Lessons from 2016

Every year, the market provides us with some important lessons on prudent investment strategy. Many times, the market will offer investors remedial courses, covering lessons that it has already delivered in previous years. That’s why one of my favorite sayings is that there’s nothing new in investing—there’s only investment history you don’t yet know.

Last year gave us nine lessons. As you may note, many of them have appeared before. Unfortunately, many investors fail to learn from them. Rather, they keep repeating the same errors, which is what Albert Einstein called the definition of insanity. We’ll begin with my personal favorite, a lesson the market, if measured properly, teaches each and every year.

Lesson 1: Active Management Is a Loser’s Game

Despite an overwhelming amount of research that demonstrates passive investing is far more likely to allow you to achieve your financial goals, the vast majority of individual investor assets are still invested in active funds. And, unfortunately, investors in active funds continue to pay for their “triumph of hope over wisdom and experience.”

2016 was another year where the large majority of active funds underperformed, despite the great opportunity for active managers to generate alpha in the very large dispersion of returns between the best and worst performers.

For example, while the S&P 500 returned 12.0% for the year, there were 25 stocks in the index that returned at least 45.5%. Oneck Inc. (OKE) returned 132.8%, while Nvidia Corp. (NVDA) returned 223.9%. All an active manager had to do to outperform was to overweight these superperformers.

On the other side of the coin, there were 25 stocks in the index that lost at least 22.9%. Endo International (ENDP) lost 73.1% and First Solar (FSLR) lost 51.4%. To outperform, all an active manager had to do was to underweight, let alone avoid, these “dogs.”

It’s important to note that this wide dispersion of returns is not at all unusual. Yet despite the opportunity, year after year, in aggregate, active managers persistently fail to outperform. The table below shows the percentile rankings for funds from two leading providers of passively managed funds, Dimensional Fund Advisors (DFA) and Vanguard, for both 2016 and the 15-year period ending December 2016. (Full disclosure: My firm, Buckingham, recommends DFA funds in constructing client portfolios.)

Note that Morningstar’s data contains survivorship bias, as it only considers funds that have survived the full period. And the bias is significant, as about 7% of actively managed funds disappear every year and their returns are buried in the mutual fund graveyard. Thus, the longer the period, the worse the survivorship bias, and at 15 years, it’s quite large.

The results make clear that active management is a strategy we could call fraught with opportunity. Year after year, active managers come up with an excuse to explain why they failed that year and then assert that next year will be different. Of course, it never is.

The good news is that investors are waking up to the reality. In October, The Wall Street Journal reported that, according to Morningstar, “although 66% of mutual-fund and exchange-traded-fund assets are still actively invested … those numbers are down from 84% 10 years ago and are shrinking fast.”

Lesson 2: So Much of Returns Come in Very Short and Unpredictable Bursts

The road to investment “hell” is paved with market-timing efforts, because so much of the long-term returns provided by the market come in short, and totally unpredictable, bursts. Last year provided the following example. From January through October, the DFA Small Value Fund (DFSVX) returned 8.0%. From November through December, it returned 18.8%. For the full year, it returned 28.3%. Two-thirds of the full year’s return happened in the last two months.

These types of results are not at all unusual, For instance, the study “Black Swans and Market Timing: How Not To Generate Alpha,” which covered the 107-year period ending in 2006, found that the best 100 days (out of more than 29,000) accounted for virtually all (99.7%) of returns.

Here’s another example. There are 1,020 months in the 85-year period from 1926 through 2010. The best 85 months, an average of just one month a year (or just 8.3% of the months), provided an average return of 10.7%. The remaining 935 months (or 91.7% of the months) produced virtually no return (just 0.05%).

Peter Lynch offered the following example. He pointed out that an investor who followed a passive investment strategy and stayed fully invested in the S&P 500 over the 40-year period beginning in 1954 would have achieved an 11.4% rate of return.

