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The surprising investment experts who use index funds

Every investor must choose whether to invest actively or passively.

While it happens less often than it used to, some people still roll their eyes when you suggest they simply start investing via a mix of index funds and cash.

  • Why aren’t you telling them about the special snazzy funds?
  • Don’t you think they’re smart enough to pick up some hot stocks?
  • Why are you telling them to buy a poor man’s fund?

Are you saying they’ve failed in life, and that they should start buying Value branded canned tomatoes and scavenging for the Financial Times out of the wastepaper bins?

Yes, I’ve had that when I’ve tried to explain the virtues of cheap passive investing.

Perhaps it’s my fault for talking about investing at parties.

Index funds: The experts’ choice

While newcomers still tend to believe they should invest their money with clever fund managers – and why wouldn’t they, given all the hype and the fact that index investing seems so wrong – I’ve noticed more and more seasoned private investors are switching to index funds.

You might call it throwing in the towel, except that sounds so defeatist.

When you consider that active investing is a zero sum game at best – and that high fees make it a losing game for the vast majority of funds and their investors – switching to a passive approach is a smart and proactive decision, not a sign of retreat.

And plenty of investing experts feel the same way.

In fact, I’ve decided to start a roll call of the more surprising fans of index investing, which we will update as more are outed!

Warren Buffett

The greatest investor of all-time and one of history’s best stock pickers made waves in 2014 when Buffett revealed he didn’t trust anyone to pick winning stocks after he was gone.

Instead, he said that on his passing, 90% of his wife’s estate would be put into a very low cost S&P 500 index tracker, and the rest held in cash.

Buffett said:

“I believe the trust’s long-term results from this policy will be superior to those attained by most investors — whether pension funds, institutions, or individuals — who employ high-fee managers.”

It’s easy to create a similar passive Buffett portfolio with off-the-shelf index funds in the UK.

David Swensen

As the manager of the prestigious Yale endowment fund, David Swensen beat the market by investing some of its billions into hedge funds, private equity, and real estate.

The best-selling books he wrote on the back of his market-beating returns – of which Unconventional Success is the most accessible to oiks like you and me – changed how big pension and endowment funds ran their money.

Yet in that book and elsewhere, Swensen has repeatedly said most people (and most institutions) should stick to index funds.

Here’s an extract from a Bloomberg report on a conference where Swensen spoke about the virtues of indexing:

David Swensen […] said investors who don’t have access to top managers are best off using index products.

“There are two sensible approaches to investing — either 100 percent active or 100 percent passive,” [he said].

Unless an investor has access to “incredibly high-qualified professionals,” they “should be 100 percent passive — that includes almost all individual investors and most institutional investors.”

Most active mutual funds are more interested in collecting fees than in boosting returns for investor, Swensen said.

You can get a passive approximation of Yale’s asset allocation via a similarly-weighted Ivy League ETF portfolio.

Just don’t expect it to achieve exactly what Swensen achieves.

Paul Wilmot

Oxford graduate Paul Wilmot is one of the leading experts in quantitative finance, a field which typically seeks to use applied mathematics to discover and profit from the financial markets, often through discovering pricing anomalies or other inefficiencies.

Wikipedia tells me Wilmot also founded a hedge fund.

So I’m grateful to a Monevator reader, Robert, for highlighting the following quote from page 116 of Paul Wilmott Introduces Quantitative Finance:

“[The] vast majority of funds can’t even keep up with the market.

And statistically speaking, there are bound to be a few that beat the market, but only by chance.

Maybe one should invest in a fund that does the opposite of all other funds. Great idea except that the management fee and transaction costs probably mean that that would be a poor investment too.

This doesn’t prove that markets are random, but it’s sufficiently suggestive that most of my personal share exposure is via an index-tracker fund”.

I admire Wilmot’s candour here.

And as our reader Robert says: “Nice to get (yet more) vindication from someone who knows all about the most esoteric financial wizardry…”

Harry Markowitz

The Nobel prize winning economist Harry Markowitz is one of the father’s of modern portfolio theory, so it’s no surprise he likes index funds.

What is surprising though is that the the inventor of the Markowitz Efficient Frontier of portfolio construction took a far simpler approach to creating his own simple portfolio, with Markowitz admitting:

“I should have computed the historical co-variances of the asset classes and drawn an efficient frontier.

