Investment Advice: Swensen Update

The always sensible David Swensen has an interview with the Yale Alumni Magazine that everybody with capital should read. (He has written two books on investing: One for institutional investors, and one for individual investors.)  Naturally, it concords with my general investing advice here.  He slams the actively managed mutual fund industry (“The mutual fund industry is not an investment management industry. It’s a marketing industry.”) and urges individual investors to focus on index investing.

The investor is bombarded with staggering amounts of information, staggering amounts of stimuli that are designed to get the investor to buy and sell and trade, to do exactly the wrong thing, to create excessive profits for these intermediaries that aren’t acting in the investor’s best interests.

Asset allocation is the tool that you use to determine the risk and return characteristics of your portfolio. It’s overwhelmingly important in terms of the results you achieve. In fact, studies show that asset allocation is responsible for more than 100 percent of the positive returns generated by investors.

[T]he other two factors, security selection and market timing, are a net negative. That’s not surprising. They’re what economists would call zero-sum games. If somebody wins by buying Microsoft, then there has to be a loser on the other side who sold Microsoft. If it were free to trade Microsoft, the amount by which the winner wins would equal the amount by which the loser loses. But it’s not free. It costs money. It costs money in the form of market impact and commissions if you’re trading for your own account, and it costs money in terms of paying fancy fees if you are relying upon an investment advisor or mutual fund to make these security-specific decisions. For the community as a whole, all those fees are a drag on returns.

That’s why the most sensible approach is to come up with specific asset allocation targets that you can implement with low-cost, passively managed index funds and rebalance regularly. You’ll end up beating the overwhelming majority of participants in the financial markets.

On the terrible herd instincts of the average individual investor:


One of the great ironies is that if you had talked to the average investor 18 months ago, he or she would have thought it was a pretty good idea to buy stocks. In recent months, the same investors despair about their portfolio and are fearful about putting money into the equity market.

That’s 180 degrees wrong. They should have been cautious 18 months ago, when prices were much higher than they are now. They should be enthusiastic today.

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