Philadelphia Reflections

The musings of a physician who has served the community for over six decades

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Beware the Middle-man: Common Stock Index Fund Earnings are Not the Same as Investor Returns.

There's quite a lot to passive investing if you mean running an Index fund. The rewards of this hired complexity can nevertheless be lost by carelessness in choosing an expensive middle-man. Or even by having a reliable agent who works for an organization, remorselessly devoted to its own income maximization -- in the middle. Or having a small reliable agency bought out by a corporate raider with entirely different goals from the ones you thought you selected. But if your long-term common stock index results approach 10% total return, at least you have passed the first test. As my mother repeatedly told her granddaughters: Don't marry the first man who asks you.

Asset Allocation Managing the funds of a Health Savings Account has important similarity to managing a pension or endowment fund. An important distinction: healthcare imposes random cash requirements on an HSA, compared with the steady, predictable cash requirements of an endowment fund. After the Health Savings Account has matured to a steady state, its fund balance becomes predictable, just as cash balances in a big bank eventually do. Nevertheless, the HSA is probably destined to require larger cash reserves while maturing, and the second period of the volatility after age fifty, when more serious illnesses get more frequent. On top of that, when a securities crash comes along, it may take as long as two years for the market average to stop falling, and as long as three years to recover. That's by contrast with normal ripples in the markets, where 90% of important gains or losses are made in 10% of time periods. The rest of the time the market dawdles.

If most "dips" are followed by recoveries, why not just wait it out? Here, almost all organizations have the same problem of "meeting the payroll". The uproar of being late with a payroll must be experienced to be believed. While most employees will quietly accept a short, reasonable delay, the few who are stretched by a brief interruption for any reason, can be very vocal. The financial management of any fund faces the same issue and is very reluctant to repeat it. All of them face the possibility of some sudden decline in the value of the portfolio when at first it would be general opinion it is wiser to avoid selling from the portfolio and wait for a quick recovery. Reserve portfolios are set aside for sudden cash requirements, of course, but human nature induces most people to wait and hope for better times. In more tangible terms, it is generally the business of the investment manager to cope with a lot of small waves, but only the Board of Directors can decide to liquidate the whole reserve. In for-profit situations, there is also a question of paying taxes.

Conventional advice is to maintain a portfolio of 60% stocks, 40% bonds, with the cash flow from the bonds intended to bridge the gaps. Since bonds pay less than stocks, the overall portfolio yield is lowered. If interest rates are unusually low, it may be the bond component which is itself the risk, but at least in theory, mixed assets "balance the risk." As a consequence, an 8% steady yield from an endowment or pension fund is the best performance many professionals expect, with most funds even happy to achieve 7.5%. But happiness is relative. We have just demonstrated the first step in how a 10% total return can turn into 4%. You're already down to 7.5%.

Originally published: Wednesday, December 03, 2014; most-recently modified: Sunday, July 21, 2019