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.
Read it on etf.com
Every year, the market provides us with some important lessons on prudent investment strategy. Many times, the market will offer investors remedial courses, covering lessons that it has already delivered in previous years. That’s why one of my favorite sayings is that there’s nothing new in investing—there’s only investment history you don’t yet know.
Last year gave us nine lessons. As you may note, many of them have appeared before. Unfortunately, many investors fail to learn from them. Rather, they keep repeating the same errors, which is what Albert Einstein called the definition of insanity. We’ll begin with my personal favorite, a lesson the market, if measured properly, teaches each and every year.
Lesson 1: Active Management Is a Loser’s Game
Despite an overwhelming amount of research that demonstrates passive investing is far more likely to allow you to achieve your financial goals, the vast majority of individual investor assets are still invested in active funds. And, unfortunately, investors in active funds continue to pay for their “triumph of hope over wisdom and experience.”
2016 was another year where the large majority of active funds underperformed, despite the great opportunity for active managers to generate alpha in the very large dispersion of returns between the best and worst performers.
For example, while the S&P 500 returned 12.0% for the year, there were 25 stocks in the index that returned at least 45.5%. Oneck Inc. (OKE) returned 132.8%, while Nvidia Corp. (NVDA) returned 223.9%. All an active manager had to do to outperform was to overweight these superperformers.
On the other side of the coin, there were 25 stocks in the index that lost at least 22.9%. Endo International (ENDP) lost 73.1% and First Solar (FSLR) lost 51.4%. To outperform, all an active manager had to do was to underweight, let alone avoid, these “dogs.”
It’s important to note that this wide dispersion of returns is not at all unusual. Yet despite the opportunity, year after year, in aggregate, active managers persistently fail to outperform. The table below shows the percentile rankings for funds from two leading providers of passively managed funds, Dimensional Fund Advisors (DFA) and Vanguard, for both 2016 and the 15-year period ending December 2016. (Full disclosure: My firm, Buckingham, recommends DFA funds in constructing client portfolios.)
Note that Morningstar’s data contains survivorship bias, as it only considers funds that have survived the full period. And the bias is significant, as about 7% of actively managed funds disappear every year and their returns are buried in the mutual fund graveyard. Thus, the longer the period, the worse the survivorship bias, and at 15 years, it’s quite large.
The results make clear that active management is a strategy we could call fraught with opportunity. Year after year, active managers come up with an excuse to explain why they failed that year and then assert that next year will be different. Of course, it never is.
The good news is that investors are waking up to the reality. In October, The Wall Street Journal reported that, according to Morningstar, “although 66% of mutual-fund and exchange-traded-fund assets are still actively invested … those numbers are down from 84% 10 years ago and are shrinking fast.”
Lesson 2: So Much of Returns Come in Very Short and Unpredictable Bursts
The road to investment “hell” is paved with market-timing efforts, because so much of the long-term returns provided by the market come in short, and totally unpredictable, bursts. Last year provided the following example. From January through October, the DFA Small Value Fund (DFSVX) returned 8.0%. From November through December, it returned 18.8%. For the full year, it returned 28.3%. Two-thirds of the full year’s return happened in the last two months.
These types of results are not at all unusual, For instance, the study “Black Swans and Market Timing: How Not To Generate Alpha,” which covered the 107-year period ending in 2006, found that the best 100 days (out of more than 29,000) accounted for virtually all (99.7%) of returns.
Here’s another example. There are 1,020 months in the 85-year period from 1926 through 2010. The best 85 months, an average of just one month a year (or just 8.3% of the months), provided an average return of 10.7%. The remaining 935 months (or 91.7% of the months) produced virtually no return (just 0.05%).
Peter Lynch offered the following example. He pointed out that an investor who followed a passive investment strategy and stayed fully invested in the S&P 500 over the 40-year period beginning in 1954 would have achieved an 11.4% rate of return.
