Posts filed under ‘Mutual Funds’

March Madness Leads to Gladness

jump ball

As usual, there was plenty of “madness” in March, and this year did not disappoint. Just as is the case with the annual NCAA basketball tournament, certain investors suffered the agony of defeat in the financial markets, but overall, the thrill of victory triumphed in March. So much so that the S&P 500 index posted its largest first-quarter gain in more than 20 years. Not only did the major indexes post gains for the month, but the winning record looks even better for the year-to-date results. For 2019, the S&P 500 index is up +13.1%; the Dow Jones Industrial Average +11.2%; and the tech-heavy NASDAQ index +16.5% for the year. The monthly gains in the major indexes were more muted, ranging from 0% for the Dow to +2.6% for the NASDAQ.

Busy? Listen to Wade discuss this article and other topics each week on the Weekly Grind podcast:

 

While 2018 ended with a painful injury (S&P 500 -6.2% in Q4), on fears of a deteriorating China trade deal and a potentially overly aggressive Federal Reserve hiking interest rates, the stock market ultimately recovered in 2019 on changing perceptions. Jerome Powell, the Federal Reserve Chairman, indicated the Fed would be more “patient” going forward in increasing interest rates, and President Trump’s tweet-storm on balance has been optimistic regarding the chances of hammering out a successful trade deal with China.

With the new cautious Fed perspective on interest rates, the yield on the 10-Year Treasury Note fell by -0.28% for the quarter from 2.69% to 2.41%. In fact, investors are currently betting there is a greater than 50% probability the Fed will cut interest rates before year-end. Moreover, in testimony before Congress, Powell signaled the economic dampening policy of reducing the Fed’s balance sheet was almost complete. All else equal, the shift from a perceived rate-hiking Fed to a potentially rate-cutting Fed has effectively turned an apparent headwind into tailwind. Consumers are benefiting from this trend in the housing market, as evidenced by lower 30-year fixed mortgage rates, which in some cases have dropped below 4%.

Economy: No Slam Dunk

However, not everything is a slam dunk in the financial markets. Much of the change in stance by the Fed can be attributed to slowing economic growth seen both here domestically and abroad, internationally.

Here in the U.S., the widely followed monthly jobs number last month only showed a gain of 20,000 jobs, well below estimates of 180,000 jobs. This negative jobs surprise was the biggest miss in more than 10 years. Furthermore, the overall measure for our nation’s economic activity, growth in Gross Domestic Product (GDP), was revised downward to +2.2% in Q4, below a previous estimate of +2.6%. The so-called “inverted yield curve” (i.e., short-term interest rates are higher than long-term interest rates), historically a precursor to a recession, is consistent with slowing growth expectations. This inversion temporarily caused investors some heartburn last month.

If you combine slowing domestic economic growth figures with decelerating manufacturing growth in Europe and China (e.g. contracting Purchasing Managers’ Index), then suddenly you end up with a slowing global growth picture. In recent months, the U.S. economy’s strength was perceived as decoupling from the rest of the world, however recent data could be changing that view.

Fortunately, the ECB (European Central Bank) and China have not been sitting on their hands. ECB President Mario Draghi announced three measures last month that could cumulatively add up to some modest economic stimulus. First, it “expects the key ECB interest rates to remain at their present levels at least through the end of 2019.” Second, it committed to reinvesting all maturing bond principal payments in new debt “for an extended period of time.” And third, the ECB announced a new batch of “Targeted Long-Term Refinancing Operations” starting in September. Also, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang announced the government will reduce taxes, primarily Value Added Taxes (VAT) and social security taxes (SST). Based on the rally in equities, it appears investors are optimistic these stimulus efforts will eventually succeed in reigniting growth.

