realizes individuals can replicate most of the kindergartener-esque ETF portfolios by merely calling 1-800-VANGUARD  – without having to pay robo-advisor fees ranging from 0.15% – 0.95%. More specifically, Wealthfront and Betterment use 6-12 ETF security portfolios, integrating many Vanguard funds and other ETFs that can be purchased with a click of a mouse or phone call (without having to pay the robo-advisor middleman). A cynic may also point out these robo-investment sites are nothing more than expensive life-cycle funds that could be replicated at a fraction of the cost.

Despite the sites’ transparency preaching, filtering through robo fee and performance disclosure can be frustratingly tedious too – good luck to the novices. For example, Betterment claims to have created a superior performance track record, despite a hidden disclosure stating the results are manufactured from a computer back-test. The transparency pitch seems a little disingenuous, and I wonder how many of the new robo-site users are also aware of the extra underlying ETF fees? But when marketing a new high-cost start-up, I guess you need to fabricate a fancy chart and track record when you don’t have one. Underlying the robo investment sites is a disparate, hodge-podge of studies anointing Modern Portfolio Theory as the holy grail, but readers of this blog know there are many failings to pure quantitative strategies implemented by academics (see LTCM in Black Swans & Butter in Bangladesh).

The concept of DIY is nothing new. One can look no further than the impact Home Depot (HD) has had on the home improvement industry. In addition, there are plenty of individuals who choose to do their own income taxes with the help of software technology (i.e., Intuit), or those who forego hiring an estate planning attorney by using off-the-shelf legal documents (i.e., Legal Zoom). Many industries in our economy inherently have penny pinching DIY-ers, but despite current and future inroads made by the robo-advisors, there will always be individuals who do not have the capacity, patience, or interest to search out a DIY investment solution.

After watching the stock market rise for five consecutive years, taming investment portfolios may seem like a simple problem for internet software to solve, but experienced investors (not academics) understand successful long-term investing is never easy…with or without technology. The reality of the situation is that when volatility eventually spikes and we hit an inevitable bear market, these robo-sites will fail miserably in supplying the necessary human element to facilitate more prudent investment decisions.

While the rising robo-advisors may have many investment advisory shortcomings, I will acknowledge some appealing aggregating features that provide a helpful holistic view of an individual’s finances (see Mint). Also, these sites are forcing investors to ask their advisors the important and appropriate tough questions regarding fees, compensation, and conflicts of interest. However, in spite of the short-term, blossoming success of the robo-sites, investing has never been more difficult. Investors continue to get overwhelmed with the 24-7, 365 news cycles that proliferates an endless avalanche of global crises via TV, radio, Twitter, Facebook, and the blogosphere.

While a younger, less-affluent DIY demographic may flock to some of these robo-advisors, the millions of aging and retiring baby boomers ensures there will be plenty of demand for traditional advisors. Experienced independent RIA advisors and financial planners, like Sidoxia, who integrate low-cost ETFs into their investment management practices stand to benefit handsomely. Those advisors/sites offering simplistic, commoditized ETF offerings with no wealth planning services will be challenged. While I may not lose sleep over the rise of the robo-advisors, I will continue to dream of a robot that will lower my taxes and win me the lottery.

www.Sidoxia.com

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper.

DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients hold long positions in certain exchange traded funds (including Vanguard ETFs), AAPL, but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct position in HD, TWTR, FB, Legal Zoom, or any other security referenced in this article. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC Contact page.

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May 18, 2014 at 12:55 pm 5 comments

Passive vs. Active Investing: Darts, Monkeys & Pros

Bob Turner is founder of Turner Investments and a manager of several funds at the investment company. In a recent article he reintroduces the all-important, longstanding debate of active management (“hands-on”) versus passive management (“hands off”) approaches to investing. Mr. Turner makes some good arguments for the active management camp, however some feel differently – take for example Burton Malkiel. The Princeton professor theorizes in his book A Random Walk Down Wall Street that “a blindfolded monkey throwing darts at a newspaper’s stock page could select a portfolio that would do just as well as one carefully selected by experts.” In fact, The Wall Street Journal manages an Investment Dartboard contest that stacks up amateur investors’ picks against the pros’ and random stock picks selected by randomly thrown darts. In many instances, the dartboard picks outperform the professionals. Given the controversy, who’s right…the darts, monkeys, or pros? Distinguishing between the different categorizations can be difficult, but we will take a stab nevertheless.

Arguments for Active Management

Turner contends, active management outperforms in periods of high volatility and he believes the industry will be entering such a phase:

“Active managers historically have tended to perform best in a market in which the performance of individual stocks varies widely.”

He also acknowledges that not all active managers outperform and admits there are periods where passive management will do better:

“The reason why most active investors fail to outperform is because they in fact constitute most of the market. Even in the best of times, not all active managers can hope to outperform…The business of picking stocks is to some degree a zero-sum game; the results achieved by the best managers will be offset at least somewhat by the subpar performance of other managers.”

