Bad Timing

Here’s an article I found a long time ago, entitled “When Index Funds Go Bad [registration required: may I suggest].” It has been sitting in a draft post for a long time and just today my last post inspired me to publish it. The title doesn’t accurately describe what the article is about. What she talks about applies to all investments, not just stocks. Here’s the main thesis:

Indeed, investors of all stripes are notorious for their poor timing: They often purchase investments after periods of strong performance and sell them belatedly after periods of weak performance. Those timing decisions thus have a major–and negative–impact on the returns shareholders actually pocket.

She then looks at “dollar-weighted returns to gain a better understanding of how investors have really fared, because dollar-weighted returns account for cash flows in and out of a fund.” The results, in my opinion, are quite staggering:

The results indicated that, as with most active funds, investors’ timing decisions were costly when it came to index funds. The dollar-weighted returns for virtually all large-cap index funds were worse than their official returns for the trailing 10-year period through the end of the third quarter 2005. As the table below shows, poor timing cost Vanguard 500 shareholders 2.7 percentage points of returns per year over the past decade. That’s not chump change.

There is a chart given which gives the dollar-weighted returns and the official returns for many index funds. Over a 10-year period the gap between the two returns ranges from -0.8% to -6.18%. The whole article is excellent and I highly recommend reading it. I will just provide the last paragraph as I think it sums things up pretty well:

Clearly, index investors aren’t immune from the behavioral biases that can produce bad results from good funds. Although many of indexing’s most vocal proponents (Burton Malkiel and Jack Bogle, for example) also preach the importance of disciplined, long-term investing, it appears that many investors didn’t heed that advice. True, investors were challenged by one of the most precipitous bubbles in stock market history, and I take some comfort from the fact that asset flows into index funds have smoothed out over the past few years. But many still have a propensity to pile into the hottest funds at just the wrong time. Witness the recent strong inflows many energy funds have experienced this year. I mistakenly assumed that index funds were less likely to invite such behavior, but this study proved me wrong. I still think index funds provide investors a great way to get low-cost, no-fuss exposure to the stock market, but they are good investments only if shareholders use them wisely and maintain the long-term orientation that’s necessary to benefit from all they have to offer.

Investors are always being told to pay attention to MERs. To look at low-cost ETFs as an alternative to index mutual funds or actively-managed mutual funds. Some people take this to the extreme, recommending ETFs (with MERs of around 0.25-0.5%) instead of index mutual funds (with MERs of around 0.5-1%). To save a few percent on your annual return? As this study shows, a much more important factor affecting your portfolio’s performance has to do with keeping your head. This is something that is easier said than done. As Benjamin Graham said on page 8 of The Intelligent Investor,

We shall say quite a bit about the psychology of investors. For indeed, the investor’s chief problem–and even his worst enemy–is likely to be himself.

This is what investing intelligently is all about. This kind of intelligence, explains Graham, “is a trait more of the character than of the brain.”

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