May 202017
 

Look at the top holdings of Italian Equities funds (Azionari Italia) on morningstar.it. They are the same for most of them: ENI, Intesa Sanpaolo, Enel, Unicredit, Luxottica, Assicurazioni Generali, Fiat Chrysler, and so on. Why? Do most fund managers agree that these are the best and most attractive companies quoted on the Italian stock market? No. The reason is that these are the largest companies by market capitalization, and therefore the largest components of the most commonly used Italian Equities index, the FTSE MIB. The same is true for other countries and regions, as well as for sector funds: look at the composition of the relevant index and you will work out a large portion of the funds’ holdings.

To a candid layman this looks very strange. ENI may be a good company, but why should it be as much as 10% of an Italian Equities fund? Surely, a company’s size has nothing to do with how valuable it is as an investment. Aren’t there more attractive choices? And if so, shouldn’t the fund invest in them, rather than park most of the money in the larger companies?

No, is the fund manager’s answer: the fund’s objective is not simply to find attractive investments. It is to obtain over time a better return than its peers and the index. This is what drives investors’ choices, determines the fund’s success and its manager’s reward. To beat the index – says the manager – I have to face it: take it as a neutral position and vary weights around it. So if I think that ENI is fairly valued I will hold its index weight, if I think it is undervalued I will hold more, and if I think it is overvalued I will hold less. How much more or less is up to me. But if ENI is 10% of the index I would have to regard it as grossly overvalued before deciding to hold none of it in the fund. A zero weight would be a huge bet against the index, which, if it goes wrong – ENI does well and I don’t have it – would hurt the fund’s relative performance and my career.

Sorry to insist – says the outspoken layman – but shouldn’t the fund’s performance and your career be better served if you take that 10% and invest it in stocks that you think will do better than ENI? If you do the same with the other large stocks which, like ENI, you hold in the fund just because they are in the index, you may be wrong a few times, but if you are any good at stock picking – and you tell me you are, that’s why I should buy your fund – then surely you are going to do much better than the index. What am I missing?

Look sir, with all due respect – says the slightly irritated manager – let me do my job. You want the fund to outperform, and so do I. So let me decide how best to achieve that goal, if you don’t mind.

I do mind – says the cheeky layman, himself showing signs of impatience. Of course I want you to beat the index. But I want you to do it with all my money, not just some of it. The index is just a measure of the overall market value. If ENI is worth 53 billion euro and the whole Italian stock market is worth 560 billion – less than Apple, by the way – then, sure, ENI is about 10% of the market. But what does that have to do with how much I, you or anybody else should own of it? The market includes all stocks – the good, the bad and the ugly. If you are able to choose the best stocks, you should comfortably do better than the market. If you can’t, I will look somewhere else.

Oh yeah? Good luck with that – the manager has given up his professional demeanour – hasn’t anybody told you that most funds do worse than the index?

Yes, I am aware of it – says the layman – that’s why I am looking for the few funds that can do better. You’re right, if your peers do what you do, I am not surprised they can’t beat the index. But I’ll keep looking. Good bye.

Well done, sir – someone else approaches the layman – let me introduce myself: I am the indexer. You’re right, all this overweight and underweight business is a complete waste of time and money. The reality is that, sooner or later, most funds underperform the index – and they even want to get paid for it! So let me tell you what I do: in my fund, I hold the stocks in the index at exactly their neutral weight, but I charge a small fraction of the other funds’ fees. This way, my fund does better than most other funds, at a much lower cost. How does that sound?

Pretty awful, I must say – says the layman – I am looking for a fund that invests all my money in good stocks and you are proposing one that does none of that and mindlessly buys index stocks. And you call yourself an investor?

Pardon me, but you’re so naïve – says the indexer – I am telling you I do better than most, at a lower cost. What part of the message don’t you understand?

Well, it’s not true – say the layman – and proceeds to show the indexer a list of funds that have done better than the relevant index and the other funds for each category over several periods after all costs – he may be a layman but he’s done his homework.