Buttressing his argument for active management, Turner references data from Advisor Perspectives showing an inconclusive percentage (40.5%-67.8%) of the actively managed funds trailing the passively managed indexes from 2000 to 2008.

The Case for Passive Management

Turner cites one specific study to support his active management cause. However, my experience gleaned from the vast amounts of academic and industry data point to approximately 75% of active managers underperforming their passively managed indexes, over longer periods of time. Notably, a recent study conducted by Standard & Poor’s SPIVA division (S&P Indices Versus Active Funds) discovered the following conclusions over the five year market cycle from 2004 to 2008:

  • S&P 500 outperformed 71.9% of actively managed large cap funds;
  • S&P MidCap 400 outperformed 79.1% of mid cap funds;
  • S&P SmallCap 600 outperformed 85.5% of small cap funds.

Read more about  the dirty secrets shrinking your portfolio. According to the Vanguard Group and the Investment Company Institute, about 25% of institutional assets and about 12% of individual investors’ assets are currently indexed (passive strategies).  If you doubt the popularity of passive investment strategies, then look no further than the growth of Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs – see chart), index funds, or Vanguard Groups more than $1 trillion dollars in assets under management.

Although I am a firm believer in passive investing, one of its shortcomings is mean reversion. This is the idea that upward or downward moving trends tend to revert back to an average or normal level over time. Active investing can take advantage of mean reversion, conversely passive investing cannot. Indexes can get very top-heavy in weightings of outperforming sectors or industries, meaning theoretically you could be buying larger and larger shares of an index in overpriced glamour stocks on the verge of collapse.  We experienced these lopsided index weightings through the technology bubbles in the late 1990s and financials in 2008. Some strategies may be better than other over the long run, but every strategy, even passive investing, has its own unique set of deficiencies and risks.

Professional Sports and Investing

As I discuss in my book, there are similarities that can be drawn between professional sports and investing with respect to active vs. passive management. Like the scarce number of .300 hitters in baseball, I believe there are a select few investment managers who can consistently outperform the market. In 2007, AssociatedContent.com did a study that showed there were only 22 active career .300 hitters in Major League Baseball. I recognize in the investing world there can be a larger role for “luck,” which is difficult, if not impossible, to measure (luck won’t help me much in hitting a 100 mile per hour fastball thrown by Nolan Ryan). Nonetheless, in the professional sports arena, there are some Hall of Famers (prospects) that have proved they could (can) consistently outperform their peers for extended durations of time. Experience is another distinction I would highlight in comparing sports and investing. Unlike sports, in the investment world I believe there is a positive correlation between age and ability. The more experience an investor gains, generally the better long-term return achieved. Like many professions, the more experience you gain, the more valuable you become. Unfortunately, in many sports, ability deteriorates and muscles atrophy over time.

Size Matters

Experience alone will not make you a better investor. Some investors are born with an innate gift or intellect that propels them ahead of the pack. However, most great investors eventually get cursed by their own success thanks to accumulating assets. Warren Buffet knows the consequences of managing large amounts of dollars, “gravity always wins.”  Having managed a $20 billion fund, I fully appreciate the challenges of investing larger sums of money. Managing a smaller fund is similar to navigating a speed boat – not too difficult to maneuver and fairly easy to dodge obstacles. Managing heftier pools of money can be like captaining a supertanker, but unfortunately the same rapid u-turn expectations of the speedboat remain. Managing large amounts of capital can be crippling, and that’s why captaining a supertanker requires the proper foresight and experience.

Room for All

As I’ve stated before, I believe the market is efficient in the long run, but can be terribly inefficient in the short-run, especially when the behavioral aspects of emotion (fear and greed) take over. The “wait for me, I want to play too” greed from the late 1990s technology craze and the credit-based economic collapse of 2008-2009 are further examples of inefficient situations that can be exploited by active managers. However, due to multiple fees, transaction costs, taxes, not to mention the short-term performance/compensation pressures to perform, I believe the odds are stacked against the active managers. For those experienced managers that have played the game for a long period and have a track record of success, I feel active management can play a role. At Sidoxia Capital Management, I choose to create investment portfolios that blend a mixture of passive and active investment strategies. Although my hedge fund has outperformed the S&P 500 in 4 of the last 5 years, that fact does not necessarily mean it’s the appropriate sole approach for all clients. As Warren Buffet states, investors should stick to their “circle of competence” so they can confidently invest in what they know.  That’s why I generally stick to the areas of my expertise when I’m actively investing in stocks, and fill in the remainder of client portfolios with transparent, low-cost, tax-efficient equity and fixed income products (i.e., Exchange Traded Funds). Even though the actively managed Turner Funds appear to have a mixed-bag of performance numbers relative to passively managed strategies, I appreciate Bob Turner’s article for addressing this important issue.  I’m sure the debate will never fully be resolved. In the meantime, my client portfolios will aim to mix the best of both worlds within active and passive management strategies in the eternal quest of outwitting the darts, monkeys, and other pros.

Read the full Bob Turner article on Morningstar.com

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper. 

 

DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients own certain exchange traded funds but had no direct position in stocks mentioned in this article. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC “Contact” page.