If that investor missed just the best 10 months (2%), his return dropped 27%, to 8.3%. If the investor missed the best 20 months (4%), the return dropped 54%, to 6.1%. Finally, if the investor missed the best 40 months (8%), the return dropped 76%, all the way to 2.7%.
Do you really believe there is anyone who can pick the best 40 months in a 40-year period? Lynch put it this way: “Far more money has been lost by investors in preparing for corrections, or anticipating corrections, than has been lost in the corrections themselves.”
Despite this evidence, investors persist in market-timing efforts. Charles Ellis described the winning strategy in the following way: “Investors would do well to learn from deer hunters and fishermen who know the importance of ‘being there’ and using patient persistence—so they are there when opportunity knocks.”
Lesson 3: Events Occur That No One Predicted
Those who have spent their careers forecasting learn to be very humble about their predictions. The reason is that almost every year, major surprises occur. And by definition, surprises are unpredictable.
That is why, when I’m asked for a forecast, my response is that my crystal ball is always cloudy. That is also why my recommendation is to stop spending time listening to forecasts, which have no value and can cause you to stray from your well-thought-out plan. Instead, spend your time managing risk.
2016 saw at least two major unpredicted events that could have had major negative impacts on financial markets. Yet they did not. The first came in June when Great Britain voted for exiting the European Union—the so-called Brexit, which passed 52% to 48% with a referendum turnout of 72% and votes from more than 30 million people.
The other, of course, was the primary win by Donald Trump and then his election to the presidency. With both Brexit’s and Trump’s victories, the market’s immediate reaction was a dramatic self-off. And then a rapid recovery.
Lesson 4: Ignore All Forecasts; All Crystal Balls Are Cloudy
One of my favorite sayings about the market forecasts of so-called experts is from Jason Zweig, financial columnist for The Wall Street Journal: “Whenever some analyst seems to know what he’s talking about, remember that pigs will fly before he’ll ever release a full list of his past forecasts, including the bloopers.”
You’ll almost never read or hear a review of how the latest forecast from some market “guru” actually worked out. The reason is that accountability would ruin the game—you would cease to “tune in.”
But I believe forecasters should be held accountable. Thus, a favorite pastime of mine is keeping a collection of economic and market forecasts made by media-anointed gurus and then checking back periodically to see if they came to pass. This practice has taught me there are no expert economic and market forecasters.
Here’s a small sample from this year’s collection. I hope they teach you a lesson about ignoring all forecasts, including the ones that happen to agree with your own notions (that’s the deadly condition known as “confirmation bias” at work).
- In July 2015, Charles Robertson, Renaissance Capital’s global chief economist, predicted that U.S. stocks could crash 50% within the next 12 months.
- In January 2016, economists at the Royal Bank of Scotland warned that investors faced a “cataclysmic year” in which stock markets could fall by up to 20% and oil could drop to $16 a barrel. The advice was to “sell everything” except safe bonds.
- In May 2016, legendary investor Carl Icahn warned that “a day of reckoning” was coming for U.S. stock markets unless the federal government stimulated the economy with greater spending. He certainly was putting his money where his mouth was, as shortly before his prediction of a big crash, Icahn Enterprises had announced in SEC filings that it had a net short position of 149%.
- Also in May 2016, Savita Subramanian, Bank of America Merrill Lynch’s head of U.S. equity and quantitative strategy, appeared on BloombergTV to warn of a “vortex of negative headlines” (doesn’t that sound scary?) coming in the following month that could push the S&P 500 down to 1,850 (a level back near its February lows). The factors she cited to support this prediction were the then-upcoming Brexit vote, the June decision from the Federal Reserve and the U.S. election.
