Leave Investing to the Professionals

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I used to work in the financial industry and I can tell you that I know how difficult investing is. However, many folks are passionate about investing and most spend lots of time doing research and analysis. But in my opinion, unless you are a professional and paid to actually manage money, you are better off spending your time with other pursuits. In this post, I am going to list down the reasons why it is so difficult to actually to succeed as an amateur investor.

Analyzing Stocks is extremely difficult – One of the greatest disservice that Peter Lynch has done with his book “One Up on Wall Street” is that he has convinced many of us that investing is easy. Just buy stocks of companies that make products that you know! But if you think about it, understanding a company is much more difficult that that. One has to understand accounting, how revenue is counted, various FASB rules about stock option accounting, pension liabilities and capital structure.

Analyzing stock is simply not about looking and comparing PE Ratios. You have to truly understand a company's business model, the products they sell, their accounting. Take banks and credit cards for example. Even the professionals who buy bank stocks did not really understand what credit derivatives were! Or how they were accounted for! If you were analyzing JP Morgan Chase, would you understand what was going on in their trading books, their loans books, their off balance sheet items or even how their Chase credit cards were doing? Look at all the research reports on AIG prior to their demise! Even Warren Buffet did not anticipate how much American Express would suffer in the crisis.

Understanding other markets – But analyzing stocks isn't simply enough. To really get a handle of how a particular stock or company is doing, one has to be aware of what other market participants are thinking, and what they are pricing into the market. Here are some examples of other markets that a stock investor has to look at.

Options Market – One often has to check what is the options of (vol) market expecting and thinking in terms of future volatility of the stock you are researching. That involves understanding options pricing and what it means.

Understanding private equity valuation – One of the keys in understanding the backstop price of the stock. To do that you really need to understand how do private equity investors value companies and how they do their analysis of what asset sales and leverage can have on potential value.

Understanding Capital Structure Arbitrage – Many savvy hedge funds employ a trading strategy called “capital structure arbitrage” in which they either go long the stock and short the debt or vice versa. They create models to find equilibrium values of both debt and equity and do arbitrage trades if they are trading out of whack. Understanding how these folks look at markets is also necessary to understanding what is really going on with the stock you are researching.

Understanding Debt Value – Very often, where a company's debt is trading is a leading indicator of how the equity is going to trade. Professional investors, hedge funds and proprietary trading desks look at both debt and stock value. It is important to understand the trajectory of a company's credit rating as well. But while the pros look at these relationships all the time, most investors simply are not aware of these things. The professionals also use credit default swap levels as a guide to how their debt is trading. Most of us do not even have access to these data.

Macro economics take a lot of work and study – Aside from the amount of information that you have to look at for an individual stock, one has to be aware of the macroeconomic environment as well. It is important to understand monetary policy, currencies etc. In fact, even very few professional investors understand macroeconomics, which was why they were so caught up by the oil spike in 2007 and 2008 and the demise of the banks in 2008. Many value investors fell into “value traps” and kept doubling down on the bank stocks that they own.

But really understanding economics is an extremely difficult thing if you have not studied the topic. Simply relying on consensus forecast isn't going to cut it. After all, no economist forecasted the near collapse of the financial system in 2008. And it is not just forecasting GDP growth that you have to understand but also knowing and understanding global central banks and monetary policies.

Asset allocation is not a set and forget thing – After writing all of the above, many would say “hey, you are right, and that is why we invest in index funds or do some simple basic asset allocation and be hands off most of the time. And that is true, the majority of us should simply invest in index funds. That is the easy part. The hard part is deciding on what your asset allocation should be. How much of your asset allocation should be in stocks vs bonds, international stocks vs domestic stocks, domestic vs international bonds. How much commodities should be in your portfolio? How much cash should you carry? How much alternative assets you should have? How often should you rebalance your portfolio?

Folks like University endowment funds hire huge staffs just to perform this function. And even then, they have their bad years.

Ending Thoughts – Investing is a really tough job. But books like “Beating the Street” from Peter Lynch and tons of others give the impression that it is easy. It is definitely not easy managing money (whether your own or others). Many folks really spend too much time on their investments or portfolio. But the truth is that those time spent is mostly futile. Only folks who are professional investors should spend all their time on the financial markets. And when I say professional investors, I mean folks like money managers, hedge fund managers etc. You may spend as much time as a successful manager on the “markets”, but the hedge fund manager is likely to make many more multiples of what you and I can make! Even then, a successful fund depends on more money being invested in the fund from investors. That is how money managers make their money. They develop a good track record and investors give them more money to manage and they make more money from fees. But the ordinary folks can have a “good year” and nobody is going to give you anything to invest! Hence, what really makes you more wealthy is how much income you make and how much you save and not really the performance of your portfolio! Focus on making more money from your career instead rather than chasing the extra 1% from your portfolio.

This was an interesting guest post is by Mr. Credit Card. While I (Investor Junkie) may not completely agree with his position, it's a more common notion to let investment professionals perform the stock picking for you via actively managed funds.