Volume of Political Noise Ratcheted Higher

While I continually try to remind investors to ignore politics when it comes to their investment portfolios, the deafening noise was especially difficult to overlook considering the following:

  • Mueller Report Completed: Robert Mueller’s Special Counsel investigation into potential collusion as it relates Russian election interference and alleged obstruction of justice concluded.
  • Michael Cohen Testifies: Former President Trump lawyer, Michael Cohen, testified in closed sessions before the House and Senate intelligence committees, and in public to the House Oversight Committee. In the open session, Cohen, admitted to paying hush money to two women during the election. Cohen called President Trump a racist, a conman, and a cheat but Cohen is the one heading to jail after being sentenced for lying to Congress among other charges.
  • Manafort Sentenced: Former Trump Campaign Chairman Paul Manafort was sentenced to prison on bank and tax fraud charges.
  • North Korea No Nuke Deal: In geopolitics,President Trump flew 21 hours to Vietnam to meet for a second time with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on denuclearization of the Korean peninsula. The U.S. president ended up leaving early, empty handed, without signing an agreement, after talks broke down over sanction differences.
  • Brexit Drama Continues: The House of Commons in the lower house of the U.K. Parliament continued to stifle Prime Minister Theresa May’s plan to exit the European Union with repeated votes rejecting her proposals. Brexit outcomes remain in flux, however the European Union did approve an extension to May 22 to work out kinks, if the House can approve May’s plan.

Positive Signals Remain

March Madness reminds us that a big lead can be lost quickly, however a few good adjustments can also swiftly shift momentum in the positive direction. Although growth appears to be slowing both here and internationally, corporate profits are not falling off a cliff, and earnings remain near record highs (see chart below).

corp prof

Source: Calafia Beach Pundit

Similar to the stock market, commodities can be a good general barometer of current and future economic activity. As you can see from the chart below, not only have commodity prices remained stable in the face of slowing economic data, but gold prices have not spiked as they did during the last financial crisis.

gld v cmmd

Source: Calafia Beach Pundit

After 2018 brought record growth in corporate profits and negative returns, 2019 is producing a reverse mirror image – slow profit growth and record returns. The volatile ending to 2018 and triumphant beginning to 2019 is a reminder that “March Madness” does not need to bring sadness…it can bring gladness.

investment-questions-border

www.Sidoxia.com

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper.

This article is an excerpt from a previously released Sidoxia Capital Management complimentary newsletter (April 1, 2019). Subscribe on the right side of the page for the complete text.

DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients hold positions and certain exchange traded funds (ETFs), but at the time of publishing had no direct position in 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.

April 1, 2019 at 1:37 pm Leave a comment

PIMCO and Stocks: The Slow Motion Train Wreck

j0145505

I believe it was Bill Clinton who said, “If you don’t toot your horn, it usually stays untooted.” Good advice, but keeping his horn concealed may have helped his political and personal career in a few instances too.

In sticking with the horn metaphor, I will toot my own horn as it relates to my skepticism about bond behemoth PIMCO’s long failed attempt to enter the equity fund market. Since 2009, watching PIMCO’s efforts of gaining credibility in stock investing has been like observing a slow motion train wreck.

Although, PIMCO may continue its flailing struggles in its so-called equity offerings, the proverbial nail in the coffin was announced last week when PIMCO’s chief investment officer of global equities, Virginie Maisonneuve, left the bond giant after only a year. This departure adds to the list of high profile departures, including Bill Gross, Mohamed El-Erian, Paul McCulley, Neel Kashkari, and others.

The Wall Street Journal states PIMCO only has $3 billion (0.2%) of the firms $1.6 trillion of assets remaining in actively traded stock funds. PIMCO claims to have more assets in equity funds managed by Research Affiliates but good luck finding any stocks in these portfolios – for example, Morningstar lists 0 Stock Holdings and 698 Bond Holdings in its PIMCO RAE Fundamental Plus EMG Stock Fund. And please explain to me how this is a stock fund?

Regardless, any way you look at it PIMCO continues to flounder in its stock fund efforts. If you would like to read more about my victory lap, please reference my previous February 2013 PIMCO article, Beware: El-Erian & Gross Selling Buicks…Not Chevys.