March 29, 2014 at 3:19 pm 4 comments

Confessions of a Bond Hater

Source: stock.xchng

Source: stock.xchng

Hi my name is Wade, and I’m a bond hater. Generally, the first step in addressing any type of personal problem is admitting you actually have a problem. While I am not proud of being a bond hater, I have been called many worse things during my life. But as we have learned from the George Zimmerman / Trayvon Martin case, not every situation is clear-cut, whether we are talking about social issues or bond investing. For starters, let me be clear to everyone, including all my detractors, that I do not hate all bonds. In fact, my Sidoxia clients own many types of fixed income securities. What I do hate however are low yielding, long duration bonds.

Duration…huh? Most people understand what “low yielding” means, when it comes to bonds (i.e., low interest, low coupon, low return, etc.), but when the word duration is uttered, the conversation is usually accompanied by a blank stare. The word “duration” may sound like a fancy word, but in reality it is a fairly simple concept. Essentially, high-duration bonds are those fixed income securities with the highest sensitivity to changes in interest rates, meaning these bonds will go down most in price as interest rates rise.

When it comes to equity markets, many investors understand the concept of high beta stocks, which can be used to further explain duration. There are many complicated definitions for beta, but the basic principle explains why high-beta stock prices generally go up the most during bull markets, and go down the most during bear markets. In plain terms, high beta equals high octane.

If we switch the subject back to bonds, long duration equals high octane too. Or stated differently, long duration bond prices generally go down the most during bear markets and go up the most during bull markets. For years, grasping the risk of a bond bear market caused by rising rates has been difficult for many investors to comprehend, especially after witnessing a three-decade long Federal Funds tailwind taking the rates from about 20% to about 0% (see Fed Fatigue Setting In). 

The recent interest rate spike that coincided with the Federal Reserve’s Ben Bernanke’s comments on QE3 bond purchase tapering has caught the attention of bond addicts. Nobody knows for certain whether this short-term bond price decline is the start of an extended bear market in bonds, but mathematics would dictate that there is only really one direction for interest rates to go…and that is up. It is true that rates could remain low for an indefinite period of time, but neither scenario of flat to down rates is a great outcome for bond holders.

Fixes to Fixed-Income Failings

Even though I may be a “bond hater” of low yield, high duration bonds, currently I still understand the critical importance and necessity of a fixed income portfolio for not only retirees, but also for the diversification benefits needed by a broader set of investors. So how does a bond hater reconcile investing in bonds? Easy. Rather than focusing on lower yielding, longer duration bonds, I invest more client assets in shorter duration and/or higher yielding bonds. If you harbor similar beliefs as I do, and believe there will be an upward bias to the trajectory of long-term interest rates, then there are two routes to go. Investors can either get compensated with a higher yield to counter the increased interest rate risk, and/or they can shorten duration of bond holdings to minimize capital losses.

Worth noting, there is an alternative strategy for low yielding, long duration bond lovers. In order to minimize interest rate risk, these bond lovers may accept sub-optimal yields and hold bonds to maturity. This strategy may be associated with short-term price volatility, but if the bond issuer does not default, at least the bond investor will get the full principal at maturity to help relieve the pain of meager yields.

Now that you’ve survived all this bond babbling, let me cut to the chase and explain a few ways Sidoxia is taking advantage of the recent interest rate volatility for our clients:

Floating Rate Bonds: Duration of these bonds is by definition low, or near zero, because as interest rates rise, coupons/interest payments are advantageously reset for investors at higher rates. So if interest rates jump from 2% to 3%, the investor will receive +50% higher periodic payments.

Inflation Protection Bonds: These bonds come in long and short duration flavors, but if interest rates/inflation rise higher than expected, investors will be compensated with higher periodic coupons and principal payments.

Shorter Duration: One definition of duration is the weighted average of time until a bond’s fixed cash flows are received. A way of shortening the duration of your bond portfolio is through the purchase of shorter maturity bonds (e.g., buying 3-year bonds rather than 30-year bonds).

High Yield Bonds: Investing in the high yield bond category is not limited to domestic junk bond purchases, but higher yields can also be earned by investing in international and/or emerging market bonds.

Investment Grade Corporate Bonds: Similar to high yield bonds, investment grade bonds offer the potential of capital appreciation via credit improvement. For instance, credit rating upgrades can provide gains to help offset price declines caused by rising interest rates.

Despite my bond hater status, the recent taper tantrum and interest rate spike, highlight some advantages bonds have over stocks. Even though prices declined, bonds by and large still have lower volatility than stocks; provide a steady stream of income; and provide diversification benefits.

To the extent investors have, or should have, a longer-term time horizon, I still am advocating a stock bias to client portfolios, subject to each investor’s risk tolerance. For example, an older retired couple with a conservative target allocation of 20%/80% (equity/fixed income) may consider a 25% – 30% allocation. A shift in this direction may still meet the retirees’ income needs (especially if dividend-paying stocks are incorporated), while simultaneously acknowledging the inflation and interest rate risks impacting bond positions. It’s important to realize one size doesn’t fit all.

