We certainly live in a brave new world. Welcome to the age of passive investing where almost half of all dollars are now invested in index fund strategies with the singular goal of “tracking the market.” That is double the level seen a decade ago and quadruple the level seen only two decades ago.
And, most actively-managed mutual funds – those run by human beings making decisions – are tightly hugging as close as possible to their market-based yardstick. This practice is known as “closet indexing.” Their marketing departments basically demand this lemming-like behavior.
For all intents and purposes, this means the vast majority of money is blindly following, not leading. The question is, to where is it leading?
Let’s examine what a typical balanced portfolio made up of index funds really looks like for the average passive investor.
Within the stock segment, a conventional approach would call for you to own a big dollop of large company stocks along with smaller helpings of mid- and small-sized companies and some international stocks. Within the bond portfolio, a conventional approach would lead you to own a mixture of risk-free government-backed bonds, corporate bonds and some mortgage-backed bonds.
Using the index funds created by Vanguard – the North Star of the indexing movement – the following is precisely what you’d actually own as an investor.
You’d own truly tiny pieces in 506 large companies, 348 mid-sized companies, 1,438 smaller companies and minute slices of 6,176 international companies. On top of that, you’d also own infinitesimally small pieces of 8,174 bonds. Together, you’d own 16,642 individual stocks and bonds.
Viewed another way, for a hypothetical $500,000 balanced portfolio, your biggest stock holdings would be in Apple, Microsoft, Facebook and Amazon and these big bets would represent only about $3,000 each. In addition to these well-known success stories, you’d also have thousands of other investments with an average size of $50 each.
As absurd as this portfolio diversification sounds, it’s important to highlight the primary benefit of the passive, index fund approach. Since no single human being is expending any thought on the investments being made or the risks being taken, the cost of investing in index funds is basically zero. Think about it, you get to invest in over 16,000 securities and it costs you nearly nothing.
Let’s now examine the state of the investment markets. Our current bull market phase is now in its ninth year. Stock prices are at levels only seen at market peaks. Bond yields rest at near-historic lows. And, we live in a world that’s increasingly drawn to artificial intelligence and automation, including entrusting it to manage a person’s life savings. Hmm…
We do live in a brave new world.