Category Archives: Personal Finance

The David Swensen Asset Allocation

yale

The Yale Model

I have been looking for a good book about asset allocation, and I decided to pick up David Swensen’s book, “Unconventional Success.”

David Swensen should undoubtedly be regarded as a superinvestor. He took over Yale’s endowment in 1985 and achieved a return of 16.1% from 1985 through 2005. This is a considerable achievement, particularly considering the vast sums of capital that Swensen needs to deploy. He achieved these results by focusing extensively on moving away from the heavy allocation to bonds that the Ivy League had before the 1980s. His asset allocation is known as the “Yale Model,” which involves a widely diversified portfolio across asset classes and massive exposure to alternative asset classes, like private equity and venture capital.

“Unconventional Success” is not about how David Swensen achieved these returns for Yale. If it were, I wouldn’t have been as interested in the book considering I don’t run an endowment and never will. The book, instead, is aimed at small investors like myself.

The book is geared towards small investors who want to set up a simple, passive portfolio that will preserve their wealth and give a decent rate of return over the long run. Ben Graham would have called this “defensive investing” back in his day.

The Importance of Asset Allocation

Asset allocation is a critical topic. It is especially crucial for the FIRE crowd. While I admire the superhuman savings rates of FIRE bloggers, I think many of them are making a mistake by putting 100% of their savings in US equities, or an equivalent to VTSAX.

While US equities have been the best asset class over the long run, they are often prone to horrific drawdowns and “lost decades”. While over the long run everything will likely work out, 10 years of flat returns is a long time, especially when you are “retired” and don’t have an income.

Take the 1970s, a flat decade for US stocks. Stocks delivered a .26% real rate of return after inflation with a max drawdown of 40% during the ’73-’74 drawdown. The 2000s is another example. During the 2000s, stocks delivered a nominal return of 1.2% and a real return of -1.21%.

Again, everything worked out. If you had a long time horizon, you made out fine. If you were dollar cost averaging, it wasn’t a big deal. But if you’re retired, it is probably worth having a more diversified asset allocation.

It’s fully expected that elements of a balanced portfolio across asset classes will enter bubbles periodically (REITs in the 2000s, US equities in the 1990s, international developed in the 1980s via Japan), but in a balanced portfolio you won’t have 100% exposure to them. Another important aspect of a balanced portfolio is to have exposure to asset classes that will deliver a return in all economic environments.

US Stocks & US Bonds: The Classic Allocation

This is a blog about value investing and stock selection. That is not what Swensen’s book is about. In fact, Swensen advises strongly against individual investors picking their own stocks and believes that small investors don’t stand a chance. I do it anyway. As Han Solo says, never tell me the odds.

People often come to me for financial advice because they know I’m obsessed with this stuff. My advice is pretty simple: look at the Vanguard life strategy funds, look at the drawdown that happened in 2008, decide which one you could have lived with, keep piling money into it, and try not to look at it for 30 years.

Some mix of stocks and bonds are the standard asset allocation. Stocks supply the long run return, bonds deliver a boring rate of return but provide comfort to psychologically bear with the horrible 50% drawdowns that rear their ugly head every once in awhile. When it feels like all hope is lost, your bond allocation reaches out and says “come with me if you want to live.

Bonds give you the behavioral will to survive significant stock drawdowns. Stocks supply the long-term returns, with gut-wrenching volatility.

This has been the standard investing advice for decades. Swensen thinks that the small investor can do better. He starts by adding in asset classes beyond the standard US equity/bond allocations that dominate most individual portfolios.

The Core Asset Classes

Swensen describes his views on what he calls the “core asset classes” that deserve a place in a portfolio.

US Stocks: Swensen is talking about market cap weighted US equities, of course. No value tilts, trend following, etc. Good old market cap weighted US stocks. Since 1900, US stocks have delivered a 9.37% rate of return. This beats any other big asset class. Those high returns include horrific drawdowns, including a nearly 80% drawdown occurring in 1929-32.

US Treasury Bonds: Swensen is particular about bonds: he’s talking about US government bonds. He is not interested in corporate bonds, which he doesn’t believe deliver a high enough return relative to government bonds to justify their risk.

Bonds will not deliver a substantial rate of return but will protect investors during drawdowns. He also does not recommend owning foreign bonds, as they don’t have the creditworthiness of the United States.

He also recommends that half of an investor’s bond allocation go to TIPS or Treasury inflation-protected securities. TIPS were introduced in 1997 and are bonds that will increase in value if inflation rises. Conversely, they decrease in value if inflation falls. Swensen believes they deserve a place in the portfolio because they will protect against significant equity drawdowns, but they will also help the performance of the portfolio during a time of high inflation like the 1970s. Since 1997, TIPs have delivered a 4.78% rate of return.

Since 1997, we haven’t had a serious inflation problem, so this allocation hasn’t really had its chance to shine.

Meanwhile, the rest of the bond allocation exists primarily to shield the portfolio during drawdowns. The total bond market has delivered a 6.42% rate of return since 1900. They really help during drawdowns. From 1929-32, the total bond market provided a 24% return. During the global financial crisis, the bond market gained 11%.