Higher Volatility, Higher Reward

Frequent readers of Investing Caffeine have known about my bond hating tendencies for quite some time (see my 2009 article Treasury Bubble has not Burst…Yet), but the bond baby shouldn’t be thrown out with the bath water. For those investors who thought bonds were as safe as CDs, the recent -6% drop in the iShares Aggregate Bond Index (AGG) didn’t feel comfortable for most. Although I am still an enthusiastic stock cheerleader (less so as valuation multiples expand), there has been a cost for the gargantuan outperformance of stocks since March of ’09. While stocks have outperformed bonds (S&P vs. AGG) by more than +140%, equity investors have had to endure two -10% corrections and two -20% corrections (e.g.,Flash Crash, Debt Ceiling Debate, European Financial Crisis, and Sequestration/Elections). If investors want to earn higher long-term equity returns, this desire will translate into more volatility than bonds…and more Tums.

I may still be a bond hater, and the general public remains firm stock haters, but at some point in the multi-year future, I will not be surprised to hear myself say, “Hi my name is Wade, and I am addicted to bonds.” In the mean time, Sidoxia will continue to optimize its client bond portfolios for a rising interest rate environment, while also investing in attractive equity securities and ETFs. There’s nothing to hate about that.

www.Sidoxia.com

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper.

DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients hold positions in certain exchange traded funds (ETFs), including floating rate bonds/loan funds, inflation-protection funds, corporate bond ETF, high-yield bond ETFs, and other bond ETFs, but at the time of publishing, SCM had no direct position in AGG or any other security referenced in this article. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC Contact page.

July 20, 2013 at 4:05 pm 2 comments

NASDAQ: The Ugly Stepchild Index

All the recent media focus has been fixated on whether the Dow Jones Industrial Average index (“The Dow”) will close above the 13,000 level. In the whole scheme of things, this specific value doesn’t mean a whole lot, but it does make for a great topic of conversation at a cocktail party. Today, the Dow is trading at 12,983, a level not achieved in more than three and a half years. Not a bad accomplishment, given the historic financial crisis on our shores and the debacle going on overseas, but I’m still not so convinced a miniscule +0.1% move in the Dow means much. While the Dow and the S&P 500 indexes garner the hearts and minds of journalists and TV reporters, the ugly stepchild index, the NASDAQ, gets about as much respect as Rodney Dangerfield (see also No Respect in the Investment World).

While the S&P 500 hundred has NOT even reached the level from one year ago, the technology-heavy NASDAQ index has hit a 11+ year record high. Yes that’s right; the NASDAQ has not reached these levels since December 2000. Sure, the NASDAQ  receives a lot of snickers since the technology bubble burst in 2000, when the index peaked at over 5,100 and subsequently plummeted to 1,108 (-78%) over the ensuing 31 months. But now the ugly stepchild index is making an extraordinary comeback into maturity. Since September 2002, near the lows, the NASDAQ has outperformed both the Dow and the S&P 500 indexes by more than a whopping 80%+, excluding dividends.

With the NASDAQ (and NASDAQ 100) hitting a new decade-plus high, are we approaching bubble-esque P/E ratios (price-earnings) of the 2000 era? Not even close. According to Birinyi Associates, the NASDAQ 100 index (QQQ) forward P/E ratio is priced at a reasonable 14x level – much lower than the 100x+ ratios we experienced right before the NASDAQ crash of 2000 and close to the P/E of the S&P 500.

With these NASDAQ indexes hitting new highs, does this tell us they are going to go significantly higher? No, not necessarily…just ask buyers of the NASDAQ in the late 1990s how that strategy worked then. Trying to time the market is a fruitless cause, and will always remain so. A few people will be able to do it occasionally, but doing so on a sustained basis is extremely difficult (if not impossible). If you don’t believe me, just ask Alan Greenspan, former Federal Reserve Chairman, who in 1996 said the tech boom had created “irrational exuberance.” When he made this infamous statement in 1996, the NASDAQ was trading around 1,300 – I guess Greenspan was only off by about another 3,800 points before the exuberance exhausted.

While a significantly outperforming index may not give you information on future prices, leadership indexes and sectors can direct you to fertile areas of research. Trends can be easy to identify, but the heavy lifting and sweat lies in the research of determining whether the trends are sustainable. With the significant outperformance of the NASDAQ index over the last decade it should be no surprise that technology has been leading the index brigade.  The NASDAQ composite data is difficult to come by, but with the Technology sector accounting for 65% of the NASDAQ 100 index weighting, it makes sense that this index and sector should not be ignored. Cloud computing, mobility, e-commerce, alternative energy, and nanotechnology are but just a few of the drivers catapulting technology’s prominence in financial markets. Globalization is here to stay and technology is flattening the world so that countries and their populations can participate in the ever-expanding technology revolution.

Investors can continue to myopically focus on the narrow group of 30 Dow stocks and its arbitrary short-term target of 13,000, however those ignoring the leadership of the ugly stepchild index (NASDAQ) should do so at their own peril. Ugliness has a way of turning to beauty when people are not paying attention.

