This is the latest in a series of posts from Rick. To see prior entries click here.
Although the emotional roller coaster led me to leave the brokerage firm, I definitely wasn’t ready to give up on a financial career. After sending out hundreds of resumes, I eventually saw a job posting in the Wharton alumni newsletter for a position in the Treasury group at Anheuser-Busch in St. Louis, Missouri. I sent my resume and cover letter and was surprised to find myself called in quickly for an interview. As good fortune (and solid preparation) would have it, I earned a job as a financial analyst at the world’s largest brewer at their headquarters. It was such a good fit for me that I stayed with Anheuser-Busch for 25 years, eventually working my way up to Assistant Treasurer.
During my time there, a group within our section was charged with figuring out how to “fix” Anheuser-Busch’s pension fund. It had been underperforming its benchmarks for several years, despite having a highly rated (and expensive) institutional investment consultant whose primary job was to pick the “best” U.S. and international investment managers. Per the consultant’s recommendations, the pension plan routinely cycled in new managers who had delivered great, recent, historical performance. However, it always seemed to be the case that once Anheuser-Busch invested money with the new managers, their performance failed to beat their benchmarks. Hence, the problem we needed to fix.
The head of the team studying this problem sat in the office right next to me. I was always curious about the pension committee’s work because I remained a dedicated personal investor. I still bought individual stocks, but I had learned my diversification lesson well enough to also hold some mutual funds. In addition, I kept up with Barron’s and the Wall Street Journal and would often sit in on presentations from various economists and other experts forecasting economic and market data.
I was as shocked as anyone when the team delivered its report: After an exhaustive study, this internal group recognized that no investment manager could consistently beat the market benchmarks, and it was very expensive to keep trying. What was even more surprising was that the Pension Committee agreed immediately. They fired the consultant, ditched the active investment managers, and reinvested all of the plan’s money into index funds. (And remember…a corporate pension fund doesn’t pay taxes. If an individual investor had followed the same approach, the results would be even worse after taxes!)
After the initial shock wore off, I became a little skeptical of the Pension Committee’s decision. I truly believed that my education and the time I spent researching investments must have created opportunities to earn higher expected returns than a simple index fund. So, I said to my friend in the office next door, “Hey, please show me your evidence!”
He gave me the report, and the evidence turned out to be strong…overwhelming in fact. I realized I was in the same boat as the pension plan—spending way too much time and money trying to find the right mix of investments to beat the market. I sold all my stocks and active funds and put my savings into index funds.
My whole life changed after I did that. Besides earning higher returns with this new approach, I gained back all the time I’d spent reading financial publications, listening to financial presentations, and spending my weekends poring over my portfolio’s performance. I calculated how much time I saved: 240 hours a year—the equivalent of 6 weeks annually!
Lesson Learned: No investment professional can reliably and repeatably outguess the market.
We now understand that the market reflects all known information about a stock, based on the millions of transactions that occur every second. It’s dangerous (and inaccurate unless you have illegal, inside information) to assume that you, or any other investors, know something that every other market participant doesn’t. In other words, no one is smarter than the aggregate knowledge of everyone currently invested in the market, and an investor shouldn’t pay more for fund managers who claim they can beat millions of other participants who have determined a stock’s fair price.
One must be humble to admit that you can’t beat the market. It’s especially hard for people who are very smart and successful in other areas of their lives who, often, mistakenly translate excellence and success to the wild world of investing one’s life savings. True investors must accept that their skills and knowledge in one area don’t help at all when it comes to investing. We know this because studies show again and again that most individual investors tend to earn lower returns than even what the market would indicate they should earn because of poor investment choices, bad timing of their trades, and the fees they pay.
The good news is that you don’t have to give up on investment success when you admit that you likely won’t be able to consistently outguess, or time, the market. In fact, by recognizing this fact, you’re actually taking control…of your investing, your decision-making, your life, and your emotions. You gain back all the time you used to spend thinking about investments and managing your portfolio so you can focus on the more important things in your life, like your family, your work, and having fun.
I was fortunate to realize this back in the 1980s simply because Anheuser-Busch was way ahead of the curve in adopting index funds. Today’s investors have advantages that we didn’t have back then—namely, a wide selection of evidence-based investment options that are better than plain-vanilla index funds.
In my opinion, freedom comes through adopting evidence-based investing. Freedom from worrying about getting in at the right time, while also increasing one’s odds of higher expected returns over the long term. These investment options are based on mountains of evidence about specific characteristics of groups of stocks (known as factors) that offer higher expected long-term returns. We apply these same principles for our clients at Hill Investment Group. We have developed a diversified portfolio that seeks to give investors better odds of earning higher returns than they might achieve either through index funds or actively managed funds. In addition, due to continued competition and mounting evidence of the success of such an approach, costs continue to go down.