- Again in May 2016, John Hussman of Hussman Funds wrote: “Prevailing market conditions continue to hold the expected stock market return/risk profile in the most negative classification we identify. That profile reflects not only extreme valuations on the most reliable measures we’ve tested across history, but market internals and other features of market action that remain unfavorable. …. In any event, looking beyond the near-term horizon, I doubt that any shift in market action will meaningfully reduce the likelihood of a 40-55% loss in the S&P 500 over the completion of the current market cycle.”
- In August 2016, UBS warned of an imminent crash in the S&P 500. The bank predicted there would be a major correction within the next two months.
As poor as the preceding forecasts turned out to be, this one is my personal favorite: Just six weeks into 2016, Goldman Sachs announced that (whoops!) it had abandoned five of its six recommended “top trade” calls for the year, having gotten them wrong.
One might ask: If they got those wrong, why ever would we think they’ll get it right this time? Of course, Goldman Sachs was just as confident of its new trade calls as it was when it made its old forecasts. Overconfidence is an all-too-human trait.
To be fair, there were surely some forecasts that turned out right. The problem is that you can’t know ahead of time which ones to pay attention to and which ones to ignore. What my experience has taught me is that investors tend to pay attention to the forecasts that agree with their preconceived ideas (again, that pesky confirmation bias) while ignoring forecasts that disagree. Being aware of our biases can help us overcome them.
Lesson 5: Even With A Clear Crystal Ball …
Imagine you had a crystal ball that allowed you to foresee the economic and political events of 2016, but not stock prices. Surely that would be of great value in terms of investment decisions—or would it have been?
Would you have been a buyer of stocks if you knew that the first few weeks of 2016 would produce the worst start to a year since the Great Depression? The S&P 500 Index closed 2015 at 2,043. By Jan. 20, it had fallen to 1,859, a drop of just more than 9%.
Would you have been a buyer of stocks knowing that Great Britain would vote to exit the European Union, creating great uncertainty for the global economy and financial markets? Within three days, the S&P 500 Index fell from 2,113 at the close on June 23 to 2,001 on June 27, a drop of more than 5%.
Would you have been a buyer of stocks if you knew that, once again, the economic growth rate would disappoint, with growth failing to reach even a tepid 2%? Most of the world’s developed economies were basically stagnating, bordering on recession.
Finally, would you have been a buyer of stocks knowing that Donald Trump would win the presidential election? Be honest now, especially if you happen to lean Democrat. Within moments of his victory becoming clear, the DJIA fell more than 800 points and S&P futures had sunk more than 5%.
With the benefit of hindsight, we now know that, in each instance, the market recovered, and relatively quickly. The lesson here is that, even with a clear crystal ball (which no one has), it’s very difficult to predict stock markets. Thus, you shouldn’t try. It’s a loser’s game.
Lesson 6: Last Year’s Winners Are Just As Likely To Be This Year’s Dogs
The historical evidence demonstrates that individual investors are performance-chasers—they watch yesterday’s winners, then buy them (after the great performance), and watch yesterday’s losers, then sell them (after the loss has already been incurred).
This causes investors to buy high and sell low, which is not exactly a recipe for investment success. This behavior explains the findings from studies showing that investors actually underperform the very mutual funds in which they invest.
Unfortunately, a good (poor) return in one year doesn’t predict a good (poor) return the next year. In fact, great returns lower future expected returns, and below-average returns raise future expected returns. Thus, the prudent strategy for investors is to act like a postage stamp. The lowly postage stamp does only one thing, but it does it exceedingly well: It adheres to its letter until it reaches its destination.
Similarly, investors should adhere to their investment plan (asset allocation). Sticking with one’s plan doesn’t mean just buying and holding. It actually means buying, holding and rebalancing (the process of restoring your portfolio’s asset allocation to your investment plan’s targeted levels).
Using passive asset class funds from Dimensional Fund Advisors (DFA), the following table compares the returns of various asset classes in 2015 and 2016. (Full disclosure: My firm, Buckingham, recommends DFA funds in constructing client portfolios.) As you can see, sometimes the winners and losers of 2015 repeated their respective performances, but other times the winners became losers and the losers became winners. For example:
Lesson 7: “Sell in May and Go Away” Is the Financial Equivalent of Astrology
One of the more persistent investment myths is that the winning strategy is to sell stocks in May and wait to buy back into the market until November.