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper.

www.Sidoxia.com

DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients own certain exchange traded funds, including SPY, but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct position in QQQ, or any other security referenced in this article. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC “Contact” page.

February 27, 2012 at 2:15 am Leave a comment

Changing of the Guard

Over previous decades, there has been a continual battle between the merits of active versus passive management. Passive management being what I like to call the “do nothing” strategy, in which a basket of securities is purchased, and the underlying positions remain largely static. For all intents and purposes, the passive management strategy is controlled by a computer. Rather than solely using a computer, active management pays professionals six or seven figures to fly around to conferences, interview executive management teams, and apply their secret sauce tactics. Unlike passive managers, active managers do their best to determine which winning securities to buy and which losing ones to sell in their mutual funds and hedge funds.

Caught in the middle of this multi-decade war between passive and active management are Vanguard Group (founded in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania in 1975 by John Bogle) and Fidelity Investments (founded in 1946 in Boston, Massachusetts by Edward C. Johnson II).  Currently John Bogle and Vanguard’s passive philosophy is winning the war. A changing of the guard, similar to the daily ceremony witnessed in front of Buckingham Palace is happening today in the mutual fund industry. Specifically, Vanguard, the company spearheading passive investing, has passed Fidelity Investments as the largest mutual fund company according to assets under management. Before 2010, Fidelity topped the list of largest firms every year since 1988, when it passed the then previous leader, Merrill Lynch & Co (BAC).

As of July 2010, Vanguard stands at the top of the mutual fund hill, managing $1.31 trillion versus Fidelity’s $1.24 trillion. Vanguard is sufficiently diversified if one considers its largest fund, the Vanguard Total stock Market Index Fund (VITSX), sits at around $127 billion in assets. The picture looks worse for Fidelity, if you also account for the $113 billion in additional ETF assets (Exchange Traded Funds) Vanguard manages – Fidelity is relatively absent in the ETF segment (State Street). Once famous active funds, such as Fidelity Magellan (now managed by Harry Lange – FMAGX) have underperformed the market over the last ten years causing peak assets of $110 billion in 2000 to decline to around $22 billion today. The $68 billion Fidelity Contrafund (FCNTX), managed by Will Danhoff, has not grown sufficiently to offset Magellan’s (and other funds) declines.

The Proof is in the Pudding

Some in the industry defend the merits of active management, and through some clever cherry-picking and data mining come to the conclusion that passive investing is overrated. If you believe that money goes where it is treated best, then the proof in the pudding suggests active management is the discipline actually suffering the beating (see Darts, Monkeys & Pros). The differences among the active-passive war of ideals have become even more apparent during the heart of the financial crisis. Since the beginning of 2008 through August 2010, Morningstar shows $301 billion in assets hemorrhaging from actively managed U.S. equity funds, while passive equity-index funds have soaked up $113 billion of inflows.

On a firm-specific basis, InvestmentNews substantiated Vanguard’s gains with the following figures:

In the 10 years ended Dec. 31, Vanguard’s stock and bond funds attracted $440 billion, compared with $101 billion for Fidelity, Morningstar estimates. This year through August, Vanguard pulled in $49 billion while Fidelity had withdrawals of $2.8 billion, according to the research firm.

Vanguard is gaining share on the bond side of the house too:

Vanguard also benefited from the popularity of bond funds. From Jan. 1, 2008, through Aug. 31, 2010, the company’s fixed- income portfolios pulled in $134 billion while Fidelity’s attracted $33 billion (InvestmentNews).

Vanguard is not the only one taking share away from Fidelity. Fido is also getting pinched by my neighbor PIMCO (Pacific Investment Management Company), the $1.1 trillion assets under management fixed income powerhouse based in Newport Beach, California. Bond guru Bill Gross leads the $248 billion Pimco Total Return Fund (PTTAX), which has helped the firm bring in $54 billion in assets thus far in 2010.

Passive Investing Winning but Game Not Over

Even with the market share gains of Vanguard and passive investing, active management assets still dwarf the assets controlled by “do-nothing” products. According to the Vanguard Group and the Investment Company Institute, about 25% of institutional assets and about 12% of individual investors’ assets are currently indexed (2009). The analysis gets a little more muddied once you add ETFs to the mix.

Passive investing may be winning the game of share gains, but is it winning the performance game? The academic research has been very one-sided in favor of passive investing ever since Burton Malkiel came out with his book, A Random Walk Down Wall Street. More recently, a study came out in June 2010 by Standard & Poor’s Indices Versus Active Funds (SPIVA) division showing more than 75% of active fixed income managers underperforming their index on a five-year basis. From an equity standpoint, SPIVA confirmed that more than 60% domestic equity funds and more than 84% international equity funds underperformed their benchmark on a five-year basis. InvestmentNews provides some challenging data to active-management superiority, however it is unclear whether survivorship bias, asset-weighting, style drift, and other factors result in apples being compared to oranges. SPIVA notes the complexity over the last three years has increased due to 20% of domestic equity funds, 13% of international equity funds, and 12% of fixed income funds liquidating or merging.

