"As I see it, the plain and simple, well-armed, lightly-dressed, unencumbered shepherd is the index fund, a portfolio holding all 500 stocks in the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index. The David approach to investing, then, is 'buy a diversified portfolio of stocks operated at rock-bottom costs, and hold it forever.' The index fund relies on simple arithmetic, a mathematical tautology that could be calculated by a second grader: gross return in the stock market, minus the frictional costs of investing, equals the net return that is shared by all investors as a group. Taking the lion's share of those costs out of the equation is the key to successful long-term investing.
In contrast, many (most?) Goliaths of academia and quantitative investing believe the contrary: the application of multiple complex equations—the language of science and technology, of engineering and mathematics (yes, STEM), developed with computers processing Big Data, and trading stocks at the speed of light—make our Goliaths far stronger and more powerful than are we indexing Davids. The question posed in my title is essentially, 'who wins?'—the arithmetic quants or the algorithmic quants."
In the early days, when the hedge fund Goliaths* were individually smaller in size and part of a much smaller industry (assets of $ 120 billion in 1997), annualized returns were impressive: 11.8 percent vs 7.2 percent for the S&P 500 from 1990 to 2008.
By 2008, the Goliaths had $ 1.4 trillion in assets that have now grown to roughly $ 2.8 trillion and their relative performance has suffered a bunch: 5.3 percent vs 13.5 percent for the S&P 500 from 2009 to 2016.
Will there prove to be, in the long run, any advantage to all this additional complexity? Is the additional size the main cause of the more recent underperformance? Is it the additional competition from capable individuals entering what is, if nothing else, a potentially rather lucrative profession? Or is it the addition of less capable managers entering the industry? For Bogle this all just reflects what is an inevitable reversion to the mean. The extra muscle and heavy armor -- in terms of industry assets -- has certainly led to huge compensation for the Goliaths.
(Bogle estimates ~$ 84 billion in annual fees while The New York Times reported that the top 25 managers alone were paid an average of $ 465 million in 2014.)
In any case, not unlike the classic battle, all that additional muscle and armor didn't make the Hedge Fund Goliaths a more formidable opponent to the indexing Davids; instead, it appears -- at least based upon the more recent results -- to have made them vulnerable to a much simpler and low cost approach.
The range of outcomes is also a concern. Over the past 5 years, according to Bogle, individual hedge fund returns have been between -91 percent to 157 percent.
These Goliaths may perform much better in the future, of course. There's, as always, just no way to know. Yet I think it's fair to ask whether such long-term outcomes deserves so much time, talent, and capital especially when much less costly, simple, and effective alternatives exist.
If nothing else, over the long haul, the headwind coming from all the frictional costs is no small thing for most to overcome. Some exceptional managers no doubt will overcome those costs -- whether through pure chance or skill or a bit of both -- but that doesn't change the reality that a hedge fund with typical fees must outperform by ~3 percent each year just to keep up with the indexing Davids.
Hedge Funds: Balancing Risk & Reward?
Index Funds vs Actively Managed Funds
John Bogle on Investor Returns
Buffett's Hedge Fund Bet
John Bogle's "Relentless Rules of Humble Arithmetic", Part II
Index Fund Investing Revisited
Charlie Munger on Complexity, Hedge Funds, and Pension Funds
Why Do So Many Investors Underperform?
When Mutual Funds Outperform Their Investors
John Bogle's "Relentless Rules of Humble Arithmetic"
Investor Overconfidence Revisited
Newton's Fourth Law
Chasing "Rearview-Mirror Performance"
Index Fund Investing
Investors Are Often Their Own Worst Enemies, Part II
Investors Are Often Their Own Worst Enemies
The Illusion of Skill
Buffett's Bet Against Hedge Funds, Part II
Buffett's Bet Against Hedge Funds
The Illusion of Control
Charlie Munger on LTCM & Overconfidence
"Nothing But Costs"
When Genius Failed...Again
* It's worth noting the wide variety of investment and trading strategies employed by hedge funds. Still, what most have in common is vastly greater complexity and cost.
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