But I visualized my grief if the stock market went way up and I wasn’t in it — or if it went way down and I was completely in it.

So I split my contributions 50/50 between stocks and bonds.”

Keeping things simple. That is a sign of real genius at work.

Lars Kroijer

While he’s hardly a household name, Lars Kroijer came to UK investors’ attention when he published Confessions of a Hedge Fund Manager a few years ago.

It was a down-to-earth explanation of how he made a fortune in the active fund industry, with an inspiring ‘almost anyone can’ back story that has no doubt encouraged a few wannabes to try running a hedge fund for themselves.

It was surprising then when just a couple of years later, Lars came out with Investing Demystified, a book saluting passive investing in index funds as the most logical choice for almost any investor.

Lars writes:

“A one-time hedge fund manager writing about investments without edge may seem like a priest writing the guide to atheism.

In my view, however, it is not at all inconsistent.

The fact that some investors have an edge on the market does not mean that most people have it. Far from it.

‘Edge’ is confined to a very small minority of investors who typically have access to the best analysis, information, data, and other resources.

Most other investors simply can’t compete, and would be worse of trying.”

For more of Lars’ wisdom, read his articles on passive investing on Monevator.

The dumb money isn’t so dumb

As you can see, deciding to go for index funds is not like shopping for tat in the pound stores.

Some of the smartest and/or richest brains in finance have looked at the evidence and decided passive index investing is the best way forward.

No wonder 98 cents in ever dollar that went into US mutual funds in 2013 went to Vanguard, which dominates the index investing space.

That momentum continued last year, too, with data showing US investors pulled $12.7 billion out of actively managed funds in 2014, while putting $244 billion into passive index funds.

In the UK too, the amount of money put into tracker funds hit a new high in 2014.

Of course I expect the trendiness of index funds will hit a bump some day – most likely at the next bear market.

When that happens, different experts will come to the fore to say they told us so.

But remember while they laud the virtues of active management in the fearful aftermath of a crash that it’s impossible for actively invested money to on average outperform.

Unlike investing in a broad stock market index, active investing is a zero sum game – and that’s before high fees make things worse.

For that reason, I expect this roll call of tracker fund-loving experts to grow over the long-term.

Got an idea for a surprising investing expert we should add to this list? Let us know in the comments below.

{ 30 comments… add one }
  • 1 Rob W February 10, 2015, 10:48 am

    The trouble is that these experts (and you TI, if that’s not too cheeky to point out ;)) all advise *others* to use index funds, but then admit they indulge in active investing themselves. To a cynic, it might come across as “The plebs should go passive, leaving active to only those of us who are smart & capable enough to handle it”.

    I’m passive-only myself, but I can understand the strong temptation to believe one has an edge.

  • 2 grlla February 10, 2015, 1:18 pm

    The oft-quoted Markowitz line needs some context. As I’m sure you know, he basically said in 2013 that 50/50 is not what he’d do now and not what he’d recommend.

    But yes, generally I agree with all this (though like yourself I still delude myself and believe that Active Investing is worthwhile if you ‘do something different’.)

    Separately have you ever considered the ethics of Passive Investing, or is that too big a can of worms…

  • 3 Michael February 10, 2015, 2:40 pm

    Didn’t Buffett say index funds and bonds, but you are suggesting index funds and cash. Why do you feel cash would be better than bonds?

  • 4 Michael February 10, 2015, 2:43 pm

    “My advice to the trustee could not be more simple: Put 10% of the cash in short-term government bonds and 90% in a very low-cost S&P 500 index fund. […]

    I believe the trust’s long-term results from this policy will be superior to those attained by most investors — whether pension funds, institutions, or individuals — who employ high-fee managers.”

  • 5 Gregory February 10, 2015, 2:55 pm

    Lars Kroijer’s book is excellent for the average investor. But the average investor does’t read the MONEVATOR. I am 100% sure that the personal portfolio of The Investor or The Accumulator is more complex than simple the FTSE ALL World Index. But They are not average investors.
    For my grandma the suggestion of Lars is very wise. If you are very disciplined and patient invetor read the The Big Secret for the Small Investor (by Joel Greenblatt) too.