Of course, that’s the total bond market. Long term US treasuries really shine in drawdowns. In 2008, while every other asset class felt like Britney Spears circa 2007, Vanguard’s long term treasury fund (VUSTX) gained 22%. This occurs because, during a meltdown, investors flock to buy US treasury bonds for safety and the Fed is typically pushing up bond prices to drive down interest rates.

International Developed Equities: Swensen recommends diversifying outside of the United States in developed international equities. Developed meaning that they are no longer growing rapidly and are in a similar position of economic development to the United States. Think of Western Europe & Japan. Since 1976, this asset class delivered a 9.04% rate of return. Like the US market, they are subject to horrific drawdowns.

Emerging Markets Equities: Emerging markets are economies that have recently entered a level of industrial level of development from an agricultural subsistence economy. The ultimate example in recent years is China. Since 1976, emerging markets have delivered a 9.04% rate of return.

Like international developed, they are not entirely correlated with US equities. From 2000 to 2010, a period of time when US equities lost money, they delivered a 10.61% rate of return. Since 2008, they have only achieved a 1.56% rate of return. For this reason, they fit nicely into a portfolio. Historically, they tend to offer high returns when US equities are not performing well.

Much of this has to do with valuations at the start of the decade. US equities were merely much cheaper than emerging markets or developed markets in 2010. Conversely, US equities were ridiculously more expensive than the rest of the world in 2000, which is why they sucked for the decade of the 2000s. The nice thing is that all of the world economies don’t usually enter bubble territory at once.

REITs: REITs, or real estate investment trusts, are companies that own a broad portfolio of income-producing real estate assets. Since 1970, REITs have delivered a 10.99% rate of return. This is another asset class not wholly correlated with US equities that can provide a decent return. Real estate also tends to increase with inflation, which is why Swensen believes REITs deserve a place in a portfolio for their inflation protection.

In particular, they held up well during the tech meltdown. From 2000 through 2002, REITs delivered a 13.78% rate of return while US equities were cut in half. Their worst moment was during the housing crisis when they declined as an asset class by 47%.

REITs also shined during the 1970s inflation, which led to an abysmal return for US equity investors. During the 1970s, REITs delivered an 11.32% rate of return.

swensen

The Building Blocks

According to Swensen, the “core asset classes” are the critical building blocks of a portfolio. They will rarely all work at once. An investor will be diversified across asset classes, and the different asset classes will all work their magic at different times.

The bonds exist as protection during stock drawdowns. TIPs have the added benefit of protecting an investor during inflationary periods. Longer termed treasuries will protect the investor during panics or truly horrific deflationary episodes, like 1929-32.

Meanwhile, the rest of the portfolio is divided up into asset classes that should deliver a very high rate of return. The nice thing about the asset classes that Swensen selected is that they don’t all perform well at the same time.

When stocks absolutely sucked during the 2000s and barely beat inflation, REITs and international equities still performed very well. During the 2010s, US stocks did great while international stocks sucked. If we have a repeat of the 1970s, stocks will probably be crushed, but REITs and TIPs will pick up the slack. Ideally, the approach should help an investor avoid “lost decades” like US stocks not delivering any return in the 2000s. You’ll always hate something in your portfolio, but you’ll also probably have something to love in your portfolio.

Most importantly, you can buy all of these asset classes directly through low-cost mutual fund and ETF vehicles. You’re not doing anything fancy with options or hedging. You don’t need to pay excessive fees to someone to do this for you. All of these asset classes are available in most 401(k) lineups, as well.

An added advantage is that these can all be easily managed. A small investor can do this themselves without any help.

DIY Asset Allocation

Swensen recommends that an investor hold no more than 30% of an asset class in their portfolio. This allows the diversification to work. It prevents one asset class from dominating the portfolio. Swensen’s specific recommendations are as follows:

US Stocks – 30%

Foreign Developed Stocks – 15%

Emerging Markets Stocks – 5%

REITs – 20%

US Treasury Bonds – 15%

US Treasury Inflation Protection Securities – 15%

Here is how you can construct this portfolio using simple, low-cost Vanguard ETF’s. You could also do this with mutual funds. My preference is for ETF’s because they maximize your tax benefit. The simplicity is key here: you could rebalance this once a year in your underwear. Investing is one area of life where it actually pays to be a little lazy and not meddle too much.

US Stocks – The Vanguard ETF for US stocks is VTI.  The mutual fund equivalent is VTSAX. Many of the FIRE bloggers recommend putting 100% of your net worth into one of these. Personally, I think that’s fine if you have a long time horizon. However, if you’re already retired, you probably don’t want to be in an asset class that could potentially do nothing for 10+ years and would benefit from diversifying into more asset classes. The expense ratio is a dirt cheap .04%.

International Developed – The Vanguard international developed ETF is VEA. The expense ratio is .07%.

Emerging Markets – The Vanguard emerging markets ETF is VWO. The expense ratio is .14%.

