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An Investor’s Guide to Indices

Chapter 4

Leveling The Playing Field

PASSIVE INVESTING HAS DEMOCRATIZED MARKET ACCESS.

INDEX-BASED, OR “PASSIVE,” INVESTING OCCURS THROUGH INVESTMENTS BASED ON PRODUCTS LINKED TO INDICES, SUCH AS INDEX MUTUAL FUNDS, ETFS, AND OPTIONS CONTRACTS. PASSIVE INVESTING IS CONSIDERED TO HAVE THE FOLLOWING BENEFICIAL CHARACTERISTICS:

  • Diversification
  • Transparency
  • Market Return
  • Cost Efficiency

INTRODUCTION TO PASSIVE INVESTING

A RADICAL IDEA WHEN JOHN BOGLE LAUNCHED THE FIRST INDEX MUTUAL FUND IN 1976, INDEX-BASED/PASSIVE INVESTING HAS REVOLUTIONIZED THE WAY INVESTORS ACCESS FINANCIAL MARKETS AND PARTICIPATE IN MARKET PERFORMANCE.

There are good reasons for index-based investing’s unique appeal. It can provide portfolio diversification and transparency, so investors may know what is owned. Thanks to the variety of index-linked products, investors can participate in multiple financial markets in the world, broad or narrow. It’s possible to build a portfolio of index-linked products with widely varying objectives, investment styles, and/or risk tolerances. The risks taken, as well as the returns realized, will correspond to the risks and returns of the markets in which one invests. However, it should be noted that index returns do not reflect expenses investors would pay to purchase or hold index-based products. Not only does index-based investing offer a simpler approach to investing, it's also less costly than actively managed investing.

But what, exactly, is index-based investing (sometimes called “passive investing”)? It’s not, as the term may imply, investing directly in an index. That’s because an index isn’t an investment. It is a measure of securities or other assets in a specific market. Indices can and do serve as the basis for investment products, such as index mutual funds, exchange-traded funds (ETFs), and options contracts.

The index to which an index product is linked determines that product’s portfolio. For example, an ETF linked to the Dow Jones Industrial Average® holds the 30 stocks in that index and seeks to match its performance. That’s the fundamental difference between index-based investing and active management. Using an active approach, managers subjectively select securities in an attempt to beat their benchmark indices.

PASSIVE INVESTING HAS TWO CHIEF ADVANTAGES OVER ACTIVE MANAGEMENT:

  • Cost: It’s typically expensive to compensate active managers and to pay for the frequent trading costs of their buy and sell decisions.
  • Results: Most active managers fail to outperform the market over the long term.
Key Moments in Passive Investing
1952 Harry Markowitz authors“Portfolio Selection” inJournal of Finance, introducingthe idea of the wholestock market as the “perfectportfolio” because itprovided the greatestdiversification. 1965 Eugene Fama, oftendescribed as the father ofindex investing, publishes“The Behavior of StockPrices,” which noted themany difficulties faced byactive managers looking tooutperform the market,especially over time. 1973 Burton Malkiel argues forthe creation of a no-load,low-fee mutual fund.This type of fund would giveinvestors access to marketreturn, or beta, by buyingthe component stocks of a market index and makingno effort to outperformthe index. 1976 John Bogle launches thefirst index mutual fund, theVanguard 500 Index Fund,using the S&P 500 as itsbenchmark. 1982 Index-linked futurescontracts are introduced. 1983 Index-linked optionscontracts begin trading. 1993 ETFs are introduced tothe marketplace. 2013 20 years after theirintroduction, over USD 1.3trillion is invested in ETFs. U.S.investors also have aboutUSD 1.7 trillion invested inindex mutual funds by 2013,with one-third of that valuelinked to the S&P 500.

DIVERSIFICATION

A DIVERSIFIED PORTFOLIO HOLDS A LARGE NUMBER OF SECURITIES THAT REACT DIFFERENTLY TO CHANGES IN THE ECONOMY OR MARKET ENVIRONMENTS.

For example, some stocks typically outperform the broader market when the economy is booming, but underperform when it slows down. The value of other securities may not be seriously hurt by a downturn or boosted by an upturn. A diversified equity portfolio holds some of each.

As a result, diversification typically provides greater protection against market risk than owning a limited number of stocks or other securities. When a portfolio is sufficiently diversified, assets that are strong at any given time can help offset losses in those that may be losing value. The more diversification there is, the greater the potential mitigation of risk in the event of market loss.

