After more than 35 years in the financial services industry,
I have found that having an investment philosophy—one that
is robust and that you can stick with—cannot be overstated.
Just like a personal philosophy can act as a moral compass, an investment philosophy can guide your decisions on how to invest. While this may sound simple, the implications can be significant. People who
put their savings to work in capital markets do so with the expectation of earning a return on their investment, and there is ample evidence to support that long-term investors have been rewarded with such returns. But we also know that investors will encounter times when the results are disappointing. It is in these times that your philosophy will be tested, and being able to stay the course requires trust.
The alternative approach likely consists of moving between different strategies based on past results, which is unlikely to lead to a good outcome. At Dimensional, our investment philosophy is based on the power of market prices and guided by theoretical and empirical research.
What does that mean?
Markets do an incredible job of incorporating information and aggregate expectations into security prices, so it does not make sense to form an investment strategy that attempts to outguess the market. Our approach focuses on using information contained in prices to identify differences in expected returns. We conduct research to help us organize our thinking, improve our understanding of what drives returns, and gain insights on how to build sensible portfolios. One such insight is looking beyond average returns. By considering the entire distribution of outcomes, we can better understand what investors should be aware of to help them stay invested when results aren’t what they expect. As an example, the S&P 500 Index has returned about 10% annualized since 1926. But over that time period, there the S&P’s return was within two percentage points of 10%.1 If investors were to adopt a strategy that tracks the S&P 500 Index expecting 10% each year, they need to understand that returns over any given period can look different.
So what does it take to stay the course? Our view is that while there is no silver bullet, there are some basic tenets that can help. Developing an understanding of how markets work and trusting markets is a good starting point. Having an asset allocation that aligns with your risk tolerance and investment goals is also valuable. We believe financial advisors can play a critical role in this determination. Finally, it’s important that the investment manager can be trusted to execute the desired strategy. In this regard, an index-like approach is useful because of how transparent it is.
It is easy for an investor to examine whether the returns achieved by the manager matched those of the index. This is part of the reason indexing has been a positive development for investors, offering a transparent, low-cost way to access markets. However, index funds prioritize matching an index over potentially achieving higher returns—so we believe they are too mechanical.
So what does it take to stay the course? Our view is that while there is no silver bullet, there are some basic tenets that can help. Developing an understanding of how markets work and trusting markets is a good starting point. Having an asset allocation that aligns with your risk tolerance and investment goals is also valuable. We believe financial advisors can play a critical role in this determination. Finally, it’s important that the investment manager can be trusted to execute the desired strategy.
In this regard, an index-like approach is useful because of how transparent it is. It is easy for an investor to examine whether the returns achieved by the manager matched those of the index. This is part of the reason indexing has been a positive development for investors, offering a transparent, low-cost way to access markets. However, index funds prioritize matching an index over potentially achieving higher returns—so we believe they are too mechanical.
At Dimensional, we’ve sought to improve upon indexing, taking the best of what it offers and adding the ability to make judgments. Our experience has been that by incorporating a little bit of judgment, you can add a lot of value.
Dimensional began back in 1981 with a new idea: small cap investing. The premise was that many investors didn’t invest in small cap stocks, and that small caps behaved differently than large cap stocks and could offer diversification benefits to investors concentrating in large caps. We found clients who agreed the idea was sensible. Over the next nine years, the performance of small cap stocks was disappointing relative to large caps (at one point the S&P 500 outpaced our portfolio by about 10% annually), so on the surface it may have appeared that both we and our clients had a reason to be nervous. But clients were willing to stick with us because we were clear about our objective—providing a diversified portfolio of small cap stocks—and we delivered on it.2 Having compelling ideas is important, but the implementation of those ideas is what really counts. From the beginning, we focused on developing protocols about how to design and manage portfolios, and 35 years later we have amassed a track record of results that we believe stands out in the industry.
1. Past performance is not a guarantee of future results. Indices are not available for direct
investment; therefore, their performance does not reflect the expenses associated with the
management of an actual portfolio. The S&P data is provided by Standard & Poor’s Index Services
2. Diversification does not eliminate the risk of market loss. Investing risks include loss of
principal and fluctuating value. Small cap securities are subject to greater volatility than those
in other asset categories. There is no guarantee an investing strategy will be successful.
Consider the investment objectives, risks, and charges and expenses of the Dimensional funds
carefully before investing. For this and other information about the Dimensional funds, please read
the prospectus carefully before investing. Prospectuses are available by calling Dimensional Fund
Advisors collect at
(512) 306-7400 or at us.dimensional.com. Dimensional funds are distributed by DFA Securities LLC.