Side note: Alternatively, you could replace the three equity ETF’s above with one ETF – Vanguard Total World Stock Index, VT. This is a market cap weighted index of all stocks in the entire world for an expense ratio of .1%. Currently, the portfolio is 60% in US stocks, 10% emerging markets, and 30% international developed. If this ETF is 50% of your portfolio – you will get right to Swensen’s recommended allocations. 30% of your portfolio will be in US stocks, 15% will be in international developed, and 5% will be in emerging markets. Of course, these allocations won’t remain static and will fluctuate based on the performance of countries within the global portfolio, but it seems like a much easier way to simplify a Swensen portfolio with one equity ETF instead of three.

REITs – The Vanguard real estate ETF is VNQ. The expense ratio is .12%.

TIPs – The Vanguard TIPs fund is VTIP. The expense ratio is .06%.

Treasuries – Swensen doesn’t specifically recommend long-duration treasuries in the book. My preference for long-term treasuries is merely because they will do the best when the markets fall apart, which is the whole reason they’re in a portfolio. Vanguard doesn’t have an ETF for long duration treasuries, but they do have a mutual fund, VUSTX. The expense ratio is .2% on the investor shares. iShares has an ETF for long duration Treasuries, TLT. The expense ratio on that is .15%. If you want to follow Swensen’s advice and own treasuries of all durations, there is also an iShares product called GOVT.

Backtesting Swensen

How have Swensen’s allocations performed over time?

Since 1985, when the data is available for his recommended mix of asset classes (the TIPs returns are made up from 1985 through 1997 based on inflation rates), the Swensen portfolio has returned 9.77%. After inflation, 6.99%. $10,000 invested in the Swensen allocation in 1985 would be worth $238,007.

The worst year for the portfolio was 2008, in which it lost 26.58%. The total US stock market lost 37% during that period, and REITs were cut in half, while a 60/40 portfolio lost 20%. Before the global financial crisis, the worst year for the Swensen portfolio was a loss of only 6.92%. This occurred during the early 2000s meltdown when US-only equity investors saw their portfolio cut in half.

The portfolio really shined during the 2000s, when US stocks did nothing. The portfolio achieved a return of 6.88% from 2000 to 2010, or 4.34% after inflation.

TIPs didn’t exist in the 1970s, but substituting Swensen’s bond allocation for intermediate-term treasuries, the Swensen portfolio would have delivered an 8.26% rate of return and a small return of .41% over inflation. This is during a period where double-digit inflation led to losses across nearly every asset class. Moreover, the Swensen portfolio did this when bonds were crushed due to rising interest rates. The fact that it kept up with inflation at all is impressive. If TIPs existed back then, I would guess that the portfolio would have done even better.

Since the book was published in 2005, the portfolio has continued to do well. It has returned 6.68% or 4.56% after inflation.

Other Considerations

Taxes – Avoiding taxes is a significant consideration for most. The bond and REIT allocations will generate most of their return via dividends, not capital appreciation. If you hold them in a taxable account, you will have to pay taxes on the payments every year. To avoid this, you might want to consider carrying them in a non-taxable account like an IRA or 401(k).

Other asset allocations – Swensen’s allocations aren’t the holy grail of passive investing. There are other alternatives. Meb Faber and Eric Richardson cover a lot of interesting allocations in The Ivy Portfolio. Meb even has an ETF that covers his recommended asset allocation, which he dubs the global asset allocation, GAA. Another great book on the subject is DIY Financial Advisor from the great people at Alpha Architect.

Tweaking it – If you’re like me, you like to test and tweak things yourself. For instance, my preference is to gear my passive equity allocations towards value. US small cap value is the best performing asset class of all time. Since 1927, small-cap value has delivered a 10.93% rate of return. Why not gear more of my portfolio towards that? Or, you might want to set aside some of your portfolio to buy a portfolio of value stocks, like I did. If that’s not your bag, maybe you want to try trend following and momentum, even though I think that’s hocus pocus and nonsense.

There are some great resources available to experiment with your own allocation. One great resource is Portfolio Charts, a helpful visual resource where you can analyze different asset allocations from the Vanguard Three-Fund Portfolio to the classic 60-40, and it includes an analysis of the Swensen allocation. The author also maintains an excellent blog discussing asset allocation.

If you want to get deeper than that and experiment with more asset allocations, there is this resource at the Bogleheads forum. This is what I used to generate the return data listed through the blog post. You can experiment in that Excel spreadsheet with all different kinds of allocations.

Conclusion

There is no holy grail to investing. If you’re looking for a simple, low cost, easy to implement portfolio that doesn’t require a lot of work – the Swensen portfolio is a great place to go. Odds are, you’ll avoid “lost decades” and will preserve your capital over a long period.

As I stated before, 100% US equities might work for the FIRE bloggers, but I really think more of them should consider a more diversified asset allocation. They can’t afford lost decades, after all.

If you’re crazy like me, you also like picking your own stocks or pursuing a pure quant based approach like the Magic Formula or Acquier’s Multiple. Personally, I explicitly set aside this account that I track on the blog to buy and sell shares. My 401(k) and taxable account are in more of a diversified asset allocation like Swensen’s. My equity allocations are (obviously) geared towards value.

