Index-investing critic got it wrong

  • Barry Ritholtz

    Barry Ritholtz


During the past 40 years, low-cost indexing has risen from an abstract financial theory with very few takers to a juggernaut sucking up most of the new money flowing into equity investments. BlackRock, Vanguard Group and State Street, the top three indexers, collectively own more than 10 per cent of every company in the US. They own lots of overseas stakes as well.

This shift represents an existential threat to numerous parts of the financial services industry: once investors decide to simply “buy the market”, many types of financial jobs are no longer necessary, from human traders to newsletter writers to various active management strategies.

I was reminded of this by a deeply flawed analysis, entitled: “Your love of index funds is terrible for our economy,” by Michael Brush, published on the MarketWatch website. It cried out for a response.

There are three reasons why indexing has become so popular. First, it costs less — often much less. High fees are a drag on returns; compounded over decades, they lead to a 20 to 30 per cent penalty on total returns.

Next, the alternative is active-stock or mutual-fund selection or some form of market timing. Academic research overwhelming shows that the vast majority of investors lack the skills or discipline to do that.

Attempts at outperformance invariably lead to underperformance. Last, even among those who have the requisite skills, the discipline and emotional control necessary to successfully manage money is intermittent at best, absent at worst.

Back to the issue of index funds: the author identifies three reasons why index funds are an economic threat.

Let’s take each of these in order: “Index funds contribute to market melt-ups and meltdowns.”

Really? That statement is at odds with the experience of most Registered Investment Advisers and index-fund managers. Indeed, we have experienced several bubbles and crashes, melt-ups and meltdowns, during the past few decades. The evidence is clear that passive-index investors behave better than active-fund investors or market timers, tending to blunt rather than aggravate volatility.

During the financial crisis, passive investors sat tight and for the most part didn’t sell. Indeed, they were net buyers, according to former Vanguard chief executive officer Bill McNabb. As my Bloomberg colleague Eric Balchunas pointed out, during the 2008 credit crunch, the money flows were into index funds and exchange-traded funds, in part because they displayed less volatility; more than $205 billion was put into these funds while active funds experienced $259 billion in withdrawals.

“Index funds reduce the quality of stock analysis.”

If this were offered as a joke, we could ignore it. But this is a serious — and a seriously flawed — allegation.

Let’s be blunt: stock analysis has been famously terrible for most of for ever. Analysts are too bullish when things are going well, and perhaps too bearish when they are not. They are highly conflicted.

Since research itself doesn’t generate income, analysts are paid out the funds generated by other parts of a securities firm’s business, such as investment banking.

Their goal is to encourage more active trading, which generates commissions but also higher tax bills and lower returns. For a reminder of how problematic Wall Street research is, recall the analyst scandals of the late 1990s and early 2000s. I believe this author has it exactly backward: expensive and ethically compromised analysts were shown to be of so little help to investors that they actively contributed to the rise of indexing.

“Index funds contribute to poor corporate governance.”

Again, I think this is exactly backward — it’s the long-term owners of public stock, that is, index funds — that management must deal with year after year.

Consider what Dave Nadig, managing director of ETF.com, wrote earlier this year: “State Street voted against the slates of directors proposed by companies over 400 times, because those companies failed to add women to their boards. And BlackRock recently published an open letter to markets, putting every company on notice that they would be taking a hard, hard look at everything from executive compensation to community development to environmental impact.”

Active managers and activist investors can threaten to sell their stock, and sometimes they do. But then what?

The indexers are long-term owners — and they vote their proxies. Management has to acknowledge their permanence.

The complaints about indexing have become tiresome: indexing is Marxist, it’s a bubble waiting to burst, it’s dangerous to the economy or the efficiency of the market, and so on. The need to re-litigate every lost battle is telling.

The people who want to sell you newsletters, expensive mutual funds, or costly trading advice have suffered greatly from the move towards low-cost, passive investing. No wonder so many of them refuse to accept the obvious benefits of indexing to average investors.

Barry Ritholtz is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He founded Ritholtz Wealth Management

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Published Dec 15, 2018 at 8:00 am (Updated Dec 15, 2018 at 12:25 am)

Index-investing critic got it wrong

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