If that investor missed just the best 10 months (2%), his return dropped 27%, to 8.3%. If the investor missed the best 20 months (4%), the return dropped 54%, to 6.1%. Finally, if the investor missed the best 40 months (8%), the return dropped 76%, all the way to 2.7%.

Do you really believe there is anyone who can pick the best 40 months in a 40-year period? Lynch put it this way: “Far more money has been lost by investors in preparing for corrections, or anticipating corrections, than has been lost in the corrections themselves.”

Despite this evidence, investors persist in market-timing efforts. Charles Ellis described the winning strategy in the following way: “Investors would do well to learn from deer hunters and fishermen who know the importance of ‘being there’ and using patient persistence—so they are there when opportunity knocks.”

Lesson 3: Events Occur That No One Predicted

Those who have spent their careers forecasting learn to be very humble about their predictions. The reason is that almost every year, major surprises occur. And by definition, surprises are unpredictable.

That is why, when I’m asked for a forecast, my response is that my crystal ball is always cloudy. That is also why my recommendation is to stop spending time listening to forecasts, which have no value and can cause you to stray from your well-thought-out plan. Instead, spend your time managing risk.

2016 saw at least two major unpredicted events that could have had major negative impacts on financial markets. Yet they did not. The first came in June when Great Britain voted for exiting the European Union—the so-called Brexit, which passed 52% to 48% with a referendum turnout of 72% and votes from more than 30 million people.

The other, of course, was the primary win by Donald Trump and then his election to the presidency. With both Brexit’s and Trump’s victories, the market’s immediate reaction was a dramatic self-off. And then a rapid recovery.

Lesson 4: Ignore All Forecasts; All Crystal Balls Are Cloudy

One of my favorite sayings about the market forecasts of so-called experts is from Jason Zweig, financial columnist for The Wall Street Journal: “Whenever some analyst seems to know what he’s talking about, remember that pigs will fly before he’ll ever release a full list of his past forecasts, including the bloopers.”

You’ll almost never read or hear a review of how the latest forecast from some market “guru” actually worked out. The reason is that accountability would ruin the game—you would cease to “tune in.”

But I believe forecasters should be held accountable. Thus, a favorite pastime of mine is keeping a collection of economic and market forecasts made by media-anointed gurus and then checking back periodically to see if they came to pass. This practice has taught me there are no expert economic and market forecasters.

Here’s a small sample from this year’s collection. I hope they teach you a lesson about ignoring all forecasts, including the ones that happen to agree with your own notions (that’s the deadly condition known as “confirmation bias” at work).

  • In July 2015, Charles Robertson, Renaissance Capital’s global chief economist, predicted that U.S. stocks could crash 50% within the next 12 months.
  • In January 2016, economists at the Royal Bank of Scotland warned that investors faced a “cataclysmic year” in which stock markets could fall by up to 20% and oil could drop to $16 a barrel. The advice was to “sell everything” except safe bonds.
  • In May 2016, legendary investor Carl Icahn warned that “a day of reckoning” was coming for U.S. stock markets unless the federal government stimulated the economy with greater spending. He certainly was putting his money where his mouth was, as shortly before his prediction of a big crash, Icahn Enterprises had announced in SEC filings that it had a net short position of 149%.
  • Also in May 2016, Savita Subramanian, Bank of America Merrill Lynch’s head of U.S. equity and quantitative strategy, appeared on BloombergTV to warn of a “vortex of negative headlines” (doesn’t that sound scary?) coming in the following month that could push the S&P 500 down to 1,850 (a level back near its February lows). The factors she cited to support this prediction were the then-upcoming Brexit vote, the June decision from the Federal Reserve and the U.S. election.
  • Again in May 2016, John Hussman of Hussman Funds wrote: “Prevailing market conditions continue to hold the expected stock market return/risk profile in the most negative classification we identify. That profile reflects not only extreme valuations on the most reliable measures we’ve tested across history, but market internals and other features of market action that remain unfavorable. …. In any event, looking beyond the near-term horizon, I doubt that any shift in market action will meaningfully reduce the likelihood of a 40-55% loss in the S&P 500 over the completion of the current market cycle.”
  • In August 2016, UBS warned of an imminent crash in the S&P 500. The bank predicted there would be a major correction within the next two months.