  • 6 Gregory February 10, 2015, 3:16 pm
  • 7 Lars Kroijer February 10, 2015, 6:08 pm

    I am incredibly humbled and undeserving of being put next to those other names in the list (and this is not false modesty talking).

    For what it is worth I have not bought anything other than index trackers for my public market portfolio since early 2008 (other than $5,000 as a favor to a friend in a micro cap company (that has since declined 90%+…)), both in bonds and stocks. Among other advantages I find the time savings of not actively trading stocks incredible.

    Also what I’m pretty sure Buffett meant the 90/10 split for investors with a fairly significant asset base (I think he meant himself if not an active investor). Someone without tons of money or generally risk averse should do far less in equities. Just a thought.

  • 8 Steve February 10, 2015, 6:36 pm


    From the numbers you’ve given then you’ve got just under 62 units that are worth £13610, so each unit is approximately £220.
    To get your £1600 then you’d need to sell 7.27 which would round up to 8 if you can’t sell part units.

  • 9 dawn February 10, 2015, 9:21 pm

    thankyou steve

  • 10 dearieme February 10, 2015, 10:30 pm

    “scavenging for the Financial Times out of the wastepaper bins?” I didn’t know that anyone else did that.

  • 11 dearieme February 10, 2015, 10:36 pm

    “Why do you feel cash would be better than bonds?” One reason for Buffet’s advice sticks out: he has such humungous quantities of moolah that his estate couldn’t hold much of its assets in cash and enjoy investor protection. So he replaces cash by short bonds. For me there is no such problem. Anyway, at the mo’ there are loss-leader current accounts paying far more than any bond of comparable risk. Far, far more.

  • 12 The Investor February 11, 2015, 1:05 am

    @Rob W — If you (figure of speech! 🙂 ) believe you have an edge, try investing actively, honestly track your returns (including all costs, unitised, with no funny business), and compare yourself with a range of appropriate benchmarks. If you beat them over several years, then maybe at that point think about how much risk you took (I don’t have a great deal of truck with risk-adjustment and all that, but if you put half your money in Tesla at $30 then it’s likely you don’t have a repeatable process… 🙂 )

    If you can do that for 30 years, perhaps you had skill/edge though as far as I can tell from the research you’ll never be entirely sure. Which is a pretty existentially troubling position for anyone intellectually honest with themselves!

    The great thing about investing is the scoreboard is very clear. I’ve never said people shouldn’t have a crack at beating the market if they fancy it, provided they know the weight of evidence is against them and preferably if they have other, better, reasons for giving it a go. As you say, I try my best. 🙂

    @grlla — I didn’t know that actually! It’s too good a quote to ever die though.

    @Michael — If you follow my link there, it’s a specific article I wrote about new investors, and it’s typically what I suggest to new people. I’ve long thought equities were enough to be going on with when trying to get people started with investing, and a 50% cash mattress keeps them feeling safe. The important thing is to get started. Most people will never spend 5 minutes on Monevator or take any interest in learning about any of this. So keeping it really simple works.

    All that said, cash is a lovely and under-rated asset class for private investors, especially nowadays, and I echo @dearieme’s comments on its utility.

    @Gregory — My portfolio is weird and wonderful indeed. T.A.’s is pretty straightforward, as I understand it, though slightly complicated by his mortgage shenanigans.

    @Lars — I think your actions speak volumes, and underline why you were the perfect person to write your book, and to be in this collection!

    @Steve/Dawn — Thanks Steve. Dawn if you could note down those numbers please I’d like to clean this off-topic stuff off this thread. (I am toying again with switching on the Monevator discussion forum, which would be a better place for this kind of thing. 🙂 )

    @dearieme — Yes, I was speaking from experience there too. I had a whole footnote about my cheapo media consumption habits (nearly everyone throws away the Sunday Times business section on the tube!) but it spoiled the flow so I deleted it.

  • 13 Gregory February 11, 2015, 9:55 am

    @Lars By the way Your book is very, very GOOD! I suggest it to everybody. For people who know nothing about investments and for brave investors. It is very useful for brave investors because it reminds us to the risks. It is sobering for reckless investors.

