Book Review: The Fundamental Index

The Fundamental IndexThe books keep rolling in; I keep reviewing. Given that I am a generalist, perhaps this is a good task for me. Before I start for the evening, though, because I know the material relatively well, I skimmed the book, and read the parts that I thought were the most critical.

The Religious War Over Indexing

Passive investors are often passionate investors when it comes to what they think is right and wrong. For market cap or float-weighted indexers:

  • The market is efficient!
  • Keep expenses low!
  • Don’t trade fund positions!
  • Fundholders buy and hold!
  • Tax efficiency!
  • Weight by market cap or float!

For fundamental indexers:

  • The market is inefficient (in specific gameable ways).
  • Keep expenses relatively low.
  • Adjust internal fund positions as valuations change!
  • Fundholders buy and hold!
  • Relative tax efficiency!
  • Weight by fundamental value!

Some of the arguments in Journals like the Financial Analysts Jounrnal have been heated. The two sides believe in their positions passionately.

For purposes of this review, I’m going to call the first group classical indexers, and the second group fundamental indexers. The first group asks the following question: “How can I get the average return out of a class of publicly buyable assets?” The answer is easy. Buy the same fraction of shares of every member of the class of assets. The neat part about this answer, is everyone can do it. The entirety of shares could be owned in such a manner. Aside from buyouts and replacements for companies bought out, the turnover is non-existent. Net new cash replicates existing positions.

The fundamental indexer asks a different question, namely: “What common accounting (or other) variables, relatively standard across companies, are indicators of the likely future value of the firm? Let’s set up a portfolio that weights the positions by the estimated future values.” Estimates of future value get updated periodically and the weights change as well, so there is more trading.

Now, not all fundamental indexers are the same. They have different proxies for value — dividend yield, earnings yield, sales, book value, cash flow, free cash flow, etc. They will come to different answers. Even with the different answers, not everyone could fundamentally index, because at some point the member of the asset class with the highest ratio of fundamental weight as a ratio of float weight will be bought up in entire. No one else would be able to replicate the fundamental weightings.

So, why all of the fuss? Well, in tests going back to 1962, the particular method of fundamental indexing that the authors use would beat the S&P 500 by 2%/year. That’s worth the fuss. Now, I have kind of a middle position on this. I think that fundamental indexing is superior to classic indexing, so long as it is not overdone as a strategy. Fundamental indexing is just another form of enhanced indexing, tilting the portfolio to value, and smaller cap, both of which tend to lead to outperformance. It also allows for sector and company-level rebalancing changes from valuation changes, which also aids outperformance. In one sense fundamental weighting reminds me of Tobin’s Q — it is an attempt to back into replacement cost. Buy more of the assets with low market to replacement cost ratios.

But to me, it is a form of enhanced indexing rather than indexing, because everyone can’t do it. Fundamental Indexing will change valuations in the marketplace as it becomes a bigger strategy, wiping out some of its advantages. The same is not true of classic indexing, which just buys a fixed fraction of a total asset class.

Though the book is about fundamental indexing, and the intellectual and market battle versus classic indexing, there are many other topics touched on in the book, including:

  • Asset Allocation — best done with forward looking estimates of earnings yields (another case of if everyone did this, it wouldn’t work.. but everyone doesn’t do it. Ask Jeremy Grantham…)
  • The difference to investors between dollar vs time weighted returns by equity style and sector. (Value and Large lose less to bad trading on the part of fund investors… in general, the more volatile, the more fund investors lose from bad market timing.)
  • A small section on assumptions behind the Capital Asset Pricing Model, and how none of them are true. (Trying to show that a cap-weighted portfolio would not be optimal…)
  • And a section on how future returns from stocks are likely to be lower than what we have experienced over the last half century.

One more note: I finally got how fundamental weighting might work with bonds, though it is not explained well in the book. Weight the bond holdings toward what your own models think they should be worth one year from now. That’s not the way the book explains it, but it is how I think it could be reasonably implemented.

The Verdict

I recommend the book. The authors are Bob Arnott, Jason Hsu, and John West. At 260 pages of main text, and a lot of graphs, it is a reasonable read. The tone is occasionally strident toward classic indexing, which to me is still a good strategy, just not as good as fundamental indexing. (It sounds like Bob wrote most of the book from a tone standpoint… but I could be wrong.)

Who should buy this book? Academics interested in the debate, and buyers of indexed equity products should buy the book. It is well-written, and ably sets forth the case for fundamental indexing.

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