As poor as the preceding forecasts turned out to be, this one is my personal favorite: Just six weeks into 2016, Goldman Sachs announced that (whoops!) it had abandoned five of its six recommended “top trade” calls for the year, having gotten them wrong.

One might ask: If they got those wrong, why ever would we think they’ll get it right this time? Of course, Goldman Sachs was just as confident of its new trade calls as it was when it made its old forecasts. Overconfidence is an all-too-human trait.

To be fair, there were surely some forecasts that turned out right. The problem is that you can’t know ahead of time which ones to pay attention to and which ones to ignore. What my experience has taught me is that investors tend to pay attention to the forecasts that agree with their preconceived ideas (again, that pesky confirmation bias) while ignoring forecasts that disagree. Being aware of our biases can help us overcome them.

Lesson 5: Even With A Clear Crystal Ball …

Imagine you had a crystal ball that allowed you to foresee the economic and political events of 2016, but not stock prices. Surely that would be of great value in terms of investment decisions—or would it have been?

Would you have been a buyer of stocks if you knew that the first few weeks of 2016 would produce the worst start to a year since the Great Depression? The S&P 500 Index closed 2015 at 2,043. By Jan. 20, it had fallen to 1,859, a drop of just more than 9%.

Would you have been a buyer of stocks knowing that Great Britain would vote to exit the European Union, creating great uncertainty for the global economy and financial markets? Within three days, the S&P 500 Index fell from 2,113 at the close on June 23 to 2,001 on June 27, a drop of more than 5%.

Would you have been a buyer of stocks if you knew that, once again, the economic growth rate would disappoint, with growth failing to reach even a tepid 2%? Most of the world’s developed economies were basically stagnating, bordering on recession.

Finally, would you have been a buyer of stocks knowing that Donald Trump would win the presidential election? Be honest now, especially if you happen to lean Democrat. Within moments of his victory becoming clear, the DJIA fell more than 800 points and S&P futures had sunk more than 5%.

With the benefit of hindsight, we now know that, in each instance, the market recovered, and relatively quickly. The lesson here is that, even with a clear crystal ball (which no one has), it’s very difficult to predict stock markets. Thus, you shouldn’t try. It’s a loser’s game.

Lesson 6: Last Year’s Winners Are Just As Likely To Be This Year’s Dogs

The historical evidence demonstrates that individual investors are performance-chasers—they watch yesterday’s winners, then buy them (after the great performance), and watch yesterday’s losers, then sell them (after the loss has already been incurred).

This causes investors to buy high and sell low, which is not exactly a recipe for investment success. This behavior explains the findings from studies showing that investors actually underperform the very mutual funds in which they invest.

Unfortunately, a good (poor) return in one year doesn’t predict a good (poor) return the next year. In fact, great returns lower future expected returns, and below-average returns raise future expected returns. Thus, the prudent strategy for investors is to act like a postage stamp. The lowly postage stamp does only one thing, but it does it exceedingly well: It adheres to its letter until it reaches its destination.

Similarly, investors should adhere to their investment plan (asset allocation). Sticking with one’s plan doesn’t mean just buying and holding. It actually means buying, holding and rebalancing (the process of restoring your portfolio’s asset allocation to your investment plan’s targeted levels).

Using passive asset class funds from Dimensional Fund Advisors (DFA), the following table compares the returns of various asset classes in 2015 and 2016. (Full disclosure: My firm, Buckingham, recommends DFA funds in constructing client portfolios.) As you can see, sometimes the winners and losers of 2015 repeated their respective performances, but other times the winners became losers and the losers became winners. For example:

Lesson 7: “Sell in May and Go Away” Is the Financial Equivalent of Astrology

One of the more persistent investment myths is that the winning strategy is to sell stocks in May and wait to buy back into the market until November.