  • 14 Jeff February 11, 2015, 10:17 pm

    1 The more money that goes into passive investing, the better the chances of the best managed active portfolios outperforming.
    2 I try to select Investment Trusts where the manager has a 10 year record of outperforming a RELEVANT index. If selecting only from that pool, my chances of finding some of the few true outperformers should be increased.

  • 15 The Investor February 12, 2015, 12:35 am

    @Jeff — I am not sure (1) is right? I think their *chances* of outperforming are the same as before (zero sum game and all that). However I think you might see *more* out-performance if/when the ‘best’ do outperform — because presumably the more money that is invested passively, the more inefficient the market becomes (albeit from pretty efficient to still likely very efficient in all foreseeable scenarios).

    It’s all moot though for most people, because most don’t outperform.

    Good luck! 🙂

  • 16 Gregory February 12, 2015, 12:19 pm

    I love passive investing but premiums too. Imagine there is only one premium for example value*. Let’s say more and more people discover it and ivest in it so the value premium fades away.
    But there are more and more premiums discovered (sure will be even more in the future) like small, momentum, high quality, low-vol, etc. So people chasing premiums will invest small money in one premium and won’t fully exploit one premium. Not mention the shaky hands.

    * Warren Buffett said in 1985, “I have seen no trend toward value investing in the 35 years I’ve practiced it. There seems to be some perverse human characteristic that likes to make easy things difficult.”

  • 17 david February 13, 2015, 8:01 pm

    @Gregory – Return premiums seem to be an academic mythology:

    People who try for these premiums are probably throwing money down the drain and would do better in plain cheaper index funds.

    I think Buffett used leverage quite a bit. Using leverage is not only difficult but ultra-dangerous because of the risks of using debt, and value investing is also difficult because stock-picking is difficult in itself. Many stocks that pass the value test are bad buys because that’s how it is in the markets. That Buffett quote looks good but it’s basically very misleading.

  • 18 MarketFox February 13, 2015, 9:57 pm

    Thanks for your post.

    I agree wholeheartedly that most investors should use index funds. Where I disagree is the reason why they should use an index fund.

    It’s not because the market is impossible to beat, but rather because:
    1. Most ordinary people don’t have the time, interest or knowledge to do it.
    2. Most professional investors fail to beat the market because the industry incentivizes them to invest in such a way that they’ll never beat the market (but they will make a lot of money in fees).

    The second point leads to an obvious and interesting question (ignored by most people in the active vs passive debate): what happens if you invest differently to most professionals, can you beat the market?

    The answer to this question seems to be yes – if you have the right set of circumstances.

    This question is considered in detail on my blog: http://www.marketfox.org . For example:

    Why do most professional investors underperform the market?


    How should we think about short-to-medium-term underperformance?


    Why beating the market requires investing differently (and why most professional investors are incentivized not to invest this way).



    Why using statistics can’t really help us to find strategies and fund managers that can beat the market (and a suggestion on what might help):


    Summary of research by Cambridge associates on what market-beating fund managers have in common:


  • 19 The Investor February 14, 2015, 8:52 am

    @MarketFox — Your blog looks interesting, but can you please limit the link deluge in comments? I don’t mind one now and then when relevant, but this is a bit much. Cheers!

  • 20 MarketFox February 14, 2015, 9:31 am

    OK, no worries. As you’ve probably guessed it’s a topic that I’m passionate about.

  • 21 The Savvy Fund February 14, 2015, 3:31 pm

    I’ve been a fan of passive investing for some years. However, after some great Monevator articles I’m starting to reconsider. Especially after reading that active investing is a ‘zero sum game’.

    Sadly, the charges on active funds are still too high, and that loads the odds against them beating my portfolio of passive ETFs.

    However, there are a few (not more than 15) active general investment trusts that have charges comparable to my passive ETFs. Or so small as to make no difference i.e. less than 20 bps. I’m comparing these investment trusts to ETFs as the platform costs are the same for me.

    With the cost issue neutralised, it follows that if I were a monkey and selecting those investment trusts at random, I have a 50/50 chance of beating the comparable passive ETF.

    But I’m not. Like Monevator readers (as a class) I’m much more interested in investing than a monkey, or indeed the average Joe Bloggs. So surely I should have some ability to identify alpha, however small or marginal?