Oh, that’s rubbish – retorts the indexer – and performs his well-rehearsed coin-tossing gig. These are just the lucky guys who happen to sit on the right tail of the return distribution for a while. Sooner or later, their performance will revert to the mean. And do you know why? Because markets are efficient. Have you heard of the Efficient Market Theory? – he asks with a smug look. There is tons of academic evidence that proves that consistent market beating is impossible.

Yes, I know the EMT – says the layman – and I think it is wrong. Beating the market is clearly difficult – if it were easy everybody could do it, hence nobody would – but it is not impossible. The numbers I just showed you prove my point, and to dismiss them as a fluke is a miserable argument, fit only for haughty academics in need of a soothing answer to a most nagging question: If you’re so smart, why aren’t you rich? Tell me something – continues the layman – what drives market efficiency? Certainly not you, or the other gentleman with his marginal tweaking. You buy any company in the index regardless of price.

Yes – says the indexer, hiding his discomfort – but we are powerful and responsible shareholders and make sure that our voice gets heard.

Give me a break – the layman laughs – companies don’t care about you. They know you have to hold their shares no matter what. You’re the epitome of an empty threat. You don’t even know or care what these companies do. You are not an investor – you’re a free rider.

Ok then – says the indexer (he knew his was a phony argument but he tried it anyway) – what’s wrong with that? If there are enough active investors busy driving prices to where they should be, my passive fund reaps the benefits, my investors pay less and everyone is happy.

You should be ashamed of yourself, you know – says the layman, ready to end his second conversation.

Aw come on now! – blurts the indexer – who’s worse: me, transparently declaring what I do and charging little for it, or the other guy, pretending to be smart, doing worse than me and charging ten times as much?

You’ve got a point there – says the layman – you’re better than him. But you’re not going to get my money either. Good bye.

As you like, it’s your money – says the indexer, before launching his departing salvo: you know, even Warren Buffett says that index investing is the smart thing to do.

I have seen that – says the layman – what was he thinking?

Yes, what was Warren Buffett thinking when in his 2016 shareholder letter he proposed (p. 24) to erect a statue to John Bogle? Let’s see.

Back in the 2005 letter, Buffett prognosticated that active managers would, in aggregate, underperform the US stock market. He was reiterating the ‘fundamental truth’ of index investing. In the latest words of its inventor and proselytiser:

Before intermediation costs are deducted, the returns earned by equity investors as a group precisely equal the returns of the stock market itself. After costs, therefore, investors earn lower-than-market returns. (p. 2)

In its most general sense, this is an obvious tautology: the aggregate return equals the market return by definition. However, ‘Bogle’s truth’ is usually intended to apply as well to mutual funds, which for US equities represent about 20% of the aggregate (see e.g. Exhibit 3 here). As such, there is no logical reason why mutual funds should necessarily perform like the market as a group, and worse than the market after costs. In fact, a layman would be justified in expecting professional investors to do better, before and after costs, compared to e.g. households. Whether mutual funds do better than the market is therefore an empirical rather than a logical matter.

The question has a long history, dating back to Jensen (1968) all the way to the latest S&P SPIVA report. Most of these studies make it particularly hard for outperformance to show up. Rather than squarely comparing fund returns to the market index, they either adjust performance for ‘risk’ (Jensen) using the now abandoned CAPM model, or slice and dice fund returns (SPIVA), box them into a variety of categories and compare them to artificial sub-indices. As a result, the commonly held view – reflected in Buffett’s 2005 prediction – is that ‘most funds underperform the market’. From this, the allure of index investing is a small logical step and a seemingly impregnable conclusion. All you need to say is, as Buffett puts it (p. 24):

There are, of course, some skilled individuals who are highly likely to out-perform the S&P over long stretches. In my lifetime, though, I’ve identified – early on – only ten or so professionals that I expected would accomplish this feat.

There are no doubt many hundreds of people – perhaps thousands – whom I have never met and whose abilities would equal those of the people I’ve identified. The job, after all, is not impossible. The problem simply is that the great majority of managers who attempt to over-perform will fail. The probability is also very high that the person soliciting your funds will not be the exception who does well.

Further complicating the quest for worthy managers – says Buffett – is the fact that outperformance may well be the result of luck over short periods, and that It typically attracts a torrent of money, which the manager gladly accepts to his own benefit, thus making future returns more difficult to sustain.