While it’s true that stocks have provided greater returns from November through April than they have from May through October, since 1926, an equity risk premium has still existed in those May-through-October months. From 1927 through 2015, the “Sell in May” strategy returned 8.3% per year, underperforming the S&P 500 by 1.7 percentage points per year. And that’s even before considering any transaction costs, let alone the impact of taxes (with the “Sell in May” strategy, you’d be converting what would otherwise be long-term capital gains into short-term capital gains, which are taxed at the same rate as ordinary income).

How did the “Sell in May and Go Away” strategy work in 2016? The S&P 500 Index’s total return for the period from May through October was 4.1%. Alternatively, during this same period safe, liquid investments would have produced virtually no return. In case you’re wondering, 2011 was the only year in the last eight when the “Sell in May” strategy would have worked.

A basic tenet of finance is that there’s a positive relationship between risk and expected return. To believe that stocks should produce lower returns than Treasury bills from May through October, you have to believe stocks are less risky during those months—a nonsensical argument. Unfortunately, as with many myths, this one seems hard to kill off. And you can bet that, next May, the financial media will be resurrecting it once again.

Lesson 8: Hedge Funds Are Not Investment Vehicles, They Are Compensation Schemes

This lesson has appeared about as regularly as our first lesson, which is that active management is a loser’s game. Hedge funds entered 2016 coming off their seventh-straight year of trailing U.S. stocks (as measured by the S&P 500 Index) by significant margins.

Unfortunately, the streak has continued into an eighth year, as the HFRX Global Hedge Fund Index returned just 2.5% in 2016, and underperformed the S&P 500 Index by 9.5 percentage points. The table below shows the returns for various equity and fixed income indexes.

As you can see, the hedge fund index underperformed the S&P 500 and eight of the 10 major equity asset classes, but managed to outperform all three of the bond indexes. An all-equity portfolio allocated 50% internationally and 50% domestically, and equally weighted in the asset classes within those broad categories, would have returned 11.0%, outperforming the HFRX index by 8.5 percentage points. A 60% equity and 40% bond portfolio with the same weights for the equity allocation would have returned 6.9% using one-year Treasurys, 7.6% using five-year Treasurys and 7.1% using long-term Treasurys.

Thus, each of these three portfolios would have outperformed the hedge fund index. Given that hedge funds tout their freedom to move across asset classes as their big advantage, one would think that it would have shown up. The problem is that the efficiency of the market, as well as the costs of the effort, turns that supposed advantage into a handicap.

The evidence is even worse over the long term. For the 10-year period from 2007 through 2016, the HFRX Global Hedge Fund Index lost 0.6% per year, underperforming every single equity and bond asset class. As you can see in the following table, hedge fund underperformance ranged from 0.4 percentage points when compared to the MSCI EAFE Value Index, to as much as 8.8 ercentage points when compared to U.S small-cap stocks.

Perhaps even more shocking is that, over this period, the only year the hedge fund index outperformed the S&P 500 was in 2008. Even worse, when compared to a balanced portfolio allocated 60% to the S&P 500 Index and 40% to the Barclays Government/Credit Bond Index, it underperformed every single year.

For the 10-year period, an all-equity portfolio allocated 50% internationally and 50% domestically, again equally weighted in the asset classes within those broad categories, would have returned 4.1% per year. A 60% equity and 40% bond portfolio with the same weights for the equity allocation would have returned 3.0% per year using one-year Treasurys, 4.1% per year using five-year Treasurys and 5.1% per year using long-term Treasurys. All three dramatically outperformed the hedge fund index.