The bottom line is that you have to find what works for you. Good luck on your journey.

Random

This wouldn’t be one of my blog posts if I didn’t throw in something completely random. This is pretty funny.

PLEASE NOTE: The information provided on this site is not financial advice and it is for informational and discussion purposes only. Do your own homework. Full disclosure: my current holdings.  Read the full disclaimer.

Are bonds for losers?

stocksbonds

Returns for US Stocks and US Bonds since 1900 in real and nominal terms

No Pain, No Gain. Deal With It.

My attitude about bonds has evolved over the years.

Years ago, I had a pretty simple attitude about them: paraphrasing our President, bonds are for losers. The returns tell the story. Stocks massively outperform bonds over the long run (and cheap stocks outperform everything).

(They’re for losers unless they are bearer bonds. As I learned from Die Hard, Heat, and Beverly Hills Cop, bearer bonds are insanely cool. It’s too bad that the government discontinued these relics of a more heist-friendly time.)

Bonds historically have poor returns and sometimes struggle to keep up with inflation. Stocks traditionally have fantastic performances but have horrific drawdowns. Stocks were cut in half in 2008. They fell by 80% during the Depression. My attitude has always been that if you can’t handle the volatility, then you just need a stronger stomach. No pain, no gain. Toughen up.

With that said, a gung-ho attitude about stocks is easy when you are in your 20’s or 30’s. It was a natural thing for me to get bullish in 2009 after the market crashed. I went “all in” that year in my 401(k) into stocks with the tiny $4,000 I had saved up at the time. Being reckless at the beginning of your working career with a small amount of savings is easy. Try it when you are 65 and have your entire life savings to deal with.

My callous attitude towards “pain” was ignorant. “No pain, no gain” is an attitude you can’t afford to have if you are older and are dealing with a lifetime of savings. You don’t have a lot of high earning years ahead of you, and you might need this money to survive.

Age

My instinct with my own money is to swing for the fences and go for the high returns. No pain, no gain.

Older people can’t have this attitude. They can’t afford a “lost decade” of stock returns. They couldn’t afford to lose half of their money tomorrow. They can’t double down and get a second job if their investments fell apart. For retired people, money needs to last. Mine has to be worth a lot in 40 years. These are completely different objectives.

My parents asked me to recommend as good retirement fund. After thinking about it, I decided that the best option was the “Vanguard Target Retirement Income Fund” (VTINX). It is a fund which Vanguard designed for people in my parent’s situation, who are already retired. It is 70% bonds, 30% stocks and mixed geographically. Fees are only .14%.

The fund isn’t going to provide a high rate of return, but it ought to preserve their capital if they have an emergency and need it. It’s automatically rebalanced so they don’t have to think about it.

In terms of the worst case scenario, I looked at the 2008 drawdown, and it was only 10.93%. That’s tough, but not fatal.

What about interest rates? What about the bond bubble?

Everyone you talk to in the financial world “knows” that interest rates are going up. “They’re as low as they’re ever going to be” is the popular refrain. It certainly makes sense to me. I was born in 1982, and interest rates have declined for my entire lifetime. Eventually, it has to turn around and go back to “normal”, right?

It makes sense that the final straw would be successive rounds of quantitative easing, which will cause inflation, which will ultimately spur higher interest rates.

The more I thought about it, the more it worried me when I thought about my parent’s high allocation to bonds. When interest rates rise, bond prices decline. That’s Finance 101. Did I steer them in the wrong direction? What if interest rates spike and their savings are in jeopardy?

I decided to look at the historical data concerning bond returns, particularly in rising interest rate environments. The period I chose to focus in on was the Great Inflation of the 1960s and 1970s.

The Great Inflation (1960 – 1982)

prime rate

The prime rate from 1950 to today

There was no period for rising interest rates like the Great Inflation of the 1960s and 1970s. Having learned their lessons from the deflationary 1930s a little too well (the Fed didn’t act enough in the 1930s, which turned a panic into a prolonged hellish period of declining prices and high unemployment), the Fed played it fast and loose with monetary policy in the ’60s and ’70s.

The US government also began to play it fast and loose with fiscal policy, which was difficult to manage with the dollar tied to gold.

 

 

The “Nixon Shock”: The end of the gold standard

Paying for the Vietnam War and the Great Society was an expensive endeavor with the dollar tied to gold. Nixon’s solution was to abandon the Bretton Woods gold standard and end the dollar’s link to gold so we would have full autonomy to spend what we wanted.

The “Nixon Shock” kicked an escalating inflation situation into overdrive, with inflation reaching the double digits by the end of the 1970s. The OPEC embargo didn’t help. Economic stagnation combined with high inflation was “stagflation,” and it contributed to widespread fears that the United States had lost its mojo.

By 1979, 84% of the American people polled said they were “very dissatisfied” with the direction of the country. The malaise, as they called it, ran deep.

Paul Volcker, the Fed chairman at the time, knew that this had to stop. He took extraordinary measures to stop inflation, pushing interest rates to historic highs. By 1981, he had driven the prime rate to 20%. The high-interest rates caused a genuinely horrific recession. The recession of the early 1980s was slightly worse than the Great Recession of recent memory. Unemployment peaked at 10.8% in 1982. In comparison, it peaked at 10% in 2009.