Readers what do you think? Do you think investing should be left to the professionals?  Isn't it true even “professionals” rarely beat passive indexing over the long haul?

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15 Comments

  1. You mention that understanding and analyzing the stocks is extremely difficult. I am considering beginning the investing process, and it seems like a complex thing to begin on your own. I may have to do some more research before I dive into it more.

  2. I want to clarify something here.. For most folks who want to DIY, indexing is the way to go. The main theme of this post is my view that most of us are terrible at investing and should leave it to the pros. But if you believe pros cannot outperform the market, then by all means go ETF.

    But having said that asset allocation requires lots of thoughts as well. If you have stuck with a traditional 60/40 allocation (equity vs debt) in 2008, you would have been crushed as well (passive or active).

    I think my ending sentence says it all – focus on making money, and do not be too hung up over just outperforming the index and get too upset if you underperform slightly (however your money is being managed).

    1. How about a small (5% or less) betting on speculative investments? This can include things like using margin and options.

      I believe this gives you the ability to pick interesting investments that could pay off handsomely, yet you are not betting the farm.

      1. I think and have argued on my site that most people are best employing asset allocation and rebalancing according to set rules/boundaries. Otherwise they start trying market timing and so on which compounds their problems.

        For the average Joe, it's probably about finding a particular portfolio asset you mix that you find appealing intellectually and that you can have faith in. (By the time you find out (if) it was the wrong mix, it'll probably be too late anyway…)

    2. The problem is this: the evidence shows that if you do your homework and pick the 10 best pros you can who will charge you between 1 and 2% to manage your money, trade the portfolio and incur trading costs, and in taxable accounts create capital gains etc.- that 9 out of 10 after 20 years will be significantly behind the market and behind an indexed ETF approach that costs 25 basis points or less. If you think you can pick the 1 in 10 that will outperform then by all means go for it!
      My view is that most people should not risk their retirement funds by trying to pick the 1 white ball from the 9 black balls.

  3. I would (and do) trade stocks and do my own asset allocation ahead of paying someone else to do it.

    But I'd always recommend passive investment to those who aren't prepared to make investing into the near full-time hobby I've done!

    Partly I wouldn't pay because I think fees hurt returns, and partly because why would I pay someone to have all the fun! 😉

    1. As you more than likely know management fees typically equal the difference that actively managed funds trail an index. With that said if I had my choice between only an index and an active manager I would pick the index for most equities (there are some exceptions). Most of my portfolio is indexed base (80%). The portion that is actively managed approx 15% is managed by me. I personally would go no more than 20-25% actively managed.

      Out of the 15% – 10% I have small calculated risky bets in specific stocks. Some like APPL have paid out very handsomely (190% return)

      Is stock picking for everyone? Definitely no. Most people should stick to index based funds. 2008 stock market showed asset allocation, while correlation has increased between different assets, is still the best way to manage risk. If I were to recommend one thing to new investors it's learn proper asset allocation.

      Actively managed funds should be used in things like emerging market bond fund, GNMA, or say muni bonds. Something that has a small market, market liquidity is low, hard to research about and would need a large sum to diversify.

      1. Cheers for your thoughts. I've heard persuasive argument from flesh and blood fund managers that it's even better than just the difference from the index, in aggregate (they have other costs that they also subtract from their mild outperformance, they claim). Who knows?

        Another benefit of indexing of course, compared to a fund, is you avoid outlying poor results. At least you'll get average results. For most people average is good enough.

        Hmm, 2008 was for me a lesson to buy government bonds next time everything else is expensive. They were about all that held up (apart from cash and (holds nose) gold 😉 )

  4. I really do go back and forth on the index vs active mutual funds, but leavig your investing to a professional has other benefits including a buffer to sell before you freak out.

  5. Disagree with 90%. The evidence clearly shows that if you give the 10 best managers in whatever area (small cap, s&P 500, value etc.) that 7 will underperform over the short term (10 years and under) and 9 will underperform in the long run. Furthermore, you can’t pick the ones that will outperform! Their performance doesn’t persist. They can’t overcome the costs involved with their management including trading costs, bid-ask spreads etc. The best approach is for most investors to buy low cost index funds.
    The asset allocation is not that difficult and in fact the individual can likely do a better job than the pros. In today’s market for example an individual can easily raise an additional 5% cash if they are uncomfortable. Unfortunately most try to contact their advisor who doesn’t return the call and if they do they try to persuade them to “stay the course” etc.
    Agree that individuals should forget buying and selling stocks and should stick with etfs or funds. If they think they are great stock pickers then do it with no more than 20% of assets.

  6. I couldn’t agree more. There is a very specific reason I don’t trade stocks. I don’t have the foggiest idea as to why I would choose one over the other. Aside from picking companies whose products I use regularly I wouldn’t have a clue what makes one stock better than the other. I will leave that to the pros.

      1. That is actually what i am doing right now. I have an investing account now where I am investing in a NTF index fund of the S&P 500. It is a pretty broad index to invest in but I don't have to pay to buy in and the management fees are super reasonable since it doesn't take much management to deal with.

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