What’s Better Than Buying An Index Fund? Buying Index Stocks, That’s What.

What’s better than buying an index fund and paying 9bps to replicate benchmarks as they’re propelled into the stratosphere by a coordinated dovish pivot from central banks?

Well, buying the stocks of the companies which created the indexes, for one thing.

S&P Global Inc. is up nearly 60% in 2019, doubling the performance of the S&P 500, while MSCI Inc. rose nearly 75% on the year.

As Bloomberg (a company which knows a thing or two about creating indexes and charging for access and licensing) notes, a portion of every dollar tracking benchmark gauges goes to the providers.

In August, assets in US equity index funds passed those held in active funds for the first time, marking the culmination of an epochal shift years in the making.

This is pretty simple, really. The more popular indexing gets, the more money allocated to index funds. And the more money pegged to the indexes, the more revenue for their namesakes.

Of course, questions linger about the long-term effects of the active-to-passive shift. There are ramifications for market functioning when everyone is a passive investor. The list of such ramifications is long indeed, but one of the oft-repeated worries is that the proliferation of passive strategies (and even defining the term “passive” is no longer straightforward) is having a deleterious effect on price discovery.

Index ETFs almost by definition encourage herding and indiscriminate buying. It stands to reason that if the buying is indiscriminate on the way up, the selling will be similarly indiscriminate on the way down. Indiscriminate capital allocation invariably leads to misallocated capital. It also encourages mindless participation in markets and discourages stock- and sector-level analysis.

Of course, passive investing has also i) driven fees to (essentially) zero, ii) served to protect investors from an industry that can be predatory, iii) helped encourage long-term thinking and iv) contributed to healthier investment decisions by the masses. In many ways, the rise of passive is the best thing since sliced bread.

But, as with anything else, it’s possible to have “too much of a good thing” and some worry we’re approaching that threshold with passive investing.


And with that, we’ll simply leave you with the words of Howard Marks, whose various musings on this shift are among the most insightful you’ll find.

Via Howard Marks ca. 2017

Fifty years ago, shortly after arriving at the University of Chicago for graduate school, I was taught that thanks to market efficiency, (a) assets are priced to provide fair risk-adjusted returns and (b) no one can consistently find the exceptions.  In other words, “you can’t beat the market.”  Our professors even advanced the idea of buying a little bit of each stock as a can’t-fail, low-cost way to outperform the stock-pickers.

John Bogle put that suggestion into practice.  Having founded Vanguard a year earlier, he launched the First Index Investment Trust in 1975, the first index fund to reach commercial scale.  As a vehicle designed to emulate the S&P 500, it was later renamed the Vanguard 500 Index Fund.

The concept of indexation, or passive investing, grew gradually over the next four decades, until it accounted for 20% of equity mutual fund assets in 2014.  Given the generally lagging performance of active managers over the last dozen or so years, as well as the creation of ETFs, or exchange-traded funds, which make transacting simpler, the shift from active to passive investing has accelerated.  Today it’s a powerful movement that has expanded to cover 37% of equity fund assets.  In the last ten years, $1.4 trillion has flowed into index mutual funds and ETFs (and $1.2 trillion out of actively managed mutual funds). 

Like all investment fashions, passive investing is being warmly embraced for its positives: 

  • Passive portfolios have outperformed active investing over the last decade or so.
  • With passive investing you’re guaranteed not to underperform the index.
  • Finally, the much lower fees and expenses on passive vehicles are certain to constitute a permanent advantage relative to active management.

Does that mean passive investing, index funds and ETFs are a no-lose proposition?  Certainly not:

  • While passive investors protect against the risk of underperforming, they also surrender the possibility of outperforming.
  • The recent underperformance on the part of active investors may well prove to be cyclical rather than permanent.
  • As a product of the last several years, ETFs’ promise of liquidity has yet to be tested in a major bear market, particularly in less-liquid fields like high yield bonds.

 Here are a few more things worth thinking about: 

Remember, the wisdom of passive investing stems from the belief that the efforts of active investors cause assets to be fairly priced — that’s why there are no bargains to find.  But what happens when the majority of equity investment comes to be managed passively?  Then prices will be freer to diverge from “fair,” and bargains (and over-pricings) should become more commonplace.  This won’t assure success for active managers, but certainly it will satisfy a necessary condition for their efforts to be effective.

One of my clients, the chief investment officer of a pension fund, told me the treasurer had proposed dumping all active managers and putting the whole fund into index funds and ETFs.  My response was simple: ask him how much of the fund he’s comfortable having in assets no one is analyzing.  

As Steven Bregman of Horizon Kinetics puts it, “basket-based mechanistic investing” is blindly moving trillions of dollars.  ETFs don’t have fundamental analysts, and because they don’t question valuations, they don’t contribute to price discovery.  Not only is the number of active managers’ analysts likely to decline if more money is shifted to passive investing, but people should also wonder about who’s setting the rules that govern passive funds’ portfolio construction.

