What kind of investor are you: a stock selector, a manager selector or an index investor?
In this series of articles, I look at some of the key topics explored in my book “How to Invest With Exchange Traded Funds” that also underpin the portfolio design work Elston does for discretionary managers and financial advisers.
In previous articles, we looked at things to consider when designing a multi-asset portfolio. Let’s say, for illustration, an investor decides on a balanced portfolio invested 60% in equities and 40% in bonds. The “classic” 60/40 portfolio.
You now have a number of options of how to populate the equity allocation within that portfolio.
We look at each option in turn.
Equity exposure using direct equities: “the stock selectors”
This is the original approach, and, for some, the best. We call this group “Stock Selectors”: investors who prefer to research and select individual equities and construct, monitor and manage their own portfolios. To achieve diversification across a number of equities, a minimum of 30 stocks is typically required (at one event I went to for retail investors I was slightly nervous when it transpired that most people attending held fewer than 10 stocks in their portfolio). Across these 30 or more stocks, investors should give due regards to country and sector allocations.
Some golden rules of stock picking would include:
The advantage of investing in direct equities is the ability to design and manage your own style, process and trading rules. Also by investing direct equities there are no management fees creating performance drag. But when buying and selling shares, there are of course transactional, and other frictional costs, such as share dealing costs and Stamp Duty.
The most alluring advantage of this approach is the potential for index-beating and manager-beating returns.
But whilst the potential is of course there, as with active managers, persistency is the problem.
The more developed markets are “efficient” which means that news and information about a company is generally already priced in. So to identify an inefficiency you need an information advantage or an analytical advantage to spot something that most other investors haven’t. Ultimately you are participant in a zero-sum game, but the advantage is that if you can put the time, hours and energy in, it’s an insightful and fascinating journey.
The disadvantage of direct equity is that if it requires at least 30 stocks to have a diversified portfolio, then it requires time, effort and confidence to select and then manage those positions.
The other disadvantage is the lack of diversification compared to a fund-based approach (whether active or passive). This means that direct investors are taking “stock specific risks” (risks that are specific to a single company’s shares), rather than broader market risk. In normal markets, that can seem ok, but when you have occasional outsize moves owing to company-specific factors, you have to be ready to take the pain and make the decision to stick with it or to cut and run.
What does the evidence say?
The evidence suggests that, in aggregate, retail investors do a poor job at beating the market.
The Dalbar study in the US, published since 1994, compares the performance of investors who select their own stocks relative to a straightforward “buy-and-hold” investment in an index funds or ETF that tracks the S&P500, the benchmark that consists of the 500 largest traded US companies.
The results consistently show that, in aggregate, retail investors fare a lot worse than an index investor.
Reasons for this could be for a number of reasons, including, but not limited to:
But selecting the “right” 30 or more stocks is labour-intensive, and time-consuming. So if you enjoy this and are confident doing this yourself, then there’s nothing stopping you.
Indeed, you may be one of the few who can, or think you can, consistently outperform the index year in, year out. But it’s worth remembering that the majority of investors don’t manage to.
For most people, a direct equity/direct bond portfolio is overly complex to create, labour intensive to manage and insufficiently diversified to be able to sleep well at night. Furthermore owning bonds directly is near impossible owing to the high lot sizes. So why bother?
Investors who want to leave stock picking to someone else have two options to be “fund” investors selecting active funds. Or “index” investors selecting passive funds.
Equity exposure using active funds: the “manager selectors”
A fund based approach means holding a single investment in fund which in turn holds a large number of underlying equities, or bonds, or both.
Investor who want to leave it to an expert to actively pick winners and avoid losers can pick an actively managed fund. We call this group “Manager Selectors”. But then you have to pick the “right” actively managed fund, which also takes time and effort to research and select a number of equity funds from active managers, or seek out “star” managers who aim to consistently outperform a designated benchmark for their respective asset class. And whilst we all get reminded that past performance is not an indicator of future performance, there isn’t much else to go by.