Ronald Reagan, to his credit, stuck by Volcker’s tough medicine even though it was not in his political interest. Reagan’s poll numbers dropped into the 30s. A lesser President would have fired Volcker or publicly criticized his actions. Reagan did no such thing. He knew that inflation had to be contained and knew it was in the long-term interests of the country to beat it.

The tough medicine worked. Inflation was defeated. As inflation eased, we were able to reduce interest rates for nearly 40 years. The bond bull market has benefitted almost every U.S. asset class for the last few decades. We have been reaping the benefits of Paul Volcker and Ronald Reagan’s tough medicine for decades.

So how did bonds do during the Great Inflation?

I digress. The question I wanted to answer was how bonds held up during the Great Inflation of the 1960s and 1970s, which is the worst case scenario for interest rates rising. From 1960 to 1981, the prime rate rose from 4.5% to 20%. My instincts told me that bonds must have been completely crushed during this time period.

They weren’t crushed. However, in inflation-adjusted returns, they barely kept up. In nominal terms, they performed surprisingly well. There was only one down year (1969) in which the bond market experienced a 1.35% decline.

bond returns

While the real returns were terrible, they certainly fared better than cash or a savings account during the highest period of inflation in US history (inflation was advancing at a 10% pace, if you can imagine that).

With all of that said, in a diversified portfolio for a risk-averse investor like my parents, they served their purpose. They provided nominal returns and controlled for the drawdowns of the stock market.

Taking it back a little further, I looked at the returns of my parent’s 70/30 Vanguard fund and broke it out by decade. This asset allocation provided a suitable buffer for the volatility in the stock market. The decades where it performed poorly were solely due to inflation. Even though they struggled to keep up with inflation, the portfolio still held up better in those decades (the 1910s, 1940s, and 1970s) than cash in a savings account would have. The next decades (the 1920s, 1950s, and 1980s), as interest rates eased, the portfolio performed extraordinarily well.

conservative portfolio

Additionally, the portfolio also protected investors during extreme market events, which is the key purpose of a bond allocation. During the Depression and the drawdown of 1929-33 (when the market declined by nearly 80%), this allocation held up well, losing only 15.88%. During the crash of 2008, the drawdown was only 7.57%. It’s also worth noting that the portfolio delivered positive returns in the 2000s, which was a “lost decade” for American stocks.

That’s what bonds are all about: in a balanced portfolio, they are for an investor who can’t take a lot of pain. They are a pain buffer. They limit the drawdowns when stocks periodically fall apart and they deliver a low return that exceeds cash in a mattress or the bank.

Bonds aren’t for losers. Bonds are for people who can’t afford short-term massive, painful, losses. They can’t look at a stock market crash and just take a philosophical approach and say “well, 10 years from now I’ll be okay.”

Yes, bonds aren’t nearly as good as stocks over the long run. Yes, they won’t do well during an inflationary period when interest rates are rising.

They’re not supposed to do those things. Bonds help risk-averse people stay the course with the equity piece of their portfolio, which will provide the real capital appreciation and long-term returns. I was wrong for scoffing at bonds as a piece of a balanced portfolio and delving into the issue made me more confident with the advice I gave my parents.

Interest rates & inflation: no one knows

Looking at the history of inflation & interest rates and taking a historical perspective towards it also gave me the sense that no one really knows where either is headed.

The confident predictions that interest rates will rise are based on the perception that interest rates aren’t “normal”, simply because they look low in the context of the last 30 years.

From a broader perspective, the last 30 years have been an unwinding of the historically unprecedented interest rates of the 1970s. Interest rates might just be around normal levels now.

You constantly hear confident forecasts from “experts”. None of them really know any more about the future than we do. They are making educated guesses, just like you and me. Just because they have an impressive title and credentials doesn’t mean they know the future.

No one really knows what the future will bring and it is wrong to steer investors away from bonds simply because we “know” interest rates are going up. At the end of the day, no one really knows anything when it comes to predicting the future.

I don’t know if the next decades will be anything like the 1960s or 1970s, but even if that’s the case, the money that my parents invested in VTINX ought to hold up, which is what I and they care about. The bond allocation ought to perform better than cash and it ought to protect them if the stock market crashes.

Again, no one knows what the future will bring. You just have to make decisions that are appropriate for your risk tolerance, not anyone else’s.

Random

  • I’ve been reading “Brat Pack America: A Love Letter to ’80s Teen Movies“. It’s a fun book delving into the history of 1980’s teen movies, which are some of my favorite guilty pleasures. It’s making me appreciate them on an even deeper level. John Hughes was the first director to make movies in which teenagers were treated like actual human beings instead of a vehicle for the nostalgia of older people. When you see them through this context, they’re pretty amazing. I don’t think modern movies treat teenagers with the same level of respect that John Hughes did. They’re unique in this sense, which is probably why they have stood the test of time and are still popular.
  • Speaking of John Hughes . . . “Oh, you know him?”