The low fees and expenses that make passive investments attractive mean their organizers have to emphasize scale.  To earn higher fees than index funds and achieve profitable scale, ETF sponsors have been turning to “smarter,” not-exactly-passive vehicles.  Thus ETFs have been organized to meet (or create) demand for funds in specialized areas such as various stock categories (value or growth), stock characteristics (low volatility or high quality), types of companies, or geographies.  There are passive ETFs for people who want growth, value, high quality, low volatility and momentum.  Going to the extreme, investors now can choose from funds that invest passively in companies that have gender-diverse senior management, practice “biblically responsible investing,” or focus on medical marijuana, solutions to obesity, serving millennials, and whiskey and spirits.  

But what does “passive” mean when a vehicle’s focus is so narrowly defined?  Each deviation from the broad indices introduces definitional issues and non-passive, discretionary decisions.  Passive funds that emphasize stocks reflecting specific factors are called “smart-beta funds,” but who can say the people setting their selection rules are any smarter than the active managers who are so disrespected these days?  Bregman calls this “semantic investing,” meaning stocks are chosen on the basis of labels, not quantitative analysis.  There are no absolute standards for which stocks represent many of the characteristics listed above. 

Importantly, organizers wanting their “smart” products to reach commercial scale are likely to rely heavily on the largest-capitalization, most-liquid stocks.  For example, having Apple in your ETF allows it to get really big.  Thus Apple is included today in ETFs emphasizing tech, growth, value, momentum, large-caps, high quality, low volatility, dividends, and leverage. 

Here’s what Barron’s had to say earlier this month:

With cap-weighted indexes, index buyers have no discretion but to load up on stocks that are already overweight (and often pricey) and neglect those already underweight.  That’s the opposite of buy low, sell high.

The large positions occupied by the top recent performers — with their swollen market caps — mean that as ETFs attract capital, they have to buy large amounts of these stocks, further fueling their rise.  Thus, in the current up-cycle, over-weighted, liquid, large-cap stocks have benefitted from forced buying on the part of passive vehicles, which don’t have the option to refrain from buying a stock just because its overpriced. 

Like the tech stocks in 2000, this seeming perpetual motion machine is unlikely to work forever.  If funds ever flow out of equities and thus ETFs, what has been disproportionately bought will have to be disproportionately sold.  It’s not clear where index funds and ETFs will find buyers for their over-weighted, highly appreciated holdings if they have to sell in a crunch.  In this way, appreciation that was driven by passive buying is likely to eventually turn out to be rotational, not perpetual. 

Finally, the systemic risks to the stock market have to be considered.  Bregman calls “the index universe a big, crowded momentum trade.”  A handful of stocks — the FAANGs and a few more — are responsible for a rising percentage of the S&P’s gains, meaning the stock market’s health may be overstated.  

All the above factors raise questions about the likely effectiveness of passive vehicles — and especially smart-beta ETFs.  

  • Is Apple a safe stock or a stock that has performed well of late?  Is anyone thinking about the difference?
  • Are investors who invest in a number of passive vehicles described in different ways likely to achieve the diversification, liquidity and safety they expect?
  • And what should we think about the willingness of investors to turn over their capital to a process in which neither individual holdings nor portfolio construction is the subject of thoughtful analysis and decision-making, and in which buying takes place regardless of price?


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4 thoughts on “What’s Better Than Buying An Index Fund? Buying Index Stocks, That’s What.

  1. My two cents:
    Cent 1. Years ago, when brokerage commissions were higher, I was much more willing to pay fees to a passive fund manager to buy the index for me. If I wanted a smaller position, the transaction costs were just too high. As of this year, multiple brokers are offering zero commission trading. So if you are buying an index that calls for you to own 167 shares of a stock, and then next month you want to add to your position and need to buy another 37 shares, you can do that without paying fees. You can just decide if the extra effort needed to avoid fees is worth your time.
    Cent 2. With respect to the issue of buying stocks no one is analyzing, I question how much benefit you get from diversifying by purchasing every single stock in the index. If you get down to the names that are so small, there is not enough “smart money” analyzing the company, why not just stop buying? Those small names probably don’t impact the index that much. Your returns won’t match the index. But depending upon the index, buying the top 30 names may give you most or all of the diversification you need.

    1. About Cent 2.), the problem with that approach is the composition of the index also changes with respect to weights etc. Companies drop in and out of it, and some of the small companies at the bottom of the scale become the elephants of tomorrow.

  2. This is nonsense. There is no ‘price discovery’ anymore, not when the Fed backstops prices and the major buyers are just companies doing the buyback shuffle. Also, the index tracks the freaking market. The index can’t ‘go down more precipitously than the market’ or there would be an easy arbitrage opp. So I call bullshit.

  3. The Fed doesn’t backstop any individual stock, hence price discovery continues. Good / bad news still drives a stock’s price up / down. The passive fund / ETF tracks its index most of the time (maybe not during flash crashes) but you don’t necessarily want to own the index.

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