In this respect access to impartial independent research and high quality,unbiased fund lists is an invaluable time-saving resource.
The advantage of this approach that with a single fund you can access a broadly diversified selection of stocks picked by a professional. The disadvantage of this approach is that management fees are a drag on returns and yet few funds persistently outperform their respective benchmark over the long-run raising the question as to whether they are worth their fees. This is evidenced in a quarterly updated study known as the SPIVA Study, published by S&P Dow Jones Indices, which compares the persistency of active fund performance relative to asset class benchmarks. For efficient markets, such as US & UK equities, the results are usually quite sobering reading for those who are prefer active funds. Indeed many so-called active funds have been outed as “closet index-tracking funds” charging active-style fees, for passive-like returns.
So of course there are “star” managers who are in vogue for a while or even for some time. But it’s more important to make sure a portfolio is properly allocated, and diversified across managers, as investors exposed to Woodford found out.
In my view, an all active fund portfolio is overly expensive for what it provides. Whilst the debate around stock picking will run and run (and won’t be won or lost in this article), consider at least the bond exposures within a portfolio. An “active” UK Government Bond fund has the same or similar holdings to a “passive” index-tracking UK Government Bond fund but charges 0.60% instead of 0.20%, with near identical performance (except greater fee drag). Have you read about a star all-gilts manager in the press? Nor have I. So why pay the additional fee?
What about hedge funds? Hedge funds come under the “true active” category because overall allocation exposure can vary greatly, and there is the ability to position a fund to benefit from falls or rises in securities or whole markets, and the ability to borrow money to invest more than the fund’s original value. But most “true active” hedge funds are not available to retail investors who are more limited to traditional “long-only” retail funds for each asset class.
Equity exposure using index funds: the “index investor”
Investors who don’ want the time, hassle or cost of picking active managers, or believe that markets are “efficient” often use passive index-tracking funds. We call this group “Index Investors” (full disclosure: I am a member of this group!). These are investors who want to focus primarily on getting the right asset allocation to achieve their objectives, and implement and actively manage that asset allocation but using low cost index funds and/or index-tracking ETFs.
The advantage of this approach is transparency around the asset mix, broad diversification and lower cost relative to active managers. The disadvantage of this approach is that it sounds, well, boring. Ignoring the news on companies’ share prices are up or down and which single-asset funds are stars and which are dogs would mean 80% of personal finance news and commentary becomes irrelevant!
On this basis, my preference is to be a 100% index investor – the asset allocation strategy may differ for the different objectives between my parents, myself and my kids. But the building blocks that make up the equity, bond and even alternative exposures within those strategies can all index-based.
A blended approach
Whilst my preference is to be an index investor, I don’t disagree, however, that it’s interesting, enjoyable and potentially rewarding for some retail investors and/or their advisers to spend time choosing managers and picking stocks, where they have high conviction and/or superior insight. Traditionally the bulk of retail investors were in active funds. This is extreme. More and more are becoming 100% index investors: this is also extreme. There’s plenty of ground for a common sense blended approach in the middle.
For cost, diversification and liquidity reasons, I would want the core of any portfolio to be in index funds or ETFs. I would want the bulk of my equity exposure to be in index funds, with moderate active fund exposure to selected less efficient markets (for example) small caps, and up to 10% in a handful of direct equity holdings that you follow, know and like.
What would a blended approach look like for a 60/40 equity/bond portfolio?
60% equity of which
Min 70% index funds/ETFs
Max 20% active funds
Max 10% direct equity “picks”/ideas
40% bonds of which
100% index funds
For most investors, investing is something that needs to get done, like opening a bank account. If you are in this group then using a ready-made model portfolio or low-cost multi-asset fund, like a Target Date Fund, may make sense.
For some investors, investing is more like a hobby – something that you are happy to spend time and effort doing. If you are in this group, you have to decide if you are a Stock Selector, Manager Selector or Index Investor, or a blend of all three, and research and build your portfolio accordingly.