    Indeed, the only reason for me (or Monevator readers as a class) to favour passive ETFs, would be if my/our interest in investing actually results in negative alpha.

    That makes no sense at all. And I’m not aware of evidence that the more an investor learns, the worse he does statistically.

  • 22 The Investor February 14, 2015, 4:00 pm

    Hi @SF — I’m not 100% sure what you’re saying here. Do you mean “a fan of active investing” in the first sentence?

    I’m not aware of evidence that the more an investor learns, the worse he does statistically.

    I’ve read research showing that for instance pension fund trustees and their advisers together reduce returns, because they suffer from the usual psychological biases, such as over-confidence and loss aversion, plus the need to be seen to do something. Together this means they for instance sell under-performing funds at lows, and move into recently popular/winning funds, shortly before they mean revert.

    You may be able to do differently or better than experts paid six-figure sums for making these decisions, only you can know that from your records. But I wouldn’t see why the average person should expect to. 🙂

  • 23 The Savvy Fund February 14, 2015, 4:42 pm

    I have been a fan of PASSIVE investing, but am reconsidering if this is correct.

    Your third paragraph again raises the cost point. But it is not the point I’m making here. The relevant scenario is where passive/active costs are essentially the same.

    Yes, some fund managers may sell out at the wrong time. But using your ‘zero sum game’ points, doesn’t that mean another fund manger is buying in well?

    The point is surely the average Monevator reader is more skilled than the average random monkey? If so, he or she can only make a return on that skill by buying the same cost IT in my example. A monkey can buy an ETF but if a Monevator reader does so, it seems a waste.

    I have nothing against monkeys, by the way.

  • 24 The Investor February 14, 2015, 5:21 pm

    Ah, I see. Yes, cost is the main issue. If you can buy active funds that truly cost the same to run as passive funds (or not prohibitively more) then the issue becomes one of selecting the active funds that don’t diverge much from the market (tracking error) or rather diverge the way you want them too (outperformance! 🙂 ).

    Yes, when it comes to selecting an active fund, in any particular year in mainstream markets then a coin flip could well do the trick. Half the active money (not funds but total money invested) will do better, and half worse. But there’s not much evidence of outperformance over time, and as you can imagine you’re not the first to look for a method to discover it.

    You keep talking about people being more skillful etc. I really have to stress I don’t think most private investors have demonstrable skill, and this goes for those who’ve been reading Investor’s Chronicle for decades, reading all the literature and so forth. On the contrary, the more I’ve encountered them, the less confident I am that you can even learn much about investing. This has nothing to do with intelligence etc. (For instance, from memory highly intelligent engineers demonstrate some of the worst active investment returns when stock picking).

    As you may or may not know, I invest actively. I know myself, my returns, and that I’m a weird oddity. 🙂 I definitely do not expect my own specs to translate to the Monevator audience writ large, and certainly not to the wider world.

    Also, I’d not invest actively if I had to only use active funds. 90% of my actively invested money (of about 80% of my total portfolio — the rest is in passives) is in direct stock picks. I think it’s easier to pick stocks then winning funds, and believe me I don’t think it’s easy to pick stocks. 🙂

    In the past I’ve been reasonably comfortable directing those who want to invest actively towards equity income investment trusts, but given their premiums and the implicit premium on their underlying holdings at the moment, I’m not even comfortable with those currently. Eclectic picks are the order of the day IMHO.

    The main issue is why bother? Unless you’re very lucky (you pick 1-3 funds out of thousands and they’re all top 5% performers over several decades) you’re probably not going to beat the market by more than 1-2% a year even with low cost active funds that outperform their peers (and remember, the evidence is most don’t — but we’re playing hypotheticals here).

    For most people, that’s just not important or interesting. They are much better off getting the market return, avoiding the risk of doing much worse, and spending their time either earning more money or generating an income some more reliable way than beating the market (trading antiques on eBay or something) or doing something else that has nothing to do with money, such as walking along the beach on Sunday afternoons.

