Saturday, April 16, 2011

Can You Be A Savvy Investor With Index Funds?

We are a fickle bunch. We think of ourselves as savvy investors, although there is a great deal of room for improvement among all investors to which degree of savviness. Yet we are in almost every instance our own worst enemy. Victoria Holt is quoted as saying: "Never regret. If it's good, it's wonderful. If it's bad, it's experience". Yet still, after several decades of behaviorists studying our actions in the marketplace like so many mice in a lab, we still do the same predictable things time and again.
And perhaps the first emotion we feel once we begin to second guess each of our "investment" decisions is regret. And if the recent selling of actively managed mutual funds by investors over the last year or so is any indication, regret for past decisions is in full swing.

Adding to the chatter that actively managed mutual funds and by default the managers who stand at the helm, is John Bogle, chanting the mantra he has carried since the late seventies. Why, he has asked, would anyone choose to look for more than what an index fund can provide? And as we begin to acknowledge the pull and tug, feel the most susceptible to such cost savings as a lower fees, which is always good, index funds begin to come to the front of our thinking about which investment is best.

But once you begin to believe that getting mediocre returns in the equity markets is the "new" goal, the attempt at saving some money in terms of the fees charged by actively managed funds in exchange for the smaller returns that index funds offer becomes the overall focus. And if that is the sight path you choose, index funds are definitely the right fund to use.

In a recent report in the NYTimes on the subject of this exodus from highly regarded performers over decades to index funds in search of lower fees, one thing stands out in the numbers. This is simply a beast feeding upon itself.

Consider this: You own X amount of shares in an actively managed mutual fund and you sell. But rarely do investors act alone. They are signalled by some change in the wind, some report drilled over and over or perhaps, it is from the suggestion of a colleague. Suddenly, fear sets in and you begin to think that you have the wrong investments. The fees are too high, you think and then anything that resembles a stick snapping alarms you and your fellow investors and you run.  And then you regret.

The selling prompts the redemption of shares, which when enough investors sell simultaneously, and enough shareholders accounts need to be made whole as they leave, markets move. And if the movement is great enough, the equities drop. And so do the indexes. So you sell at a loss only to buy shares in a fund you just, via the herd, lowered.

In many instances, the outflows are no reason to believe that the actively managed mutual fund world will implode. In fact, according to Brian Reid, the Investment Company Institute’s chief economist, 93% of the investment assets stayed right where they were as the remainder moved to other investments. Among those investments - more than just index funds reaped the benefit of this change in loyalty to actively managed funds - overseas funds gained as well as funds focused on commodities. Bond fund outflows also helped boost the index fund profile.

And what did this sell-off net the exiting investors? What were they looking for? Believe it or not, index funds that are actively managed. This surprising move has some folks, including myself, scratching our collective heads.

True, the fee structure of index funds is far cheaper that that of the actively managed fund (index funds average about .16% while actively managed funds average about .97% - with many load and closed end funds added into that average and increasing it as a result). But once you let a broker enter the mix, the fee structure changes, coming closer to the cost of the actively managed fund and at a lesser overall return.

Index funds because of the tax efficient structure belong in taxable accounts - as long as the capital gains tax remains historically low. Inside a tax deferred account such as a 401(k) or an IRA, the effect is lost. This is and should be the domain of the actively managed mutual fund. And while you should never lose sight of the role fees play in the long-term performance of your investments, believing that fees are the only driver in achieving steady returns is misplaced.

And while I have nothing against index funds, the growing number of funds  that slice and dice the markets do not always lead to lower fees for investors. But talk about index funds enough, and investors won't notice nor take the time to compare one index to another.

Paul Petillo is the Managing Editor of and a fellow Boomer

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