While our long-term results show an ability to add value over benchmarks, we still place tremendous value on helping our clients understand why we do what we do. Just like those first years, we have lived through other times when the results have looked disappointing. This is one reason our approach combines our ability to make judgments with the transparency we believe is necessary for clients to understand what they can expect from us. The solutions we provide are meant to help clients achieve their financial goals. We know that a big part of enjoying the expected benefit of long-term returns relies on the ability to stay invested. By clearly articulating what we promise to provide, and delivering on those promises with robust portfolios, our hope is that we can help increase clients’ confidence in their decision to invest with us and provide them with a more successful investment experience.
On behalf of all of us at Dimensional, we want to thank our clients for the trust you have placed in us. We will continue working hard to reinforce the decision you have made. For those of you who may not yet work with us, we look forward to the prospect of serving you in the future.
Founder and Executive Chairman
DIMENSIONAL FUND ADVISORS
LETTER FROM THE CHAIRMAN, 2017
Dimensional Fund Advisors is a leading global
investment firm that has been translating academic
research into practical investment solutions since
1981. Guided by a strong belief in markets, we work to
implement compelling ideas in finance for the benefit
of clients. An enduring philosophy, strong client
commitment, and a strong connection with
the academic community underpin our approach.
INVESTMENT PHILOSOPHY AND PROCESS
Our investment philosophy has been shaped by decades
of research. We believe that security prices reflect all
publicly available information as intense competition
among market participants drives prices toward fair value.
We use the information in market prices, combined
with fundamental data, to systematically identify
differences in expected returns among securities.
We seek to add value by building portfolios that target
higher expected returns in a cost-effective manner.
Through a dynamic investment process that integrates
research, portfolio design, portfolio management,
and trading, we manage the tradeoffs that matter
for performance—balancing competing premiums,
diversification, and costs. This approach is applied
consistently across a full suite of global and regional
equity and fixed income strategies, allowing us to help
meet the diverse needs of investors worldwide.
Dimensional’s portfolio management and trading
desks are located across the US, Europe, and Asia Pacific, enabling us to cover global markets and manage strategies on a continual basis. Our global investment team applies the same philosophy, process, and systems across offices and regions.
Dimensional has forged deep working relationships with leading financial economists—including Eugene Fama, Kenneth French, and Robert Merton—who work closely with our Portfolio Management, Trading, and Research teams, in addition to serving on our Investment Research Committee. The opportunity for vigorous exchange between our internal researchers and these lauded academics has allowed us to bring the ideas of financial science to life for investors.
A strong belief in markets frees us to think and act differently about investing. The longevity of our client relationships—many dating back decades—demonstrates our commitment to client service and the stability of our organization. By evolving with advances in financial science, Dimensional has delivered long-term results
Profitability is a company’s operating income before depreciation and amortization minus interest expense scaled by book equity.
“Dimensional” refers to the Dimensional entities generally, rather than to one particular entity. These companies are Dimensional Fund Advisors LP (founded in 1981), Dimensional Fund Advisors Canada ULC, DFA Australia Limited, Dimensional Fund Advisors Ltd., Dimensional Fund Advisors Pte. Ltd., and Dimensional Japan Ltd.
Dimensional Fund Advisors LP is an investment advisor registered with the Securities and Exchange Commission. Consider the
investment objectives, risks, and charges and expenses of the Dimensional funds carefully before investing. For this and other information about the Dimensional funds, please read the prospectus carefully before investing. Prospectuses are available by calling Dimensional Fund Advisors collect at (512) 306-7400 or at www.dimensional.com. Mutual funds distributed by DFA Securities LLC.
Mutual fund investment values will fluctuate, and shares, when redeemed, may be worth more or less than original cost.
Diversification neither assures a profit nor guarantees against a loss in a declining market. Strategies may not be successful.
Past performance is no guarantee of future results.
Eugene Fama and Ken French are members of the Board of Directors for and provide consulting services to Dimensional Fund Advisors LP. Robert Merton provides consulting services to Dimensional Fund Advisors LP.
Ever ridden in a car with worn-out shock absorbers? Every bump is jarring, every corner
stomach-churning, and every red light an excuse to assume the brace position. Owning an
undiversified portfolio can trigger similar reactions.
In a motor vehicle, the suspension system keeps the tires in
contact with the road and provides a smooth ride for passengers
by offsetting the forces of gravity, propulsion, and inertia.