Here is a partial excerpt:

PIMCO Smoke & Mirrors: Stock Funds with NO Stocks

Just when I thought I had seen it all, I came across PIMCO’s Equity-Related funds. Never in my career have I seen “equity” mutual funds that invest solely in “bonds.” Well, apparently PIMCO has somehow creatively figured out how to create stock funds without investing in stocks. I guess that is one strategy for a bond-centric company of getting into the equity fund market? This is either ingenious or bordering on the line of criminal. I fall into the latter camp. How the SEC allows the world’s largest bond company to deceivingly market billions in bond-filled stock funds to individual investors is beyond me. After innocent people got fleeced by unscrupulous mortgage brokers and greedy lenders, in this Dodd-Frank day and age, I can’t help but wonder how PIMCO is able to solicit a StockPlus Fund that has 0% invested in common stocks. You can judge for yourself by reviewing their equity-related funds on their website (see also chart below):

PIMCO Equity-Related Funds with NoEquity

PIMCO Equity-Related Funds with No Equity

PIMCO Active Equity Funds Struggle

With more than 99% of PIMCO’s $2 trillion in assets under management locked into bonds, company executives have made a half-hearted effort of getting into the equity markets, even though they’ve enjoyed high-fiving each other during the three-decade-long bond bull market (see Downhill Marathon Machine). In hopes of diversifying their bond-heavy revenue stream, in 2009 they hired the head of the high-profile $700 billion, government TARP program (Neil Kashkari). Subsequently, PIMCO opened its first set of actively managed funds in 2010. Regrettably for PIMCO, the sledding has been quite tough. In 2012, all six actively managed equity funds lagged their benchmarks. Moreover, just a few weeks ago, Kashkari their rock star hire decided to quit and pursue a return to politics.

Mohamed El-Erian and Bill Gross have never been camera shy or bashful about bashing stocks. PIMCO has virtually all their bond eggs in one basket and their leaderless equity division is struggling. What’s more, like some car salesmen, they have had a creative way of describing the facts. If it’s a Chevy or unbiased advice you’re looking for, I recommend you steer clear from Buick salesmen and PIMCO headquarters.

Investment Questions Border

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), but at the time of publishing, SCM had no direct position in PEFAX or any other PIMCO 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 23, 2015 at 2:41 pm Leave a comment

Vice Tightens for Those Who Missed the Pre-Party

Group of Young People at a Party Sitting on a Couch with Champagne

The stock market pre-party has come to an end. Yes, this is the part of the bash in which an exclusive group is invited to enjoy the fruits of the festivities before the mobs arrive. That’s right, unabated access to the nachos; no lines to the bathroom; and direct access to the keg. For those of us who were invited to the stock market pre-party (or crashed it on their own volition), the spoils have been quite enjoyable –   about a +128% rebound for the S&P 500 index from the bottom of 2009, and a +147% increase in the NASDAQ Composite index over the same period (excluding dividends paid on both indexes).

Although readers of Investing Caffeine have received a personal invitation to the stock market pre-party since I launched my blog  in early 2009,  many have shied away, out of fear the financial market cops may come and break-up the party.

Rather than partake in stock celebration over the last four years, many have chosen to go down the street to the bond market party. Unlike the stock market party, the fixed-income fiesta has been a “major-rager” for more than three decades. However, there are a few signs that this party has gotten out-of-control. For example, crowds of investors are lined up waiting to squeeze their way into some bond indulgence; after endless noise, neighbors are complaining and the cops are on their way to shut the party down; and PIMCO’s Bill Gross has just jumped off the roof to do a cannon-ball into the pool.

Even though the stock-market pre-party has been a blast, stock prices are still relatively cheap based on historical valuation measurements, meaning there is still plenty of time for the party to roll on. How do we know the party has just started? After five years and about a half a trillion dollars hemorrhaging out of domestic funds (see Calafia Beach Pundit), there are encouraging signs that a significant number of party-goers are beginning to arrive to the party. More specifically, as it relates to stocks, a fresh $10 billion has flowed into domestic equity mutual funds during this January (see ICI chart below). This data is notoriously volatile, and can change dramatically from month-to-month, but if this month’s activity is any indication of a changing mood, then you better hurry to the stock party before the bouncer stops letting people in.