  • 25 The Investor February 14, 2015, 5:24 pm

    p.s. The above thoughts are why Monevator has moved much more towards passive over the years. I’d get lots of traffic, link love, Twitter followers and so forth if I wrote more articles about sexy stocks and their gyrations, but I think the passive focus fills a much more important niche, given it’s likely to be superior for the vast majority of readers. If active funds as a group ever do get very nearly as cheap as trackers (maybe massive consolidation in the industry and so on) I might reconsider, but to be honest in that sort of world you’d even more have to look for rare oddities doing weird things to truly outperform I suspect, and at the risk of doing much worse. So again, likely Monevator will always be passive focussed now. 🙂

  • 26 The Savvy Fund February 14, 2015, 6:47 pm

    Thanks, good points.

    In every walk of life I can think of, whether tennis, football, cooking, chess, art or darts, it is possible to distinguish whether one has skill in that pursuit, and better than the average participant.

    I’m not convinced that investing is, over time, an exception to that.

    What I do get, however, is that one can be self deluded into thinking you’re better than the rest, as it’s so personal and difficult to judge objectively. And no-one knows when the final whistle will blow, for scores to be added up and your own performance laid bare for all to see. So self delusion can continue for a long time.

    But I think what you are saying is that no private investor has sufficient skill to achieve meaningful positive alpha?


  • 27 The Investor February 14, 2015, 6:59 pm

    I think what you are saying is that no private investor has sufficient skill to achieve meaningful positive alpha?

    No, definitely not. I am saying I think that most don’t (say 95% as a guess) and of the 1-5% who do, perhaps half might be unlucky or give up in bad years or similar so never even know it. But these are figures I’m pulling out of the air, I don’t have any evidence.

    (The number showing evidence of independent market-beating over multiple years against a genuine benchmark (i.e. Not picking small caps then comparing yourself to the FTSE 100 or similar) would tend towards 0% I suspect. So on reflection I am probably being generous with 1-5% 🙂 Less than 1% of active managers beat the market according to some research, which also argues none do adjusted for risk, but there is a cost drag there. Incidentally, as I linked to the other day active fund managers don’t even beat the market as a group in the PERSONAL portfolios!)

    In every walk of life I can think of, whether tennis, football, cooking, chess, art or darts, it is possible to distinguish whether one has skill in that pursuit, and better than the average participant.

    Fair enough, but in case these questions are new to you (I’m not sure 🙂 ) you have to understand all this has been gone over 1,000 times in all kinds of research projects and so forth, for at least 50 years.

    Most people instinctively feel the same as you do, which is why active investing still exists as an industry and passive investing feels so weird. Rich people spend billions try to find alpha. You and I are in our spare bedrooms, with a hunch.

    You might want to read The Success Equation or some of the Internet summaries of it as a start.

    I’ll leave the discussion for now though. 🙂

  • 28 Cats T February 14, 2015, 7:50 pm

    Great discussion!! From post 24 ……. 80% of Monevators portfolio is in active stocks??????

  • 29 The Investor February 14, 2015, 8:44 pm

    @Cats — Remember there are two of us. The Accumulator is the main passive guru here on the blog. I recruited him about 5 years ago now, as I realized I was drifting irreversibly to the dark side.

    You can read up on our three-part debate from last Christmas for more background. 🙂

  • 30 kean February 19, 2015, 6:17 pm

    Hi TI, very interesting article and ensuing exchanges. Not sure I buy into some of the rational which prompted me to think how I have invested over the years & why.

    Up until 2-3yrs ago, my primary focus was active funds, shares, bonds, VCT/AIMS, a couple of carefully selected start-ups and cash. In the last couple of year+, I have started transitioning into passives (i.e. funds & EFTs).

    My primary drivers were always: 1) interest in the dynamics and wanting to understand the Why/How something works; and 2) bottom-line returns over time.

    Never have I once thought I have an edge & can do better. I don’t think many private investors do; they may however think they will get lucky (a form of gamble) or buy into the notion that its time in the market and eventually will come good.

    Focusing on active funds for now – I always bought in to the fund managers so called track record and the rationale for why their fund was different and best since. Put crudely – rationalised marketing hype.

    Also, a couple of random thoughts:
    1) I think for most investors Risk is about perception and rarely, if ever, probability is factored in to assessing risk associated with an investment.
    2) access to info/intelligence when investing is one thing but getting & using it at optimum time within its proper context is something else. Most like me either don’t have the time or skills or inclination or perhaps all of the above.

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