The impact of diversification, which is the foundation of modern portfolio theory, was explained by the Nobel Prize-winning economist Harry Markowitz. He concluded that the “perfect portfolio” was the whole stock market because it provided the greatest diversification. But until Vanguard opened the first index fund more than 20 years after Markowitz’s groundbreaking work, it just wasn’t feasible for individual investors to attain such market diversification.

Fathers of Indexing: Harry Markowitz

Today, a portfolio of index-linked products can provide exposure to broad markets either locally or globally. This means investors can come very close to owning the portfolio that Markowitz described. Even within a more narrowly defined market, such as an industry or sector, some investors use diversified index products to lower risks relative to investing in individual securities.

TRANSPARENCY

AN ETF OR INDEX-LINKED MUTUAL FUND SEEKS TO REPLICATE THE PERFORMANCE OF THE MARKET ITS UNDERLYING INDEX TRACKS, BY OWNING EITHER ALL THE SECURITIES IN THAT INDEX OR A REPRESENTATIVE SAMPLE.

Risk that the ETF or fund will stray far from its stated objective is limited. That can happen, however, with an actively managed fund if the fund buys stocks that aren’t consistent with its investment approach, but are selected to bolster its return. The result of this approach, described as style drift, may expose an investor to more risk than they’re comfortable taking or to less risk than they’re willing to assume to meet investment goals.

Transparency means knowing not only what the ETF or index fund owns but also in what proportion. With index investments, this information is typically publicly available every day.

Transparency means knowing not only what a fund owns but also in what proportion. With index investments, this information is typically publicly available every day. Actively managed funds, on the other hand, are required to report their holdings just four times a year. Between quarterly filings, these funds can hold any securities and in any proportion, so it’s entirely possible for funds with very different objectives to own a number of the same securities, especially current strong performers, without ever making that information public. For an investor, this can result in duplicative holdings and loss of diversification, which increases investment risk.

MARKET RETURN

INDICES ARE DESIGNED TO MIRROR THE RISK AND RETURN CHARACTERISTICS OF THE MARKETS THEY MEASURE THROUGH A REPRESENTATIVE SAMPLE OF THE UNDERLYING ASSETS.

Index-linked investment products, therefore, can be a convenient means of capturing specific market performance. What’s more, it’s widely recognized that securities markets, especially those in developed economies, are highly efficient.

Ultimately, market efficiency means that there are few opportunities to exploit information that may impact the behavior of individual securities or the broader markets. This information is already priced into the markets and is reflected in the performance of indices and the index-linked products that track them.

WHAT MAKES A MARKET EFFICIENT?

  • Existing market information is readily and inexpensively available and incorporated in security prices.
  • New information about a security occurs randomly and is thus unpredictable.
  • The effect of any new information on a security’s price is equally unpredictable.

Of course, no investment strategy, including a passive approach, guarantees a positive return. But a well-diversified portfolio has historically risen over the long term. U.S. equity prices, for example, have maintained an upward trend as demonstrated by the historical performance of the S&P 500® and The Dow®. Index-based investing is an approach designed to help investors capture this market return.

COST EFFICIENCY

THE PRICE PAID TO BUY AND OWN AN INVESTMENT REDUCES ITS POTENTIAL RETURN. THE HIGHER THE INVESTMENT COST, THE GREATER ITS DRAG ON PERFORMANCE.

Find out how the costs of active and passive funds differ.

Active vs. Passive: Cost Considerations

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Eugene Fama — the Nobel Prize winner often described as the father of index investing — pointed out that this combination of factors makes it extremely difficult, if not impossible, for active managers to outperform an efficient market or the indices that track it. According to Fama, to gain any advantage in securities selection, managers would have to predict correctly, over and over again, what new information might emerge about a security and how the security’s price might be affected as a result. Years of statistics generated by S&P Indices Versus Active Funds (SPIVA®) studies confirm the challenge active managers face. Few active managers outperform their relevant benchmark index in any given year, and virtually none do it consistently.

Fathers of Indexing: Eugene Fama

INDEX-LINKED PRODUCTS

DESPITE THEIR WIDE POPULARITY TODAY, INDEX-LINKED PRODUCTS ARE A RECENT ADDITION TO THE INVESTMENT LANDSCAPE.