Investment Company Institute

Source: Investment Company Institute (ICI)

Vice Begins to Tighten on Party Outsiders

Vice

Many stock market outsiders have either been squeezed into the bond market, hidden in cash, or hunkered down in a bunker with piles of gold. While some of these asset classes have done okay since early 2009, all have underperformed stocks, but none have performed worse than cash. For those doubters sitting on the equity market sidelines, the pain of the vice squeezing their portfolios has only intensified, especially as the economy and employment picture slowly improves (see chart below) and stock prices persist directionally upward. For years, fear-mongering stock skeptics have warned of an imploding dollar, exploding inflation, a run-away deficit/debt, a reckless money-printing Federal Reserve, and political gridlock. Nevertheless, none of these issues have been able to kill this equity bull market.

Source: Calafia Beach Pundit

Source: Calafia Beach Pundit

But for those willing and able investors to enter the stock party today, one must realize this party will only get riskier over time.  As we exit the pre-party and enter into the main event, you never know who may join the party, including some uninvited guests who may steal money, get sick on the carpet, participate in illegal activities, and/or ruin the fun by clashing with guests. We have already been forced to deal with some of these uninvited guests in recent years, including the “flash crash,” debt ceiling debate, European financial crisis, fiscal cliff, and lastly, sequestration is about to arrive as well (right after parking his car).

New investors can still objectively join the current equity party, but it is necessary to still be cognizant of not over-staying your welcome. However, for those party-pooping doubters who already missed the pre-party, the vice will continue to tighten, leaving stock cynics paralyzed as they watch additional missed opportunities enjoyed by the rest of us.

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper.

www.Sidoxia.com

DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients hold positions in certain exchange traded funds (ETFs), but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct position in HLF, Japanese ETFs,  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 9, 2013 at 11:38 pm 6 comments

Performance Beauty in Eye of Beholder

The average person may be a good judge in picking the winner of a beauty contest, but unfortunately your average investor is ill-equipped to sift through the thousands of mutual funds and hedge funds and thoughtfully discern the relevant performance metrics for investment purposes.

Investment firms however, are well-equipped with smoke, mirrors, and a tool-chest filled with numerous tricks. Here are a few of the investment firms’ gimmicks:

  • Cherry Picking: Fund firms are notorious with cutting out the bad performance numbers and cherry picking the good periods. As investment guru Charles Ellis reminds us, the wow factor results of “investment performance become quite ordinary by simply adding or subtracting one or two years at the start or the end of the period shown. Investors should always get the whole record – not just selected excerpts.”
  • Limited Time Period: Often the period highlighted by investment firms is insufficient to make a proper conclusion regarding a manager’s outperformance capabilities. Ellis acknowledges that  gathering enough yearly performance information can be practically challenging:
“By the time you had gathered enough data to determine whether your fund manager really was skillful or just lucky, at least one of you would probably have died of old age.”
  • Fee Disclosure: Some managers’ performance figures look stupendous until one realizes once hefty fees are subtracted from the reported figures, what previously looked top-notch is now average or below-average. It is important to read the small print or ask tough questions of the broker peddling a fund.
  • Audited Figures: Legitimacy of performance is key, and there are different levels of audited figures. Global Investment Performance Standards (GIPS) compliance is an industry accepted standard. For pooled investment vehicles, audited results from regional or national accounting firms can be important too. 
  • Misused Rating Systems: Morningstar is the 800 pound gorilla in the mutual fund world and provides some useful data. Unfortunately, most Morningstar investors use the data incorrectly. A 2000 study by the Journal of Financial and Quantitative Analysis discovered, “There is little statistical evidence that Morningstar’s highest-rated funds outperform the medium-rated funds.” On this subject, Charles Ellis points out the following:
“While Morningstar candidly admits that its star ratings have little or no predictive power, 100 percent of net new investment money going into mutual funds goes to funds that were recently awarded five stars and four stars…Indeed, in the months after the ratings are handed out each year, the five-star funds generally earn less than half as much as the broad market index!…Morningstar ratings are misleading investors into buying high and selling low.”