 

PLEASE NOTE: The information provided on this site is not financial advice and it is for informational and discussion purposes only. Do your own homework. Full disclosure: my current holdings.  Read the full disclaimer.

“The Big Secret for the Small Investor”, by Joel Greenblatt

I recently completed The Big Secret for the Small Investor by Joel Greenblatt. I’ve read all of Joel Greenblatt’s books and this is his easiest strategy to implement for the average investor. What’s the big secret and who is Joel Greenblatt?

Who is Joel Greenblatt?

Joel Greenblatt, as I’ve discussed before on this blog, is one of the greatest investors of all time. In terms of investing prowess, Joel delivered 50% returns from 1985 to 1995, at which point he returned all outside capital to his investors and focused on managing his own money with his parter, Robert Goldstein. What do 50% returns look like?  $1 was turned into $51.97 over the 10 year period.performancejoel

Source: You Can be a Stock Market Genius, by Joel Greenblatt

Joel Greenblatt’s Previous Books

In addition to achieving stellar returns, Joel has done small investors numerous favors by outlining the strategies that he uses to make money in his books. Most investors like Joel are highly secretive with their strategies, but Joel has been generous enough to share the strategies that he uses, at least on a very high level. His first two books briefly summarized below:

  1. You Can Be a Stock Market Genius – Written in 1997, this book provides a nice road-map to places in the market that the average investor can investigate to find bargains. They are areas where the large professionals won’t tread due to size, complexity and opportunity cost. This is the approach that Greenblatt used to achieve the 50% returns from 1985 to 1995 described above. Joel encourages readers to look into these areas of the market where the professionals fear to tread. He encourages finding things that are off the beaten path and doing your homework. Areas covered include: spin-offs, recapitalizations, rights offerings, risk arbitrage, merger securities, bankruptcies, restructurings, LEAPs, warrants and options. This is by far the most informative of Joel’s books, but it is also the most difficult to implement. It is geared towards investors who already have a familiarity with the markets and want a road-map to the roads less traveled. At some point, I will review this book in depth on this blog.
  2. The Little Book That Beats the Market – This was written in 2005. Realizing that his original book was at too high of a difficulty level for the average investor, Joel formulated a more simple approach in this book. The little book outlines the magic formula strategy of investing. The magic formula ranks all companies in the market by cheapness (defined as EBIT/Enterprise Value) and then ranks all the companies by quality, or return on invested capital. The rankings are then combined into a list of companies that are both cheap and have high returns on capital. Joel recommends that readers buy 20-30 magic formula stocks annually and then sell after a year unless the stock is still on the list. The book was written so he could explain investing to his kids. As a result, it distills the concepts of value investing in a manner that is very readable. I find it incredible that Joel shared this research with the public. He even generously maintains a free screener at https://www.magicformulainvesting.com/

Why Write the Big Secret?

The Little Book was a best seller and the magic formula was sensational. The magic formula continued to beat the market after the book was written. If Joel outlined a winning strategy that could be easily implemented by small investors and provided them with the tools for doing so, what was the point of another book? The problem wasn’t the magic formula. The problem was human investors.

While the magic formula continued to work after Joel wrote the book, investors implementing the formula failed to achieve the results. During the two-year period studied by Greenblatt, the S&P 500 was up 62%. The magic formula beat the market during this period, earning 84%. However, actual investors choosing from the list of magic formula stocks only earned 59.4%.

In other words, investors took a winning strategy and systematically ruined it. This is likely because they avoided the scariest stocks on the list and went with the ones that had the best story.

If most investors can’t successfully implement the magic formula, should they simply passively index?

Indexing

Index investing works over long periods of time because over the decades the economy will grow, inflation will increase and the combination of economic growth and inflation will translate into higher corporate profits, which will translate into higher stock prices. Index funds are also extremely low cost.

Warren Buffett is in the final stages of a high profile bet with Ted Seides about indexing. In 2008, Buffett bet Ted $1 million (with the proceeds going to charity) that index funds would beat a group of hedge fund investment vehicles (fund-of-funds) hand picked by Ted. It looks like Buffett will handily win the bet. In Berkshire’s most recent letter, Buffett explains why he won. To sum it up: a lot of managers try to beat the market, and mathematically some will beat it and most won’t. The indexes reflect average performance, and mathematically a majority of managers can’t do better than average. Because hedge funds charge such high fees (typically 2% of assets under management and 20% of the profits), it will be nearly impossible for a group of them to beat the market.

Ted Seides tried to explain the reasons for his loss in this Bloomberg article. Reasons cited include: most investors didn’t stick with the index, there are many nuances to the returns of hedge funds, they provide protection during bear markets, etc. To save you the time from reading through the litany of excuses, I’ll leave you with this Upton Sinclair quote:

“It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”

What is The Big Secret?

The Big Secret that Joel unveils in this book is simple: index investing works, but it is flawed and there are better passive strategies that can help investors do even better than indexing.

Indexing will deliver returns over the long run and will beat most active managers. I index myself in my 401(k). The portfolio I track here is my IRA that I have specifically dedicated to a concentrated hand picked value strategy.