While it’s true that stocks have provided greater returns from November through April than they have from May through October, since 1926, an equity risk premium has still existed in those May-through-October months. From 1927 through 2015, the “Sell in May” strategy returned 8.3% per year, underperforming the S&P 500 by 1.7 percentage points per year. And that’s even before considering any transaction costs, let alone the impact of taxes (with the “Sell in May” strategy, you’d be converting what would otherwise be long-term capital gains into short-term capital gains, which are taxed at the same rate as ordinary income).
How did the “Sell in May and Go Away” strategy work in 2016? The S&P 500 Index’s total return for the period from May through October was 4.1%. Alternatively, during this same period safe, liquid investments would have produced virtually no return. In case you’re wondering, 2011 was the only year in the last eight when the “Sell in May” strategy would have worked.
A basic tenet of finance is that there’s a positive relationship between risk and expected return. To believe that stocks should produce lower returns than Treasury bills from May through October, you have to believe stocks are less risky during those months—a nonsensical argument. Unfortunately, as with many myths, this one seems hard to kill off. And you can bet that, next May, the financial media will be resurrecting it once again.
Lesson 8: Hedge Funds Are Not Investment Vehicles, They Are Compensation Schemes
This lesson has appeared about as regularly as our first lesson, which is that active management is a loser’s game. Hedge funds entered 2016 coming off their seventh-straight year of trailing U.S. stocks (as measured by the S&P 500 Index) by significant margins.
Unfortunately, the streak has continued into an eighth year, as the HFRX Global Hedge Fund Index returned just 2.5% in 2016, and underperformed the S&P 500 Index by 9.5 percentage points. The table below shows the returns for various equity and fixed income indexes.
As you can see, the hedge fund index underperformed the S&P 500 and eight of the 10 major equity asset classes, but managed to outperform all three of the bond indexes. An all-equity portfolio allocated 50% internationally and 50% domestically, and equally weighted in the asset classes within those broad categories, would have returned 11.0%, outperforming the HFRX index by 8.5 percentage points. A 60% equity and 40% bond portfolio with the same weights for the equity allocation would have returned 6.9% using one-year Treasurys, 7.6% using five-year Treasurys and 7.1% using long-term Treasurys.
Thus, each of these three portfolios would have outperformed the hedge fund index. Given that hedge funds tout their freedom to move across asset classes as their big advantage, one would think that it would have shown up. The problem is that the efficiency of the market, as well as the costs of the effort, turns that supposed advantage into a handicap.
The evidence is even worse over the long term. For the 10-year period from 2007 through 2016, the HFRX Global Hedge Fund Index lost 0.6% per year, underperforming every single equity and bond asset class. As you can see in the following table, hedge fund underperformance ranged from 0.4 percentage points when compared to the MSCI EAFE Value Index, to as much as 8.8 ercentage points when compared to U.S small-cap stocks.
Perhaps even more shocking is that, over this period, the only year the hedge fund index outperformed the S&P 500 was in 2008. Even worse, when compared to a balanced portfolio allocated 60% to the S&P 500 Index and 40% to the Barclays Government/Credit Bond Index, it underperformed every single year.
For the 10-year period, an all-equity portfolio allocated 50% internationally and 50% domestically, again equally weighted in the asset classes within those broad categories, would have returned 4.1% per year. A 60% equity and 40% bond portfolio with the same weights for the equity allocation would have returned 3.0% per year using one-year Treasurys, 4.1% per year using five-year Treasurys and 5.1% per year using long-term Treasurys. All three dramatically outperformed the hedge fund index.