Regardless of the data, investors are voting with their dollars and happily accepting the superior performance, while at the same time paying less in fees. The positive aspects associated with passive investment products, such as index funds and ETFs, are not only offering superior performance like a Ferrari, but that enhanced quality also comes at the low price equivalent of a Hyundai. On a dollar-adjusted basis, stock-index funds charge an average of 29 cents per $100, compared with 95 cents for active funds (almost a 70% discount), according to research firm Lipper. For example, Vanguard’s passive VITSX fund charges clients as little as 6 cents for every $100 invested (Morningstar).

There has indeed been a changing of the market share guard and Fidelity may also be losing the debate over active versus passive management, but you do not need to shed a tear for them. Fidelity is not going to the poorhouse and will not be filing for Chapter 11 anytime soon. Last year Fidelity reported $11.5 billion in revenue and $2.5 billion in operating income. Those Fidelity profits should be more than enough to cover the demoted guard’s job retraining program and retirement plan benefits.

Read the Complete InvestmentNews Article

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®  

Plan. Invest. Prosper. 

www.Sidoxia.com

DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients own certain exchange traded funds, but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct position in VITSX, PTTAX, BAC, FCNTX, FMAGX, or any other security referenced in this article. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC “Contact” page.

October 3, 2010 at 11:18 pm 3 comments

Seesawing Through Organized Chaos

Still fresh in the minds of investors are the open wounds created by the incredible volatility that peaked just a little over a year ago, when the price of insurance sky-rocketed as measured by the Volatility Index (VIX).  Even though equity markets troughed in March of 2009, earlier the VIX reached a climax over 80 in November 2008. With financial institutions falling like flies and toxic assets clogging up the lending pipelines, virtually all asset classes moved downwards in unison during the frefall of 2008 and early 2009. The traditional teeter-totter phenomenon of some asset classes rising simultaneously while others were falling did not hold.  With the recent turmoil in Greece coupled with the “Flash Crash” (read making $$$ trading article) and spooky headline du jour, the markets have temporarily reverted back to organized chaos. What I mean by that is even though the market recently dove about +8% in 8 days, we saw the teeter-totter benefits of diversification kick in over the last month.

Seesaw Success

While the S&P fell about -4.5% over the studied period below, the alternate highlighted asset classes managed to grind out positive returns.

 

While traditional volatility has returned after a meteoric bounce in 2009, there should be more investment opportunities to invest around. With the VIX hovering in the mid-30s after a brief stay above 40 a few weeks ago, I would not be surprised to see a reversion to a more normalized fear gauge in the 20s – although my game plan is not dependent on this occurring.

VIX Chart Source: Yahoo! Finance

Regardless of the direction of volatility, I’m encouraged that even during periods of mini-panics, there are hopeful signs that investors are able to seesaw through periods of organized chaos with the assistance of good old diversification.

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper. 

*DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients own certain exchange traded funds (including AGG, BND, VNQ, IJR and TIP), but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct positions in VXX, GLD,  or any security referenced in this article. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC “Contact” page.

May 19, 2010 at 12:28 am 3 comments

Passive vs. Active Investing: Darts, Monkeys & Pros

Bob Turner is founder of Turner Investments and a manager of several funds at the investment company. In a recent article he reintroduces the all-important, longstanding debate of active management (“hands-on”) versus passive management (“hands off”) approaches to investing.

Mr. Turner makes some good arguments for the active management camp, however some feel differently – take for example Burton Malkiel. The Princeton professor theorizes in his book A Random Walk Down Wall Street that “a blindfolded monkey throwing darts at a newspaper’s stock page could select a portfolio that would do just as well as one carefully selected by experts.” In fact, The Wall Street Journal manages an Investment Dartboard contest that stacks up amateur investors’ picks against the pros’ and random stock picks selected by randomly thrown darts. In many instances, the dartboard picks outperform the professionals.

Given the controversy, who’s right…the darts, monkeys, or pros? Distinguishing between the different categorizations can be difficult, but we will take a stab nevertheless.

Arguments for Active Management

Turner contends, active management outperforms in periods of high volatility and he believes the industry will be entering such a phase:

“Active managers historically have tended to perform best in a market in which the performance of individual stocks varies widely.”

He also acknowledges that not all active managers outperform and admits there are periods where passive management will do better:

“The reason why most active investors fail to outperform is because they in fact constitute most of the market. Even in the best of times, not all active managers can hope to outperform…The business of picking stocks is to some degree a zero-sum game; the results achieved by the best managers will be offset at least somewhat by the subpar performance of other managers.”

Buttressing his argument for active management, Turner references data from Advisor Perspectives showing an inconclusive percentage (40.5%-67.8%) of the actively managed funds trailing the passively managed indexes from 2000 to 2008.