However, Joel argues in The Big Secret that even though indexes deliver decent returns over long (i.e., 10-40 year) stretches of time, they are fundamentally flawed. The flaw as Greenblatt sees it is the fact that they are market cap weighted. The allocation of a stock in an index fund corresponds to the total market cap of the stock in relation to other companies in the index. In other words, stocks in an index fund are all weighted to the current relative valuations of the companies that make up an index. In other words, when a stock goes up in an index, the index buys more of it. If a stock goes down, it is weighted less heavily in the index. From a value perspective, this is the wrong approach.

This also explains the momentum that we see in the late stages of a bull market. As the indexes have a nice run, money pours into index funds. Money then flows to the largest components of the index, inflating their valuations even more. You see this happening today and you saw the same thing in the late 1990s. The irony is that the more we embrace indexing to capture average performance, then the less efficient the markets become. This isn’t a bad thing. It is an opportunity.

The opposite of this occurred in 2008. All stocks declined regardless of the prospects for the company. This was because money was pulled from stock funds with no rhyme or reason, causing all stocks to decline.

These trends go on until they can’t. Eventually the market recognizes the true value of companies. In the short run, massive money flows into and out of index funds can cause inefficiencies. As Benjamin Graham taught us, in the short run the market is a voting machine. In the long run, it is a weighing machine.

Seth Klarman discussed this phenomenon in his recent investor letter:

“One of the perverse effects of increased indexing and E.T.F. activity is that it will tend to ‘lock in’ today’s relative valuations between securities.

When money flows into an index fund or index-related ETF, the manager generally buys into the securities in an index in proportion to their current market capitalization (often to the capitalization of only their public float, which interestingly adds a layer of distortion, disfavoring companies with large insider, strategic, or state ownership).

Thus today’s high-multiple companies are likely to also be tomorrow’s, regardless of merit, with less capital in the hands of active managers to potentially correct any mispricings.”

Passive Alternatives to Indexing

If the Stock Market Genius approach is too hard for most, if most investors struggle with the Magic Formula approach due to behavioral errors and passive indexing systematically does the wrong thing — then what can the small investor do?

Due to these issues, in The Big Secret Joel recommends a few passive choices that investors can implement. The passive aspect is key, as all of these approaches avoid buying and selling individual stocks and don’t require any homework.

The passive choices Joel recommends as alternatives to indexing are:

  1. Equally weighted index funds. While most index funds are market-cap weighted, equally weighted funds are exactly as they sound. They buy every stock in the index, but equally weight them. This prevents the fund for systematically buying more of a “hot” stock that is likely overvalued. An example of this kind of fund is the Guggenheim Equal Weight ETF (RSP). In the last 10 years, the S&P 500 returned 58.75%. Over the same period, the Guggenheim equal weight S&P 500 ETF is up 77.11%.
  2. Fundamentally weighted index funds. A fundamental index weights stocks not on market capitalization, but on the size of their business. This can be measured by revenues or earnings. This makes sense, because the size of an enterprise is a better determinant of its true value than simple market cap. It also helps investors avoid the hot stocks of the moment with high market caps while simultaneously having low sales or earnings (like Tesla, for instance). An example of this kind of fund is the Revenue Shares Large Cap ETF (RWL), which weights stocks in the fund based on their revenues instead of market cap. This fund returned 85.12% over the last 10 years, compared to 58.75% for the S&P 500.
  3. Value weighted index funds. Value funds are exactly as they sound: they concentrate the fund’s holdings into the cheapest stocks in the market based on metrics like price-to-book and price-to-earnings. While over the long run these strategies have been proven to work, in the last 10 years they’ve had a tough time. The Vanguard Value ETF (VTV) is up on 30.63% in the last 10 years compared to 58.75% for the S&P 500. Much of the underperformance is attributable to concentration in bank stocks during the financial crisis (they appeared to have low price to book values, but the book value turned out to be fiction) along with lagging the momentum of the market in the last few years. This isn’t the first time that value lagged the S&P. The last time that value strategies experienced this kind of under-performance was in the 1990s. Value went on to perform extremely well in the 2000s, while the indexes lagged due to the high market cap weightings in the technology sector early in the decade. I think history will likely repeat. Another great example of a value oriented ETF is the quantitative value ETF. QVAL implements the strategy outlined by Tobias Carisle and Wesley Grey in their book Quantitative Value. They use quantitative approaches to find value bargains (using the enterprise multiple as the value metric) and then further trim down the list to eliminate potential financial fraud, avoiding stocks with excessive short selling, for instance, and use a variety of quantitative criteria to find quality bargain stocks. QVAL launched in 2014, so it doesn’t have a long enough track record to compare it with the S&P 500, but it is worth your consideration. I would check out the book if you want to learn more.

Conclusions

Joel did small investors a great service by writing this book. I suspect that the passive strategies outlined will outperform indexes over the long run. They are much easier to implement than the magic formula or the homework intensive You Can Be a Stock Market Genius style of investing. Simply buy the funds and leave it alone.

I prefer my own strategy of individual stock selection, but I realize that this is not implementable for most investors. While I think it’s fun, it is a lot of work and most people don’t find it to be all that enjoyable.