The bottom line is that the evidence suggests investors are best served by thinking of hedge funds as compensation schemes, not investment vehicles
Lesson 9: Don’t Let Your Political Views Influence Your Investment Decisions
One of my more important roles as director of research for Buckingham Strategic Wealth is preventing investors from committing what I refer to as “portfolio suicide”—panicked selling that arises from fear, whatever the source of that fear may be. After the election of President Donald Trump, it seemed like the vast majority of times I was called in to help investors stay disciplined and adhere to their financial plans involved anxiety generated by politics.
We often make investment mistakes because we are unaware that our decisions are being influenced by our beliefs and biases. The first step to eliminating, or at least minimizing, errors is to become aware of how our choices are impacted by our views, and how those views can influence outcomes.
The 2012 study “Political Climate, Optimism, and Investment Decisions” showed that people’s optimism toward both the financial markets and the economy is dynamically influenced by their political affiliation and the existing political climate. Among the authors’ findings were:
- Individuals become more optimistic and perceive the markets to be less risky and more undervalued when their own party is in power. This leads them to take on more risk, and they overweight riskier stocks. They also trade less frequently. That’s a good thing, because the evidence demonstrates that the more individuals trade, the worse that they tend to do.
- When the opposite party is in power, individuals’ perceived uncertainty levels increase and investors exhibit stronger behavioral biases, leading to poor investment decisions.
Now, imagine the nervous investor who sold equities based on his views about, or expectations for, a Trump presidency. While those who stayed disciplined have benefited from the rally following the election, investors who panicked and sold not only missed the bull market, but now face the incredibly difficult task of figuring out when it will be once again safe to invest.
I know of many investors with Republican/conservative leanings who were underinvested after President Obama was elected. And now it’s investors with Democratic/liberal leanings who have to face their fears. The December Spectrem Affluent Investor and Millionaire Confidence Index surveys provide evidence of how political biases can impact investment decisions.
Prior to the election, respondents who identified as Democrats showed higher confidence levels than respondents who identified as Republicans or Independents. This completely flipped after the election. Democrat investors registered a confidence reading of -10, while Republican and Independent investors showed confidence readings of +9 and +15, respectively.
What’s important to understand is that if you lose confidence in your plan and sell, there’s never a green flag that will tell you when it’s safe to get back in. Thus, the strategy most likely to allow you to achieve your financial goals is to have a plan that anticipates there will be problems, and to not take more risk than you have the ability, willingness and need to assume. Furthermore, don’t pay attention to the news if doing so will cause your political beliefs to influence your investment decisions.
In conclusion, this year will surely provide investors with more lessons, many of which will be remedial courses. And the market will provide you with opportunities to make investment mistakes. You can avoid them by knowing your financial history and having a well-thought-out plan.
This commentary originally appeared January 27 on ETF.com
Larry Swedroe is the Director of Research for Buckingham Strategic Wealth. He has authored or co-authored more than a dozen books and is regularly published on ETF.com and Advisor Perspectives. He has made appearances on national television shows airing on NBC, CNBC, CNN and Bloomberg Personal Finance. Larry holds an MBA in finance and investment from New York University, and a bachelor’s degree in finance from Baruch College in New York.
Every year brings its share of surprises. But how many of us could have imagined that 2016 would see the Chicago Cubs win the World Series, Bob Dylan receive the Nobel Prize in Literature, Donald Trump elected president, and the Dow Jones Industrial Average close out the year a whisker away from 20,000?
The answer is very few—a lesson that investors would be wise to remember.
At year-end 2015, financial optimists seemed in short supply. Not one of the nine investment strategists participating in the January 2016 Barron’s Roundtable expected an above-average year for stocks. Six expected US market returns to be flat or negative, while the remaining three predicted returns in single digits at best. Prospects for global markets appeared no better, according to this group, and two panelists were sufficiently gloomy to recommend shorting exchange-traded emerging markets index funds.1
Results in early January 2016 appeared to confirm the pessimists’ viewpoint as markets fell sharply around the world; the S&P 500 Index fell 8% over the first 10 trading sessions alone. The 8.25% loss for the Dow Jones Industrial Average over this period was the biggest such drop throughout the 120-year history of that index.2 For fans of the so-called January Indicator, the outlook was grim.