The Case for Passive Management

Turner cites one specific study to support his active management cause. However, my experience gleaned from the vast amounts of academic and industry data point to approximately 75% of active managers underperforming their passively managed indexes, over longer periods of time. Notably, a recent study conducted by Standard & Poor’s SPIVA division (S&P Indices Versus Active Funds) discovered the following conclusions over the five year market cycle from 2004 to 2008:

  • S&P 500 outperformed 71.9% of actively managed large cap funds;
  • S&P MidCap 400 outperformed 79.1% of mid cap funds;
  • S&P SmallCap 600 outperformed 85.5% of small cap funds.

Read more about  the dirty secrets shrinking your portfolio.

According to the Vanguard Group and the Investment Company Institute, about 25% of institutional assets and about 12% of individual investors’ assets are currently indexed (passive strategies).  If you doubt the popularity of passive investment strategies, then look no further than the growth of Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs – see chart), index funds, or Vanguard Groups more than $1 trillion dollars in assets under management.

Although I am a firm believer in passive investing, one of its shortcomings is mean reversion. This is the idea that upward or downward moving trends tend to revert back to an average or normal level over time. Active investing can take advantage of mean reversion, conversely passive investing cannot. Indexes can get very top-heavy in weightings of outperforming sectors or industries, meaning theoretically you could be buying larger and larger shares of an index in overpriced glamour stocks on the verge of collapse.  We experienced these lopsided index weightings through the technology bubbles in the late 1990s and financials in 2008. Some strategies may be better than other over the long run, but every strategy, even passive investing, has its own unique set of deficiencies and risks.

Professional Sports and Investing

As I discuss in my book, there are similarities that can be drawn between professional sports and investing with respect to active vs. passive management. Like the scarce number of .300 hitters in baseball, I believe there are a select few investment managers who can consistently outperform the market. In 2007, AssociatedContent.com did a study that showed there were only 22 active career .300 hitters in Major League Baseball. I recognize in the investing world there can be a larger role for “luck,” which is difficult, if not impossible, to measure (luck won’t help me much in hitting a 100 mile per hour fastball thrown by Nolan Ryan). Nonetheless, in the professional sports arena, there are some Hall of Famers (prospects) that have proved they could (can) consistently outperform their peers for extended durations of time.

Experience is another distinction I would highlight in comparing sports and investing. Unlike sports, in the investment world I believe there is a positive correlation between age and ability. The more experience an investor gains, generally the better long-term return achieved. Like many professions, the more experience you gain, the more valuable you become. Unfortunately, in many sports, ability deteriorates and muscles atrophy over time.

Size Matters

Experience alone will not make you a better investor. Some investors are born with an innate gift or intellect that propels them ahead of the pack. However, most great investors eventually get cursed by their own success thanks to accumulating assets. Warren Buffet knows the consequences of managing large amounts of dollars, “gravity always wins.”  Having managed a $20 billion fund, I fully appreciate the challenges of investing larger sums of money. Managing a smaller fund is similar to navigating a speed boat – not too difficult to maneuver and fairly easy to dodge obstacles. Managing heftier pools of money can be like captaining a supertanker, but unfortunately the same rapid u-turn expectations of the speedboat remain. Managing large amounts of capital can be crippling, and that’s why captaining a supertanker requires the proper foresight and experience.

Room for All

As I’ve stated before, I believe the market is efficient in the long run, but can be terribly inefficient in the short-run, especially when the behavioral aspects of emotion (fear and greed) take over. The “wait for me, I want to play too” greed from the late 1990s technology craze and the credit-based economic collapse of 2008-2009 are further examples of inefficient situations that can be exploited by active managers. However, due to multiple fees, transaction costs, taxes, not to mention the short-term performance/compensation pressures to perform, I believe the odds are stacked against the active managers. For those experienced managers that have played the game for a long period and have a track record of success, I feel active management can play a role.

At Sidoxia Capital Management, I choose to create investment portfolios that blend a mixture of passive and active investment strategies. Although my hedge fund has outperformed the S&P 500 in 2009, that fact does not necessarily mean it’s the appropriate sole approach for all clients. As Warren Buffet states, investors should stick to their “circle of competence” so they can confidently invest in what they know.  That’s why I generally stick to the areas of my expertise when I’m actively investing in stocks, and fill in the remainder of client portfolios with transparent, low-cost, tax-efficient equity and fixed income products (i.e., Exchange Traded Funds).

Even though the actively managed Turner Funds appear to have a mixed-bag of performance numbers relative to passively managed strategies, I appreciate Bob Turner’s article for addressing this important issue.  I’m sure the debate will never fully be resolved. In the meantime, my client portfolios will aim to mix the best of both worlds within active and passive management strategies in the eternal quest of outwitting the darts, monkeys, and other pros.

Read the full Bob Turner article on Morningstar.com

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper. 

DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients own certain exchange traded funds but had no direct position in stocks mentioned in this article. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC “Contact” page.

December 8, 2009 at 1:45 am 5 comments

Leveraged ETFs…Too Much Adrenaline?

Do we really need extra levered ETF risk?

Do we really need extra levered ETF risk?

