Over the past few years, the idea of “passive investing” has increasingly resonated with the general public. Money has rushed out of actively-managed mutual funds and into index funds at a rapid rate. Most recently, the passive investing ethos has grown so strong it now reminds me of some hard-core religions that take an unwaveringly literal interpretation of their founding texts.
In the case of passive investing, these founding texts are the “efficient-market hypothesis” (EMH) and “modern portfolio theory” (MPT). Created and developed by ingenious men with noble intentions, these theories put forth wonderful arguments for the wisdom of the crowd and the incredible value of diversification, among others.
Like most religious texts, however, the main problems arise in their interpretation and implementation. As Alan W. Watts explains in The Wisdom Of Insecurity, “the common error of ordinary religious practice is to mistake the symbol for reality, to look at the finger pointing the way and then to suck it for comfort rather than follow it.” Investors, too, must think critically about the effectiveness of these theories when it comes to practical application rather than take them literally on blind faith.
It pays to remember that blind faith in these sorts of mathematical models leads even nobel prize winners to disastrous results. As my friend Todd Harrison likes to say, “respect the price action but never defer to it.” Clearly, there is value in understanding and incorporating the ideals of these theories. There is also danger in simply deferring to them because the costs of their shortcomings can, at times, overwhelm the benefits of their wisdom. Like the Long-Term Capital boys learned, as soon as you really need to lean on them they vanish like a cheap magic trick.
Where these theories go wrong in their practical application is that they both assume there are only rational participants in the markets. While the crowd may be right most of the time, there are clearly times when the crowd is not rational (note the preponderance of manias throughout the history of finance). In fact, the proprietors of these models have acknowledged this Achilles’ heel themselves.
The most successful professional investors like Warren Buffett, Paul Tudor Jones, John Templeton, George Soros and Jim Rogers, know this well. Their methodologies are even built upon the idea that an intelligent investor can get ahead by taking advantage of those times the crowd becomes irrational, the antithesis of the EMH and MPT.
So saying you believe in passive investing is fine and, in fact, I’ll grant it’s better than most of the alternatives. It will work great most of the time. But know that, just like some fanatics deny evidence that disproves the idea that cavemen and dinosaurs coexisted, you are denying the overwhelming evidence that suggests its foundations are simply not to be relied upon during those rare times when market participants abandon rational thought for panic or euphoria.
Make no mistake, those selling this idea of passive investing are selling a very good product. I firmly believe it’s a large step above most of the alternatives out there, more so in the case of those selling it at a minimal cost. But I fear investors are also being sold a false sense of security today.
I believe investors passively buying equities today are doing so under one of two false assumptions. They either believe that future returns will look something like they have over the past 40 years or that because the market is totally efficient it’s currently priced to deliver risk-adjusted returns that are acceptable given the current low-yield environment.
The first assumption is something I have called the “single greatest mistake investors make” and it’s a trap even the Federal Reserve admits it regularly falls into. The second assumption runs into the problem of the evidence which suggests there is a very good likelihood returns from current prices will be sub-par, if not sub-zero over the next decade.
And the reason returns are likely to be poor going forward is investors have pushed prices to levels that nearly guarantee it. In my view, passive investors have irrationally relied upon the idea that the market is rational, and therefore attractively priced, in pouring money into equity index funds, sending equity values to heights never before seen (on median valuations) virtually guaranteeing themselves they’ll be disappointed.
Just because the future of the stock market is bleak doesn’t mean investors should ignore these facts or have them withheld from them. Ignorance may be bliss but it is not a valid investment methodology. Those with a religious sort of belief in passive investing and its main tenets need not abandon it to acknowledge its limitations. In fact, a little insecurity would go a long way for the growing hoard of passive investors in today’s market.