The Chorus of Voices for Index Funds

Having read a small mountain of personal finance and investing books in the last couple of years, I’ve come to realize that there’s some significant overlap in the ideas presented in the books. Spend less than you earn and avoid high-interest debt pop up again and again, but I wanted to look at perhaps the most powerful idea presented across a wide swath of investment books: invest your money in index funds.

I wrote out the case for index funds a while back: they’re easy and don’t require much time investment, they’re very cost efficient, and they outperform virtually all managed mutual funds. However, I wanted to point out that this argument isn’t mine and mine alone – it’s shared by a small army of people who write on investment topics. (In the quotes below, I’ve added my own emphasis.)

For starters, John Bogle, the founder of Vanguard, writes in The Little Book of Common Sense Investing (read my review of the book) on page 200:

Deep down, I remain absolutely confident that the vast majority of American families will be well served by owning their equity holdings in an all-U.S. stock-market index portfolio and holding their bonds in an all-U.S. bond-market index portfolio… The rationale for a 100-percent index fund portfolio remains as solid as a rock. It’s all about common sense.

Burton J. Malkiel, a Princeton professor and a former member of the Council of Economic Advisors, writes in A Random Walk Down Wall Street (read my review) on page 358 of the ninth edition paperback:

For many investors, especially those who prefer an easy, low-risk solution to investing, I recommend bowing to the wisdom of the market and using index funds for the entire investment portfolio. For all investors, however, I recommend that at least a portion of the investment portfolio – especially the retirement portion – be invested in index funds.

Malkiel also writes in The Random Walk Guide to Investing (read my review), paperback edition, page 136:

[Index fund investing] has outperformed all but a tiny handful of the thousands of equity mutual funds that are sold to the public. Let’s list all the advantages of an index fund strategy:
Index funds simplify investing. You don’t have to choose among the thousands of individual stocks and mutual funds available to the public.
– Index funds are cost-efficient. [Many] have no sales charges and have miniscule expense charges. Moreover, index funds do a minimal amount of trading. Thus, they avoid the very heavy transactions costs of actively managed funds, which tend to turn over their entire portfolio about once a year.
Index funds regularly produce higher returns for investors than do actively managed funds.
– Index funds are predictable. You know beyond doubt that you will earn the rate of return provided by the stock market. Yes, you will lose money when the market declines, but you will never own the fund that performs several times worse than the market.
– Index funds are tax-efficient. If you do own stocks in taxable accounts (that is, outside your IRA or retirement plan), then you need to invest in index funds that don’t trade from security to security and therefor don’t tend to generate taxable gains.

What about Taylor Larimore, Mel Lindauer, and Michael LeBoeuf, authors of the acclaimed Bogleheads’ Guide to Investing (read my review), on page 78 of the paperback edition?

Index funds outperform approximately 80 percent of all actively managed funds over long periods of time. They do so for one simple reason: rock-bottom costs. In a random market, we don’t know what future returns will be. However, we do know that an investor that keeps his or her costs low will earn a higher return than one who does not. That’s the indexer’s edge. More specifically, here are the cost and other advantages of indexing:

1. There are no sales commissions.
2. Operating expenses are low.
3. Many index funds are tax efficient.
4. You don’t have to hire a money manager.
5. Index funds are highly diversified and less risky.
6. It doesn’t much matter who manages the fund.
7. Style drift and tracking errors aren’t a problem.

William Bernstein, one of the nation’s top financial theorists, writes on page 98 of The Four Pillars of Investing (read my review):

Clearly, the best way to avoid [overpriced and underperforming mutual funds] is to simply keep your expenses to a minimum and buy the whole market with an index fund.

And then on page 102:

Failing to diversify properly is the equivalent of taking [your stock investment’s] uncertain return and then going to Las Vegas with it. It’s bad enough that you have to take market risk. Only a fool takes on the additional risk of doing yet more damage by failing to diversify properly with his or her nest egg. Avoid the problem – buy a well-run index fund and own the whole market.

Paul Farrell, a former Morgan Stanley investment banker and financial reporter, writes in The Lazy Person’s Guide to Investing (read my review) on page 111 of the paperback edition:

Of all the predictors, the [Financial Research Corporation] concluded that the expense ratio is the only really reliable one in predicting future performance, because funds with low operating costs “deliver above average future performance across nearly all time periods.”

Conversely, all other predictors turned out to be unreliable – including Morningstar’s famed star ratings and the highly regarded Sharpe Ratio developed by a Nobel laureate in economics.

Bottom line: if you want predictable performance, pick cheap funds. That means no-load index funds. And since Vanguard has the lowest expenses, it should come as no surprise that its funds appear over and over in the lazy portfolios developed by so many independent sources.

The Sharpe Ratio? That refers to William Sharpe, winner of the 1990 Nobel Prize in Economics and professor emeritus at Stanford. In Investors and Markets, he writes on page 146:

An index fund investor can then come very close to achieving the expected utility attainable with large amounts of expensive research and analysis… [the argument that] few of us are as smart as all of us, it is hard to identify them in advance, and they may charge more than they are worth is perhaps the most realistic argument for investing much (if not all) of one’s money in mutual funds.

Even Jim Cramer, who couldn’t possibly be a louder advocate of individual stock investing, says the following in Stay Mad For Life (read my review) on page 87:

Invest in index funds or the lowest-cost mutual funds offered by your 401(k) plan. This is the conventional wisdom on Wall Street, but it’s the advice that most people fail to take. People always want to know which mutual fund will give them the best return, but it turns out that’s a bad question. Even before you add up the fees, actively managed funds fail to beat the market 80 percent to 90 percent of the time. That means that at least in your 401(k), you’re better off investing in an index fund with low costs that simply tries to mimic the performance of the entire market than in a mutual fund that tries to beat the market.

Here’s the scoop in a nutshell, people. If you’re like me and you don’t have hours every week to study individual stocks, but you want to invest in stocks and enjoy some of the tremendous gains you can earn, there is no better option available to you than a low-cost index fund. As of this moment, every single dime (outside of my retirement plan) that I have invested in the stock market is in Vanguard index funds. I’ve watched tons of individual stocks and mutual funds and how they’ve done over the last few years and these guys are all spot on – index funds simply get the job done, easily and effectively.

If you have extra money and want to invest it in the stock market, index funds are the way to go. I got started with Vanguard and they’ve treated me exceptionally well both in investment quality and customer service – I’ve never seen any reason to go anywhere else.

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