You can drive a car with a broken suspension system, but it
will be an extremely uncomfortable ride and the vehicle will
be much harder to control, particularly in difficult conditions.
Throw in the risk of a breakdown or running off the road
altogether and there’s a real chance you may not reach
In the world of investment, a similarly bumpy and
unpredictable ride can await those with concentrated and
undiversified portfolios or those who constantly tinker
with their allocation based on a short-term rough patch in
Of course, everyone feels in control when the surface is
straight and smooth, but it’s harder to stay on the road during
sudden turns and ups and downs in the market. And keep in
mind the fix for your portfolio breaking down is unlikely to be
as simple as calling a tow truck.
For that reason, the smart thing to do is to diversify,
spreading your portfolio across different securities, sectors,
and countries. That also means identifying the right mix of
investments (e.g., stocks, bonds, real estate) that aligns with
your risk tolerance, which helps keep you on track toward
Using this approach, your returns from year to year may not
match the top performing portfolio, but neither are they likely
to match the worst. More importantly, this is a ride you are
likelier to stick with.
Just as drivers of suspensionless cars change their route to
avoid potholes, people with concentrated portfolios may
resort to market timing and constant trading as they try to
anticipate the top-performing countries, asset classes,
Here’s an example to show how tough this is. Among
developed markets, Denmark was number one in US
dollar terms in 2015 with a return of more than 23%. But
a big bet on that country the following year would have
backfired, as Denmark slid to bottom of the table with a
loss of nearly 16%.¹
It’s true that the US stock market (by far the world’s
biggest) has been a strong performer in recent years,
holding the number three position among developed
markets in 2011 and 2013, first in 2014, and sixth in 2016.
But a decade before, in 2004 and 2006, it was the second
worst-performing developed market in the world.¹
Predicting which part of a market will do best over a
given period is also tough. For example, while there is
ample evidence to support why we should expect positive
premiums from small cap, low relative price, and high
profitability stocks, these premiums are not laid out
evenly or predictably across the map. US small cap stocks
were among the top performers in 2016 with a return
of more than 21%. A year before, their results looked
relatively disappointing with a loss of more than 4%.
International small cap stocks had their turn in the sun
in 2015, topping the performance tables with a return
of just below 6%. But the year before that, they were the
second worst with a loss of 5%.²
If you’ve ever taken a long road trip, you’ll know that
conditions along the way can change quickly and
unpredictably, which is why you need a vehicle that’s
ready for the worst roads as well as the best. While
diversification can never completely eliminate the impact
of bumps along your particular investment road, it
does help reduce the potential outsized impact that any
individual investment can have on your journey.
With sufficient diversification, the jarring effects of
performance extremes level out. That, in turn, helps you
stay in your chosen lane and on the road to your
Happy motoring and happy investing.
1. In US dollars. MSCI developed markets country indices (net dividends). MSCI data © MSCI 2017, all rights reserved.
2. In US dollars. US Small Cap is the Russell 2000 Index. Frank Russell Company is the source and owner of the trademarks, service marks, and
copyrights related to the Russell Indexes. International Small Cap is the MSCI World ex USA Small Cap Index (gross dividends). MSCI data
copyright MSCI 2017, all rights reserved.
‘‘Outside the Flags’’ began as a weekly web column on Dimensional Fund Advisors’ website in 2006.
The articles are designed to help fee-only advisors communicate with their clients about the principles
of good investment—working with markets, understanding risk and return, broadly diversifying
and focusing on elements within the investor’s control—including portfolio structure, fees, taxes, and
discipline. Jim’s flags metaphor has been taken up and recognized by Australia’s corporate regulator
in its own investor education program.
Past performance is no guarantee of future results. There is no guarantee an investing strategy will be successful. Diversification
does not eliminate the risk of market loss.
Indices are not available for direct investment; therefore, their performance does not reflect the expenses associated with the
management of an actual portfolio. Frank Russell Company is the source and owner of the trademarks, service marks, and
copyrights related to the Russell Indexes. MSCI data © MSCI 2017, all rights reserved.
All expressions of opinion are subject to change. This article is distributed for informational purposes, and it is not to be construed
as an offer, solicitation, recommendation, or endorsement of any particular security, products, or services.
Dimensional Fund Advisors LP is an investment advisor registered with the Securities and Exchange Commission.
©2017 Dimensional Fund Advisors LP. All rights reserved. Unauthorized copying, reproducing, duplicating, or transmitting of this
material is prohibited.