Monthly Archives: September 2016

it’s (still) the economy, stupid

On Monday night, more than eighty million Americans watched our two candidates for president argue more about missing tax returns, deleted emails, and a former beauty queen than the issue that matters most to our country’s health and prosperity: economic growth.

When our economy grows rapidly, as it did during the Reagan and (Bill) Clinton administrations, good things happen. Home ownership increases, budget deficits shrink (Mr. Clinton produced a surplus his last four years), crime drops, and America’s influence increases worldwide. Unfortunately, our gross domestic product hasn’t grown more than four percent a year since the end of the last century, and I don’t see it topping that critical figure again anytime soon.

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tech stocks are still seriously overvalued

Seventeen years ago, I had a front row seat for the nuttiest mania in stock market history. I vividly remember visiting now failed companies like Quokka Sports, Planet RX, Women.com, and Commerce One and listening to their managements confidently predict glowing futures. These firms, and many more, sold above 100x revenues–and they were far from the most overvalued stocks in the market. Other public dotcom companies had no revenues at all. Their stocks soared on nothing more than hopeful business models and lofty expectations of explosive growth.

I was in the ninth year of managing my hedge fund in 1999. It gained 8 percent that year, badly lagging the S&P’s 19 percent return and the Nasdaq’s staggering 85 percent (!) gain. In March of 2000, the Nasdaq hit an all-time high of 5132.52. Then, on March 20th, Barron’s magazine wrote a much publicized article that listed every dotcom by its cash, monthly cash burn, and the number of months before each company would run out of money if it did not raise additional capital. There were 207 companies on that list. A large number went broke. Some of those flameouts, like Pets.com, live on in infamy. The majority of them are only recalled by hardcore stock junkies, especially those who got burned by their implosion.

Remember Be Free, ZapMe!, SmarterKids.com, drkoop.com, and MotherNature.com? Most investors under the age of 35 almost certainly don’t—and that’s a problem, because what happened to those businesses could easily happen to many of the new tech sector darlings. Far more companies in today’s public and private markets will probably become tomorrow’s drkoop.com instead of the next Amazon or Microsoft. And as we saw so vividly in 2000, when the end comes, it comes quickly.

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happy birthday to the index fund

Wednesday marked the fortieth birthday of the most investor-friendly idea in stock market history: the index fund. Forty years ago Vanguard introduced the first fund that merely tracked the S&P 500. It has appreciated 6,334 percent since inception, trailing the S&P by a mere .14 percent annually, all of which was the ‘expense ratio’ charged investors. Few, if any other funds have matched or exceeded this annual return.

Today roughly $5 trillion is invested in index funds. Vanguard is the largest index manager, with over $3 trillion in assets under management (AUM). Other money managers now offer index products alongside their traditional, actively managed funds.

Study after academic study shows that index funds outperform most actively managed funds. The reason is simple. Fees. The average expense ratio for actively managed stock funds is around 1.5 percent. It is somewhat less for fixed income funds. As Vanguard founder John Bogle has convincingly shown, a fund with a 1.5 percent annual fee (and the same pre-fee annual return) will produce a much smaller total return over a multi-year period than a fund with a .14 percent annual fee.

Investors have taken notice. According to the Wall Street Journal, they have invested $409 billion in passive index funds in the last year and pulled $310 billion out of actively managed funds over the same period. Roughly 20 percent of all money in stock funds is now indexed, up from zero 40 years ago.

I suspect this trend will accelerate.

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