The bottom line is that the evidence suggests investors are best served by thinking of hedge funds as compensation schemes, not investment vehicles

Lesson 9: Don’t Let Your Political Views Influence Your Investment Decisions

One of my more important roles as director of research for The BAM Alliance is preventing investors from committing what I refer to as “portfolio suicide”—panicked selling that arises from fear, whatever the source of that fear may be. After the election of President Donald Trump, it seemed like the vast majority of times I was called in to help investors stay disciplined and adhere to their financial plans involved anxiety generated by politics.

We often make investment mistakes because we are unaware that our decisions are being influenced by our beliefs and biases. The first step to eliminating, or at least minimizing, errors is to become aware of how our choices are impacted by our views, and how those views can influence outcomes.

The 2012 study “Political Climate, Optimism, and Investment Decisions” showed that people’s optimism toward both the financial markets and the economy is dynamically influenced by their political affiliation and the existing political climate. Among the authors’ findings were:

  • Individuals become more optimistic and perceive the markets to be less risky and more undervalued when their own party is in power. This leads them to take on more risk, and they overweight riskier stocks. They also trade less frequently. That’s a good thing, because the evidence demonstrates that the more individuals trade, the worse that they tend to do.
  • When the opposite party is in power, individuals’ perceived uncertainty levels increase and investors exhibit stronger behavioral biases, leading to poor investment decisions.

Now, imagine the nervous investor who sold equities based on his views about, or expectations for, a Trump presidency. While those who stayed disciplined have benefited from the rally following the election, investors who panicked and sold not only missed the bull market, but now face the incredibly difficult task of figuring out when it will be once again safe to invest.

I know of many investors with Republican/conservative leanings who were underinvested after President Obama was elected. And now it’s investors with Democratic/liberal leanings who have to face their fears. The December Spectrem Affluent Investor and Millionaire Confidence Index surveys provide evidence of how political biases can impact investment decisions.

Prior to the election, respondents who identified as Democrats showed higher confidence levels than respondents who identified as Republicans or Independents. This completely flipped after the election. Democrat investors registered a confidence reading of -10, while Republican and Independent investors showed confidence readings of +9 and +15, respectively.

What’s important to understand is that if you lose confidence in your plan and sell, there’s never a green flag that will tell you when it’s safe to get back in. Thus, the strategy most likely to allow you to achieve your financial goals is to have a plan that anticipates there will be problems, and to not take more risk than you have the ability, willingness and need to assume. Furthermore, don’t pay attention to the news if doing so will cause your political beliefs to influence your investment decisions.

In conclusion, this year will surely provide investors with more lessons, many of which will be remedial courses. And the market will provide you with opportunities to make investment mistakes. You can avoid them by knowing your financial history and having a well-thought-out plan.

This commentary originally appeared January 27 on ETF.com

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© 2017, The BAM ALLIANCE

Larry Swedroe

Director of Research

Larry Swedroe is director of research for the BAM ALLIANCE.

Previously, Larry was vice chairman of Prudential Home Mortgage. Larry holds an MBA in finance and investment from NYU, and a bachelor’s degree in finance from Baruch College.

To help inform investors about the evidence-based investing approach, he was among the first authors to publish a book that explained evidence-based investing in layman’s terms — The Only Guide to a Winning Investment Strategy You’ll Ever Need. He has authored six more books:

What Wall Street Doesn’t Want You to Know (2001)
Rational Investing in Irrational Times (2002)
The Successful Investor Today (2003)
Wise Investing Made Simple (2007)
Wise Investing Made Simpler (2010)
The Quest for Alpha (2011)

He also co-authored four books: The Only Guide to a Winning Bond Strategy You’ll Ever Need (2006), The Only Guide to Alternative Investments You’ll Ever Need (2008), The Only Guide You’ll Ever Need for the Right Financial Plan (2010) and Investment Mistakes Even Smart Investors Make and How to Avoid Them (2012). Larry also writes blogs for MutualFunds.com and Index Investor Corner on ETF.com.

Learn more about Larry

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