Tag Archives: actively managed funds

Book Review of ETFs for The Long Run

Research Magazine just came out with a supplement called the Guide to ETF Investing 2009. Some great articles in there.

On page 8 of the guide is a review of my book ETFs for the Long Run. The link goes to a PDF file. The article was written by Ron DeLegge, the editor of ETFGuide.com, a great resource for ETF information. I am reprinting it here because I can’t link directly to the article.

Long-Term Thinking

Mutual funds may have enjoyed a 65-year head start, but the interest in ETF investing by individual investors and financial professionals is blossoming. Naturally, the rise of ETFs has led to a proliferation of subject material related to this still emerging investment vehicle. ETFs for the Long Run tackles this growing investment universe in a fun, readable and easy-to-comprehend manner.

The first few chapters take readers through a brief review of how ETFs came about. Nathan Most, a product developer for the Amex was instrumental in helping to launch the U.S. ETF marketplace. Most asked his development team, “Why can’t we create a warehouse receipt which would be backed by the underlying stock in the index but trade like a share of stock itself?” His question would later be answered with product prototypes that would eventually lead to the first U.S.-listed ETF in 1993, the Standard & Poor’s Depository Receipt (SPY).

Author Lawrence Carrel writes about ETFs as being a “better mousetrap.” He argues that mutual funds are inefficient from a cost standpoint: “Funds charge their shareholders for everything that goes on inside the fund, such as transaction fees, distribution charges, and transfer-agent costs.” On top of these costs, Carrel explains that there are additional charges that erode performance such as capital gain distributions. These often have the ugly habit of surprising mutual fund investors.

Timing Trouble

Remember the mutual fund timing scandal from 2003? Carrel suggests the 2003 scandal actually helped to fuel the popularity of ETFs. As you may recall, mutual funds were accused of breaking their own rules by allowing a select group of privileged investors to late-trade and market-time within their funds. On one hand, fund companies were telling investors to be long-term investors. On the other hand, these same companies were allowing hedge funds to make quick short-term profits at the expense of long-term investors. In contrast, ETFs avoided becoming tainted by the scandal because ETF investors are unaffected by the trading activity of their fellow shareholders.

ETFs for the Long Run explains the importance of building an ETF portfolio that accomplishes a logical financial mission. Carrel cites the classic 60/40 conservative portfolio which has substantially less exposure to stocks and more exposure to bonds. He suggests an equity mix using SPY, VO, IWM and EFA. For the bond position, he uses BSV, BLV, CFT and TIP. He also throws in a REIT fund (VNQ) for non-correlated market exposure.

Future Tense

Toward the end of the book, Carrel considers what the future of the ETF marketplace could become. While active ETFs have yet to make any significant impact in the business, the number of active mutual funds outnumbers that of index mutual funds. Could the same thing eventually happen with ETFs? Another area of future ETF asset growth is inside the lucrative 401(k) retirement market. Millions of 401(k) investors have no low-cost investment options or diversified choices like commodities, international bonds or REITs. Companies like Invest n Retire and WisdomTree are already aggressively pushing ETF/401(k) retirement plans. As complicated as ETF investing may sometimes seem, simplicity is often best. “The basic challenge for
the individual investor is to achieve a broadly diversified portfolio for the least amount of money,” states Carrel. This book should go a long
way to helping not just investors but top-notch financial professionals accomplish this noble objective.

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Making the Case for Index Funds

Investing is long term. Speculation is short term.

Can you watch the market every day? If not, you should invest, rather than speculate. Without a doubt indexing is the way to invest. The crash of 2008 has not only highlighted the risk of owning single stocks, but also exposed the dirty underbelly of actively managed mutual funds.

Going for the index avoids getting stuck with the stocks that might be left behind. If you believe in the concept of diversification, then single stock risk is just too huge of a risk to take. And while you might be able to buy 20 stocks and build out a nice portfolio, one bad stock can wipe out 5% of your portfolio and two bad stocks decimate the fund. (Get it? Decimate? Remove 10%. Ok, moving on. …)

If you want to own financials, 30 are better than two stocks. If the two financials you owned last year were Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers, you, my friend, have completely lost your portfolio of financials, and maybe your entire portfolio. Buying an index fund tracking the financial sector of the S&P 500, such as the Financial Select Sector SPDR (XLF), gives you 80 stocks, about 11% of the S&P 500. You can get more exposure to one narrow niche of the market and diversification at the same time, hence less risky. Sure, the financials took a hit, but considering most of them are still in business, you still have some of your investment.

So, single stock risk is out if you’re not buying for dividends. But what about actively managed mutual funds? The whole point of the actively managed fund is to give you, the investor, alpha, those extra percentage points of return that comes from the fund manager’s skill and intellect. The financial crisis has shown how hard it is to find true alpha.

It’s pretty much common knowledge these days that only about 20% of active fund managers beat the major market benchmarks. Considering many active funds are essentially index fund copycats, you will never beat the market with their huge management fees. Fund managers counter that even if they don’t beat the market going up, they at least have the ability to post narrower losses on the way down, because they can sell off the worst performing sectors while the index can’t. I think a little bit of research will show they are also posting returns worse that the indexes on the loss side as well.

And even those that don’t post worse losses, is a 35% loss that much of an improvement over a 37% loss?

So, if you eliminate single stock purchases and actively managed funds, deductive reasoning says you must go with the index. Of course, this mostly applies to U.S. equities. In some markets, such as emerging markets, a smart manager might have some market knowledge that hasn’t disseminated widely, but in the U.S. that kind of information gets spread around pretty quickly.

Indexes can be volatile and risky. If the stock market falls, an index tracking the stock market will fall. However, with the index fund you can rest in the knowledge you matched the market and didn’t do worse than most of the market.

If you really want a lesson, John Bogle, the inventor of the index mutual fund, explains why indexing is better than stock picking in “The Little Book of Common Sense Investing.” Essentially, Bogle says you can maximize returns and lower risk by not buying single stocks but mutual funds. Followers of Bogle have written a book called “BogleHeads” which expands on this theme.

Now in a shameless plug for myself, my book ETFs for the Long Run takes Bogle’s argument one step further. I agree with Bogle that indexing is the way to invest. Bogle likes the mutual fund structure, but I think Exchange Traded Funds are the mutual fund for the 21st century. In the book, I explain indexing, the advantages of buying mutual funds instead of single stocks and then why ETFs are better than mutual funds. The key reasons being they are cheaper, more tax efficient, more transparent and more flexible. I also explain how to buy and sell ETFs and how to use them to build a portfolio.

Since you don’t know what sector of the market will rise, you should own a broad market index, such as the Vanguard 500 mutual fund, (VFINX), or buy an ETF such as the SPDR, (SPY), or the iShares S&P 500 Index (IVV). The Diamonds Trust (DIA) tracks the Dow Jones Industrial Average and the PowerShares QQQ (QQQQ) follows the technology heavy Nasdaq 100 index. The Vanguard Total Bond Market (BND) is a broad bond index.

Then you break it down into sector specific indexes that you want to follow.

Finally, you need to watch fees. ETFs typically charge smaller expense ratios than mutual funds. However, if you are dollar cost averaging, which in this market is the only way to go, the ETF’s commission will significantly eat into your returns if you invest less than $1,000 a pop. If you are investing less than $1,000 a pop, then go with a no-load index fund. Buying an index fund with a load is like paying for your own security in a gated community. It’s a waste of money.