The bottom line: When trillions of dollars are managed by Wall Streeters charging high fees, it will usually be the managers who reap outsized profits, not the clients. Both large and small investors should stick with low-cost index funds.

It was on this basis that Buffett followed his 2005 prophesy by offering a bet to any investment professional able to select at least five hedge funds that would match the performance of a Vanguard S&P500 index fund over the subsequent ten years. He called for hedge funds, which represent an even smaller portion of the US equity investor universe, as he considers them as the most strident example of divergence between bold return promises – reflected in hefty fees – and actual results. Most hedge funds do not set beating the S&P500 as their stated objective, preferring instead to target high returns independent of market conditions. But Buffett’s call was right: what’s the point of charging high fees if you can’t deliver more than index returns? At the same time, presumably he would not have objected to betting against long-only active funds explicitly managed to achieve S&P500 outperformance.

What followed – said Buffett – was the sound of silence. This is indeed surprising. Hedge fund managers’ objectives may be fuzzier, but if you manage a long-only US equity fund with a mandate to outperform the S&P500 and you genuinely believe you can do it, what better promotional opportunity is there than to bet against Warren Buffett and win?

Be as it may, only one manager took up the challenge. And – bless him – he did not choose five long-only funds, nor five hedge funds, but five funds of hedge funds: he picked five funds that picked more than 100 hedge funds that picked thousands of stocks. Nothing wrong with that, in principle. Presumably, each of the five funds of funds managers believed he could select a portfolio of hedge funds that, at least on average, would do so much better than the S&P500 that, despite the double fee layer, it would itself end up well ahead of the index. They were wrong, very wrong (p. 22). Over the nine years from 2008 to 2016, the S&P500 returned 85.4% (7.1% per annum). Only fund of funds C got somewhat close, with a return of 62.8% (5.6% per annum). The other four funds returned, in order: 28.3%, 8.7%, 7.5% and 2.9% (that is 2.8%, 0.9%, 0.8% and 0.3% per annum).

Result: Buffett’s valiant and solitary challenger, Mr. Ted Seides, co-manager, at the time, of Protégé Partners, played a very bad hand and made a fool of himself. But Buffett was lucky: he set out to prove ‘Bogle’s truth’ and observe index-like returns before fees, turning into underperformance after fees, but what he got was abysmal returns. Except perhaps for fund C, the gaping hole between the funds and the S&P500 had very little to do with fees. Buffett estimated that about 60% of all gains achieved by the five funds of funds went into the two fee layers. But even if fund D, returning a whopping 0.3% per year, had charged nothing, to select hedge funds that charged nothing, it would still have ended up well below the index. Same for funds A and E and, likely, for fund B.

To recap: when applied to mutual and hedge funds, ‘Bogle’s truth’ is not a logical necessity – as it is often portrayed to be – but is an empirical statement. Performance studies make it hard for outperformance to emerge, but beating the index in the long run is certainly no easy task, even for professional investors. Fees make it even harder – the higher the fees, the harder the task. However, while difficult to achieve and therefore rare to observe, long-term outperformance is not impossible – Buffett is the first to acknowledge it: he’s a living proof!

Why is it then that he interpreted his bet win against Seides as evidence of ‘Bogle’s truth’? Imagine he had called for five value stocks and got five duds. Would he have interpreted this as evidence of the impossibility of value investing? What’s the difference between picking stocks and picking funds? Why does Buffett consider the former a difficult but valiant endeavour while the latter an impossible waste of time?

More in the next post.

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  • Laura Bignami

    As I mentioned today in another post of this Blog, I think that Buffett’s argument, like Swensen’s, is valid when it addresses the question of what is best for lay people (like myself). Unlike Swensen or Buffett, we don’t have the time, resources, ability or inclination to select able fund managers (or stocks). I have gathered from Mauboussin that it’s very hard to untangle skill and luck in fund management, so the most rational choice for most people seems indeed to be index funds. How is the layman in your story to select the right fund manager who will outperform? Deviation from the index seems to be a necessary condition, but it’s certainly not sufficient!

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