By James Kwak
[I wrote this post a month ago but just realized I never clicked “Publish.” It’s about a book that was published more than two years ago, though, so it shouldn’t have gotten any more stale.]
I recently finished reading Snowball, Alice Schroeder’s 2008 biography of Warren Buffett. It wasn’t a bad read, although at over eight hundred pages it was on the long side and began to seem repetitive; the impression I got was that Buffett had the same kinds of relationships with his family and friends for a long time, and not much changed over the decades.
The big question about Buffett for people like me — people who invest in low-cost index funds, that is — is whether he is smart or lucky. After all, since Burton Malkiel’s Random Walk Down Wall Street, the main argument against stock-picking skill has been that in a coin-flipping tournament featuring thousands of players (and with survivorship bias), someone is bound to win time after time after time.
The answer, at least the one from the book, is that Buffett is smart. And that shouldn’t be too surprising. I recently read a pile of papers about active mutual fund management, mainly from the Journal of Finance, and I’d say that while there’s no consensus per se, the general trend has been that there are some mutual fund managers who can beat the indexes and can more than cover their costs.* There aren’t many of them, they are outnumbered by the ones who do worse than the indexes, and they are probably hard for you and me to find, but they exist. And I say this despite the fact I didn’t want it to be true.
The week between Christmas and New Year’s is probably a good time to throw out half-baked ideas on topics I don’t know much about.
First, there’s been a lot of talk about the “lost decade” for stocks. The S&P 500 is below where it was a decade ago. Dividend yields bring you back up to break-even (the Vanguard Total Stock Market Index Fund had average annual returns of 0.18% for the ten years through the end of November, and that’s after about 0.1% in expenses), but inflation sets you back a couple of percentage points per year. (Vanguard’s S&P 500 index fund, however, was negative over those ten years.) James Hamilton, drawing on data from Robert Shiller, has some thoughts on why the stock market did badly; the fundamentals were so-so, but the big factor was that valuations were at their historical peak at the beginning of the decade.
The New York Times’ Bits blog has a post on Trefis, a Web 2.0 startup that apparently makes it easy for you to create your own valuation model for public companies. They give you starter models using public information, and you can then tweak the assumptions to come up with your own valuation. The pitch is that this puts the tools used by research analysts and professional investors in the hands of the retail investor. “Perhaps these new tools will put some added pressure on the sell-side professionals – many of whom are notorious for creating overly optimistic takes on the companies they follow.”
Or maybe they will make retail investors think they have an advantage that they really don’t. Advantages in stock valuation have to be based on superior information, which you can get by doing lots of market research (like some old-fashioned hedge funds do) or by having privileged access to company insiders. Superior information can include superior forecasting ability, so if you have some ability to predict the market size for routers better than anyone else, you can make money from it. But neither of these are things you get from models; they are things you plug into models. I’m sure the founders of Trefis don’t see it this way, but this feels to me like a great way to lure people into individual stock-picking, and thereby a boon to stock brokers everywhere.
Occasionally we get personal finance questions. Actually, we’ve gotten fewer of those questions lately, perhaps because readers realize we don’t have much to offer on that score, and that we try to avoid anything that might sound like investment advice.
Zvi Bodie, whose name you may have seen here before, has thought a lot about personal investing, and agrees with some of the positions I’ve offered here: notably, that most information about personal finance available on the market is not worth listening to. Bodie recently posted a series of 3-minute webcasts to the Boston University School of Management website where he lays out some basic advice on saving for retirement, including some of the implications of the current economic crisis. I didn’t watch all of them, but I liked how accessible they were.
By James Kwak