In his groundbreaking guide to investing, "A Random Walk Down Wall Street," first published in 1973, Burton Malkiel argued for the creation of a no-load, low-fee mutual fund. This type of fund would give investors access to market return, or beta, by buying the component stocks of a market index and making no effort to outperform the index.

Fathers of Indexing: Burton Malkiel

Just three years later, in 1976, Bogle’s index fund was launched, providing what he described as broad diversification at relatively low cost. ETFs followed in 1993, adding more trading flexibility, greater tax efficiency and a larger opportunity set, or the range of ways index products can be used to fulfill different investment strategies.

As evidence of the increased popularity of index products, as of 2013, U.S. investors had about USD 1.7 trillion invested in index mutual funds, one-third of it in funds linked to the S&P 500, and more than USD 1.3 trillion in ETFs (Source: ICI, 2013).

Fathers of Indexing: John Bogle

The universe of index products was also enlarged by the introduction of index-linked futures contracts in 1982 and options contracts in 1983. These products, while different from each other in some important ways, are used to:

  • Hedge an equity or bond portfolio against the risk of a falling market
  • Generate income
  • Gain broad market exposure with less cost and difficulty than buying all the securities in an underlying index

Unlike ETFs and index mutual funds, these index futures and options do not tend to be buy-and-hold investments. Understanding how to best leverage these approaches requires an understanding of an investor’s goals, timeframe, and an analysis of a myriad of strategies designed to potentially achieve the stated investment objective, combined with timely action.

Index Product Applications

Some investors may use ETFs and index funds that track broad market segments as the building blocks of a core portfolio. They pick and choose from these index-based products to create specific allocations. Selections may also be altered to shift the balance between risk and return in response to life events or changing goals. Index-based products are used to add short-term exposure to a specific sector, country, region, or strategy—a process typically described as attaching satellites to the core.

Financial advisors may use an index-based approach, constructing a diversified portfolio of index funds and ETFs. These investments are likely to be institutional products, not directly available to individual investors. But this “index inside active” approach is used to provide market return without only attempting to outperform.

FOR MORE INFORMATION ON PASSIVE INVESTING:

investopedia.com: Passive vs. Active Management
money.cnn.com: Battle Royale: Active vs. Passive Investing
  • William F Sharpe, “The Arithmetic of Active Management,” in the Financial Analysts’ Journal, 1991 (cited in Craig Lazarra Indexology blog March 10, 2014).
  • SPIVA U.S. Scorecard, 2013, bullet # 2 (reaffirmed in more recent SPIVA results and frequently cited).
  • Markowitz: Harry Markowitz, “Portfolio Selection,” in Journal of Finance, 1952.
  • Vanguard fund: The fund opened in 1976. The point that individual investors had no access to a broadly diversified portfolio before the Vanguard fund is made in Burton Malkiel, "A Random Walk Down Wall Street," now in 11th edition, originally published 1973.
  • Interviews with members of the Index Committee, including David Blitzer, Craig Lazarra, and others in January 2014.
  • Eugene Fama: Eugene Fama, “The Behavior of Stock Prices,” rewritten as “Random Walks in Stock Market Prices,” in Financial Analysts’ Journal, 1965, and in “Efficient Capital Markets: A Review of Theory and Empirical Work,” in Journal of Finance, 1970.

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Select the best response to each question and click "Submit" to view your results.

    • Index fund returns do not reflect investment managers' fees
    • Index funds are designed to mirror the risk and return characteristics of the markets they measure
    • Index funds have lower expense ratios than actively managed funds
    • Index funds are typically constructed to limit turnover
    • Greater protection against market risk than a less diversified portfolio
    • The same amount of market risk as a less diversified portfolio
    • Less protection against market risk than a less diversified portfolio
    • Increased exposure to offset losses at any time
    • Buying and holding securities over long time horizons
    • Purchasing securities directly from an index provider
    • Purchasing investment products designed to track index performance
    • All of the above
    • Market information is readily available and incorporated into securities’ prices
    • New information about securities, and the effect of this information, can often be predicted
    • There are few opportunities to exploit information that may impact securities’ behavior
    • Market information is reflected in the performance of indices and the index-linked products that track them
    • Active managers’ fees and the frequent trading costs they incur are an extra hurdle for active funds to overcome in order to outperform their benchmark
    • Passive funds outperform active funds because indices include only the top-performing securities in a market
    • Most active managers will underperform the market because they invest in both stocks and bonds
    • None of the above
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