 

Investors need to be careful in how they use the ratings – simply buying 4-5 star funds and selling star-losing funds can be a heartburning recipe for bad results. Buying high and selling low usually doesn’t turn out very well.

Find Winners…Then What?

Even if you are successful in identifying the winning funds, those same funds tend to underperform in subsequent periods. Ellis, a believer in passive index investing, noticed only 10% of active managers outperformed over 25 years, and the odds of sustaining outperformance in subsequent periods diminished even further.

Charles Ellis also noticed a fat-tail syndrome of losers versus winners. For example, Ellis found 2% of active managers outperformed over a set time period, but a whopping 16% underperformed the market over a similar timeframe. Consistent with these findings, Ellis stresses that past performance does not predict future results, with one exception: “The worst losers do tend to keep losing. If you do decide to select active investment managers, promise yourself you will stay with your chosen manager for many years…changing managers is not only expensive, but it usually doesn’t work.”

Professionals to the Rescue

Well, if individuals are not in a position to pick future winning fund managers, then thank heavens the professional consultants can help out…not exactly. Ellis was blunt about the capabilities of those professionals selecting active investment managers:

“Pension executives and investment consultants who specialize in selecting the best managers have, as a group, been unsuccessful at selecting managers who can beat the market.”

 

Ellis uses a respected firm as an example to prove his point:

“Cambridge Associates reports candidly, ‘There is no sound basis for hiring or firing managers solely on the basis of recent performance.’”

 

At the end of the day, finding current winners is not a problem, but sifting through the massive quantity of funds and selecting future winners is very challenging for individuals and professionals alike. The financial industry would like you to believe picking the future performance beauty winner is a simple task – the data seems to indicate otherwise. Rather than wasting your money attempting to pick the beauty winner, perhaps your money would be better spent on purchasing a tiara for yourself.

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 MORN, Cambridge Associates, 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.

January 30, 2011 at 11:31 pm 4 comments

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

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

Equities Up, But Investors Queasy

The market may have recovered partially from its illness over the last two years, but investors are still queasy when it comes to equities. The market is up by more than +60% since the March 2009 lows despite the unemployment rate continuing to tick higher, reaching 10.2% in October. Even though equity markets have rebounded, recovering investors have flocked to the drug store with their prescriptions for bonds. Mark Dodson, CFA, from Hays Advisory published a telling chart that highlights the extreme aversion savers have shown towards stocks.

Source: Hays Advisory LLC (Thomson Reuters Datastream)

Dodson adds:

“Net new fund mutual fund flows favor bonds over stocks dramatically, so much so that flows are on the cusp of breaking into record territory, with the previous record occurring back in the doldrums of the 2002 bear market. Given nothing but the chart (above), we would never in a million years guess that the stock market has rallied 50-60% off the March lows. It looks more like what you would see right in the throes of a nasty stock market decline.”

 

Checking and savings data from the Federal Reserve Bank of Saint Louis further corroborates the mood of the general public as the nausea of the last two years has yet to wear off. The mountains of cash on the sidelines have the potential of fueling further gains under the right conditions (see also Dry Powder Piled High story).

As Dodson notes in the Hays Advisory note, not everything is doom and gloom when it comes to stocks. For one, insider purchases according to the Emergent Financial Gambill Ratio is the highest since the recent bear market came to a halt. This trend is important, because as Peter Lynch emphasizes, “There are many reasons insiders sell shares but only one reason they buy, they feel the price is going up.”

What’s more, the yield curve is the steepest it has been in the last 25 years. This opposing signal should provide comfort to those blue investors that cried through inverted yield curves (T-Bill yields higher than 10-Year Notes) that preceded the recessions of 2000 and 2008.

Equity investors are still feeling ill, but time will tell if a dose of bond selling and a prescription for “cash-into-stocks” will make the queasy patient feel better?

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper. 

DISCLOSURE: 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.

November 24, 2009 at 2:00 am 3 comments

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