PLEASE NOTE: The information provided on this site is not financial advice and it is for informational and discussion purposes only. Do your own homework. Full disclosure: my current holdings.  Read the full disclaimer.

Don’t Try This At Home! DIY investing is not for everyone.

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I post a disclaimer on every post that this site is not financial advice and I don’t recommend people simply copy my strategy. Buying individual stocks carries significant risk that most people aren’t cognizant off. 90% of investors have no business buying individual stocks. I often tell people that if they can’t withstand a 50% loss of the amount invested, then they have no business investing in stocks. 50% losses (or worse) are going to occur roughly once a decade and most people behaviorally can’t handle them. With that said, many people wonder if they should try buying individual stocks for themselves.  My advice would be: for most people, absolutely not.

But . . . if you are insistent on buying individual stocks, I recommend that you first get your financial house in order and make sure that you have sound investing knowledge.  There are some great personal financial blogs out there chronicling how to pull this off.  Mr. Money Mustache is one of my favorites.  Dave Ramsey gives great advice as well.

So, before you open a brokerage account and start buying individual stocks, I would say that the below items should be taken care of first:

  1. Get out of debt.  Seriously, if you have debt, especially high interest rate credit card debt, your #1 priority in life right now should be getting out of it.  You should treat it as if you are on fire and need to stop, drop and roll.  Compound interest is a mesmerizing thing when it works in your favor as it does for stock investors.  For credit card debtors, compound interest can ruin your life.  As someone who made a number of stupid financial decisions in my 20’s, I speak from experience.  The same goes for other kinds of debt: student loans, car payments, etc.  Get that stuff paid off before you start even thinking of messing around with buying individual stocks.  Start coupon clipping.  Start cutting your expenses.  Get a side hustle.  Whatever you need to do, do it!  Get out of debt as soon as possible!  Life isn’t meant to be lived in chains.
  2. Set up an emergency fund.  Stock market investing only works over long stretches of time.  In other words, you have to lock the money up for years before you even think of using it.  If you’re constantly withdrawing money from your brokerage account, then compound interest will never have a chance to work its magic.  To be prepared for life’s hiccups and keep you from dipping into your brokerage account, you need to have a savings account covering at least 6 months worth of expenses set aside.  Be prepared for life’s unexpected emergencies, otherwise you’re going to dip into your investments and no strategy will work.
  3. Buy a house.  Rent is throwing your money away.  For what you’re throwing away in rent, you could have a mortgage.  With a mortgage, you build equity in a home and get tax deductions for the interest you pay.  Homes really are a great investment over long stretches of time.  Don’t buy dumb, ridiculously expensive homes that you can’t afford and don’t need.  Don’t try to keep up with the Joneses.  Do find a house with a mortgage payment that you can easily afford and is beneath your means.
  4. Invest in mutual/index funds.  You should have money already invested in the stock market via your company 401(k) or set up in mutual funds.  Vanguard has some great options. The IRA account I am tracking on this blog does not constitute my full net worth or investments. I invest in index funds and any stock investor should devote some of their equity investments to this approach.
  5. Read and learn about investing.  An entire section of this website is devoted to books about value investing.  You should read them all before you decide to buy an individual stock.  If you refuse my advice and only read one book about investing, then my choice would be The Intelligent Investor in its entirety before you even think about opening a brokerage account.
  6. Develop your own philosophy about investing.  Value investing isn’t for you?  That’s fine!  However, pick a philosophy.  You must have  an intellectual foundation.  One of the worst mistake that investors make is shifting between philosophies of investing and chasing recent returns with no real commitment to one philosophy over another.  This is a mistake because all styles go in and out of vogue at different times.  After one style has a nice run, that’s probably the worst time to pile in.  The key to winning in the market is finding a style that makes sense to you and sticking with it.  Consistency is key.  You’re not going to be able to stick with it unless you believe in it and it makes logical sense to you.  There will be times when you are losing money and you will want to throw in the towel.  You’ll be less likely to throw in the towel if you can look at your portfolio and remember why you made your decisions.  If you believe in your philosophy, you can weather the storm.  The mind is the true source of investment gains and folly.  Figure out a philosophy that you can believe in and stay committed to it when times get tough.

A good example of consistency being critical is Peter Lynch’s Magellan Fund.  Peter Lynch is one of the greatest money managers of all time.  From 1977 to 1990, he achieved an astounding 29% rate of return for his investors.  However, most investors lost money because they piled into the fund when it was hot and sold when it was cold.  They had no patience and the lack of patience made them lose money even though they were in one of the greatest performing mutual funds of all time.

With that said, once your financial house is in order and you have a sound knowledge and philosophy about investing, then you can feel free to roll up your sleeves and attempt do-it-yourself investing in individual stocks.

Should you do what I’m doing?  No.  

Do your own homework and choose a style that you are comfortable with. Don’t just buy something because someone else is buying it. Think independently.

PLEASE NOTE: The information provided on this site is not financial advice and it is for informational and discussion purposes only. Do your own homework. Full disclosure: my current holdings.  Read the full disclaimer.