Isn’t the market volatile enough without leverage? I believe the vast majority of individuals have plenty of adrenaline in their daily investment lives without the necessity of exotic inverse ETFs (Exchange Traded Funds) or other leveraged investment vehicles. FINRA (Financial Industry Regulatory Authority), the largest regulating body overseeing U.S. securities firms feels much the same way. Many of these ETFs seek to earn a daily return double or triple a designated index – the inverse instruments strive to mirror the return in the opposite direction.

Read WSJ Article (FINRA Urges Caution on Leveraged Funds)

No doubt, many exchange traded funds have some key advantages over actively managed mutual funds such as lower costs, tax efficiency, and improved liquidity; however most investors have no business in trading these crazy leveraged gimmicks. For example, I wouldn’t recommend average investors speculating in the Direxion 3X Inverse Financial Bull (FAS) ETF, which was down more than 95% in its first four months of existence. Do yourself a favor and heed the advice of stuntmen that advise, “Please, do not try this at home.”

FINRA conveyed this sentiment in a recent notice:

“While such products may be useful in some sophisticated trading strategies, they are highly complex financial instruments that are typically designed to achieve their stated objectives on a daily basis. Due to effects of compounding, their performance over longer periods of time can differ significantly from their stated daily objective.”

 

The Wall Street Journal article goes on to show a return example of how three different funds performed (vanilla index fund, double long fund, double inverse fund) under alternating positive and negative +/-10% day scenarios.  After 60 days of alternating up +10% and down -10% on an initial investment of $100, the index fund ended at a value of $40.47 while the double inverse funds finished worth a meager $2.54 each. The example proves that the correlation between the leveraged ETF and the underlying target index can vary dramatically when invested for longer periods than a day.

These levered products make for excellent brokerage and trading software commercials, but rather than getting sucked in to talking baby traders and fast moving graphics, the average day trader or casual investor would be better served by bungee jumping or sky diving to get their adrenaline fix.

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®  

Plan. Invest. Prosper.  

www.Sidoxia.com 

DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients own certain exchange traded funds, but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct position in FAS, or any other security referenced in this article. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC “Contact” page.

July 15, 2009 at 4:00 am Leave a comment

Water…the Next Oil?

Water engulfs our daily lives – we drink, bathe, wash clothes, soak our lawns and brush our teeth with it on a consistent basis. We notice our reliance in our monthly water bills. The earth is covered by approximately 70% water, so if this commodity is so abundant, then how could it be such a scarce, valuable resource? Water is so important; the majority of our body mass consists of the fluid (about 60% in males and 55% in females). Although our planet is covered with this liquid, the main problem surrounding the issue is that only about 2% of the water supply is considered fresh water (predominantly located in Antarctica). Desalinization of salt water is one solution to the limited amount of fresh water, but unfortunately the current technology and energy requirements make it a cost prohibitive process. As a result of the inadequate supply, over an estimated 1 billion people do not have access to clean water and 2.4 billion people are subject to stressed water conditions.

Water

In the “Golden State” of California, budgetary problems are not the only concern on people’s minds – the state is in the middle of a water shortage. Certain water jurisdictions are escalating prices by upwards of +15%. Regardless of your view on “climate change,” objective data points to declining water levels and heightened scarcity. By 2030, OECD predicts that half of the world’s population will live in areas under severe water stress.

I’m certainly not the only believer in this theme as an investment opportunity. T. Boone Pickens, renowned commodity investor, is spending over $100 million on water investments (including access to water rights) because he believes that H2O is the next oil. Water, like oil, is a depleting resource that will experience intensified demand over time.

How to Invest in Water:

Not everyone has millions of dollars like Pickens to invest in land and water rights, so there are different ways for the average investor to participate in the rising demand for water. For example, investors, like Sidoxia Capital Management, can invest in ETFs (exchange traded funds) with a water focus. ETF options include, PowerShares Water Resources (PHO), PowerShares Global Water ETF (PIO), and/or Claymore S&P Global Water (CGW). For those wishing to invest in individual stocks, some water related companies include, Nalco Holding Company (NLC), Danaher Corporation (DHR), Itron Inc. (ITRI), and Valmont Industries, Inc. (VMI).

Water Demand Drivers

  • The globe’s population of approximately 6.5 billion people is growing and becoming thirstier. Water demand is expanding much faster than population growth.
  • Climate change exacerbates the growing water supply problem.
  • Agriculture and irrigation needs are driving the majority of global water demand.
  • There is no substitute for water at any price.

Conservation, technology, and efficiency are tools to improve the usage of our finite water resources. As the water problem becomes more acute, profiting from water investments is a way to offset the inevitably higher costs of usage. Now if you’ll please excuse me, I’m thirsty for a glass of water.

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®          www.Sidoxia.com

DISCLOSURE: At the time of publishing, Sidoxia Capital Management and some of its clients owned certain exchange traded funds (including PHO & CGW), but had no direct positions in PIO, CGW, NLC, DHR, ITRI, VMI, or any other security referenced. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC “Contact” page.

June 26, 2009 at 10:15 am 2 comments


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