Nelson writes the following:
It seems to me that the financial advisory industry as a whole spends a great deal of time creating instruments and building an investor culture that tries to act as if investing (or trading) can be simplified to a set of easy-to-follow rules and, hey, we’re professionals, so leave your money with us. I think it’s made even easier for them to convince people because the majority of people want to be convinced. They’re not that interested in thinking about how to invest their money — not really — so they do their best to wipe their hands of it, with all the consequences that entails.
This is absolutely correct. The psychology of “easy investing” has not changed since the dawn of cheap trading on the internet – the initial “brain-dead” way to invest was always going with a “trusted professional” (financial adviser, stockbroker, etc.) to make your decisions for you, since they clearly knew more than you did. Then for those that got jaded with the performance of such “trusted professionals” and eventually want to do-it-yourself, you have a whole host of products that essentially boil down to “stock pick” type newsletters (e.g. publications like the Motley Fool and TheStreet.Com, which are really fronts for subscriptions to newsletters). All of these don’t really involve any type of thinking – monkey see, monkey-do – if Cramer’s buying Amazon, might as well buy Amazon, eh?
Big banks, especially in Canada, will have you sit down in a branch with a “financial adviser” (who is really a salesperson for the funds the bank sells) and get you to fill in a simple questionnaire, which asks many questions to put you in one of three risk categories. If you were high risk (likely a “young” investor), you were suggested to invest 70% in equity funds, and 30% in bond funds. If you were medium risk, you are suggested to invest 40% in equity funds, 30% in “balanced” funds, and 30% in bond funds. If you are close to retirement and low risk, the suggestion will be 10% equity, 40% balanced, and 50% money-market funds. More “modern” suggested asset mixes may include 10-15% for “commodities”. Simple formulas to make investing easier.
Unfortunately, such cookie-cutter solutions will never provide superior returns. In fact, they will dramatically underperform. The reason is because of the fallacy that asset mix determines 90% of portfolio performance and neglecting to look at valuations.
Once an investor starts to realize that there is no informational benefit to newsletter-type subscriptions, or mutual funds, they will eventually shift to another form of control – exchange-traded funds, which essentially are mutual funds that are easier to buy and sell by virtue of being exchange-traded and not having to deal with an annoying bank middle-man. Once you give up and realize you can’t beat the market (the literature that suggests this starts to be compelling when you suffer losses), you will invest in the S&P 500 index fund, which apparently has slipped the actual index by 0.19% (which is actually not that bad, but slippage should be less than 5 basis points for such a large fund).
Even investing in different ETFs you have to do your homework and cannot apply a “cookie cutter” solution. There is no better example than with commodity-based ETFs.
Commodity-based ETFs that invest in underlying commodities with futures are very bad products. They experience huge trading losses when they have to rollover front-month contracts – the biggest culprit so far has been UNG, the United States Natural Gas ETF. Traders have absolutely ripped UNG’s investors to shreds, and rightfully so – investing in futures is not the same as investing in the commodity itself.
Commodity-based ETFs that invest in the underlying commodity (not futures) are legitimate long-term investment products – the best example is the Gold Trust (GLD), which invests in the physical metal. Your cost of investment is 0.4% per year instead of taking delivery of a gold bar and storing it in your own safety deposit box.
Note that I am making no opinion on the future pricing of natural gas or gold – I am just using these ETFs as an example. If I wanted to bet on a higher price of gold over the long run, I could consider the Gold Trust ETF. If I wanted to bet on a higher price of natural gas over the long run, I would not use the UNG ETF.
I have no issues with investing in ETFs – they provide much cheaper coverage than most mutual funds do, although there are some ETFs out there that are clearly geared towards traders/gamblers than actual investors. People that invest in most ETFs would likely be much better off looking at the top ten holdings and just investing proportionally in the common shares of such companies and will be able to save significant amounts of money from management expense ratios.
Just as an example, if you think energy will be a hot product in the future and choose to invest in XEG.TO (a Canadian energy sector fund), we see the following as the top 10 holdings:
17.74% SUNCOR ENERGY INC
14.02% CANADIAN NATURAL RESOURCES
9.31% ENCANA CORP
7.36% CENOVUS ENERGY INC
6.72% TALISMAN ENERGY INC
5.09% CANADIAN OIL SANDS TRUST
4.45% NEXEN INC
3.63% IMPERIAL OIL LTD
3.05% PENN WEST ENERGY TRUST
2.82% CRESCENT POINT ENERGY CORP
The MER of the fund is 0.55%, so if you invested $10,000 in XEG, you are paying roughly $55/year for management of the fund. This $55 is reduced from the dividend payments you would otherwise receive had you been invested in the common shares (which is a tax-inefficient way of paying for management expenses since such dividends are tax-preferred eligible dividends – a better way would be to bill ETF holders directly and they can take a full deduction for this expense from income). If you can scale into the 10 positions for less than $55 (which is easily done at a properly selected brokerage firm) then with a little mouse-clicking, you can save money on your long-term investments. Since 74% of the fund is invested in its top 10 holdings, the tracking error is trivial since the top 10 securities (74% of investments) are likely to be highly correlated investments to the other 26% in a sector fund.
The conclusions are fairly clear – for most passive index funds out there, it is better to just invest in individual components unless if you are dealing with small amounts of money, or small amounts of time.
True out-performance is difficult to achieve – it requires research, work, and sharp decision-making. It is very unlikely that Joe Investor out there will be able to outperform without going into microscopic details of individual securities. This requires skills such as being able to read financial statements, and knowledge of the sector. Not many people will want to do this – and thus, they will dump their RRSP money in some index fund since it is an easy decision to make and will likely underperform since others will be doing the same thing.