Then things seemingly got worse.
Oil prices fell sharply. Worries about an economic debacle in China re-entered the news cycle. Stock markets in France, Japan, and the UK registered losses of more than 20% from their previous peaks, one customary measure of a bear market.3 Plunging share prices for leading banks had many observers worried that another financial crisis was brewing. As US stock prices fell for a fifth consecutive day on February 11, shares of the five largest US banks slumped nearly 5%, down 23% for 2016.
The Wall Street Journal reported the following day that “bank stocks led an intensifying rout in financial markets.”4 A USA Today journalist observed that “The persistent pounding global stock markets are taking seems to be taking on a more sinister tone and more dangerous phase, with emotions and fear taking on a bigger role in the rout, investors questioning the ability of the world’s central bankers to calm the market’s frayed nerves, and a volatile environment in which selling begets more selling.”5
February 11 marked the low for the year for the US stock market. While prices eventually recovered, as late as June 28 the S&P 500 was still showing a loss for the year. Meanwhile, a number of well-regarded professional investors argued that the next downturn was fast approaching. One prominent activist in May predicted a “day of reckoning” for the US stock market, while another reportedly urged his fellow hedge fund managers at a conference to “get out of the stock market.” A third disclosed in August a doubling of his bearish bet on the S&P 500.6
Throughout the year, some observers fretted over the pace of the economic recovery. The New York Times reported in July that “Weighed down by anemic business spending, overstocked factories and warehouses, and a surprisingly weak housing sector, the American economy barely improved this spring after its usual winter doldrums.”7
Despite all of this noise, the S&P 500 returned 11.9% for the year and international stocks8 returned 4.4% for US dollar investors (6.9% in local currency9), helping to illustrate just how difficult it is to outguess market prices. Once again, a simple strategy of embracing sensible asset allocation and broad diversification was likely less frustrating than fretting over portfolio changes in response to news events.
1. Lauren Rublin, “Peering into the Future,” Barron’s, January, 25, 2016.
2. www.djaverages.com, accessed January 6, 2017.
3. Michael Mackenzie, Robin Wigglesworth, and Leo Lewis, “Stock Exchanges across the World Plunge into Bear Market Territory,”Financial Times, January 21, 2016.
4. Tommy Stubbington and Margot Patrick, “Banks Drop as Global Rout Deepens,” Wall Street Journal, February 12, 2016.
5. Adam Shell, “Market Tumult Charts New Waters,” USA Today, February 12, 2016.
6. Dan McCrum and Nicole Bullock, “Growling Bears Provide Soundtrack for Investors,” Financial Times, May 21, 2016.
7. Nelson D. Schwartz, “US Economy Stays Stuck in Low Gear,” New York Times, July 29, 2016.
8. Source: MSCI. International stocks represented by the MSCI All Country World ex US IMI (net div.).
9. Local currency return calculation represents the price appreciation or depreciation of index constituents and does not account for the performance of currencies relative to a base currency such as the US Dollar. Local currency return is theoretical and cannot be replicated in the real world.
Past performance is no guarantee of future investment results. Indices are not available for direct investment; therefore, their performance does not reflect the expenses associated with the management of an actual portfolio.
Diversification does not eliminate the risk of market loss. There is no guarantee an investment strategy will be successful.
Dimensional Fund Advisors LP (“Dimensional”) is an investment advisor registered with the Securities and Exchange Commission.
All expressions of opinion are subject to change without notice in reaction to shifting market conditions. This content is provided for informational purposes, and it is not to be construed as an offer, solicitation, recommendation or endorsement of any particular security, products, or services.