I intended on writing this at some point, but Dr. Wesley Gray (an acquaintance of mine, and whom I respect) beat me to the punch. As he said in his blog post at The Wall Street Journal’s The Experts blog:
WESLEY GRAY: Imagine the following theoretical investment opportunity: Investors can invest in a fund that will beat the market by 5% a year over the next 10 years. Of course, there is the catch: The path to outperformance will involve a five-year stretch of poor relative performance. “No problem,” you might think—buy and hold and ignore the short-term noise.
Easier said than done.
Consider Ken Heebner, who ran the CGM Focus Fund, a diversified mutual fund that gained 18% annually, and was Morningstar Inc.’s highest performer of the decade ending in 2009. The CGM Focus fund, in many respects, resembled the theoretical opportunity outlined above. But the story didn’t end there: The average investor in the fund lost 11% annually over the period.
What happened? The massive divergence in the fund’s performance and what the typical fund investor actually earned can be explained by the “behavioral return gap.”
The behavioral return gap works as follows: During periods of strong fund performance, investors pile in, but when fund performance is at its worst, short-sighted investors redeem in droves. Thus, despite a fund’s sound long-term process, the “dollar-weighted” returns, or returns actually achieved by investors in the fund, lag substantially.
In other words, fund managers can deliver a great long-term strategy, but investors can still lose.
That’s why I wanted to write this post. Ken Heebner is a really bright guy, and has the strength of his convictions, but his investors don’t in general have similar strength of convictions. As such, his investors buy high and sell low with his funds. The graph at the left is from the CGM Focus Fund, as far back as I could get the data at the SEC’s EDGAR database. The fund goes all the way back to late 1997, and had a tremendous start for which I can’t find the cash flow data.
The column marked flows corresponds to a figure called “Change in net assets derived from capital share transactions” from the Statement of Changes in Net Assets in the annual and semi-annual reports. This is all public data, but somewhat difficult to aggregate. I do it by hand.
I use annual cashflows for most of the calculation. For the buy and hold return, i got the data from Yahoo Finance, which got it from Morningstar.
Note the pattern of cashflows is positive until the financial crisis, and negative thereafter. Also note that more has gone into the fund than has come out, and thus the average investor has lost money. The buy-and-hold investor has made money, what precious few were able to do that, much less rebalance.
This would be an ideal fund to rebalance. Talented manager, will do well over time. Add money when he does badly, take money out when he does well. Would make a ton of sense. Why doesn’t it happen? Why doesn’t at least buy-and-hold happen?
It doesn’t happen because there is a Asset-Liability mismatch. It doesn’t matter what the retail investors say their time horizon is, the truth is it is very short. If you underperform for less than a few years, they yank funds. The poetic justice is that they yank the funds just as the performance is about to turn.
Practically, the time horizon of an average investor in mutual funds is inversely proportional to the volatility of the funds they invest in. It takes a certain amount of outperformance (whether relative or absolute) to get them in, and a certain amount of underperformance to get them out. The more volatile the fund, the more rapidly that happens. And Ken Heebner is so volatile that the only thing faster than his clients coming and going, is how rapidly he turns the portfolio over, which is once every 4-5 months.
Pretty astounding I think. This highlights two main facts about retail investing that can’t be denied.
- Asset prices move a lot more than fundamentals, and
- Most investors chase performance
These two factors lie behind most of the losses that retail investors suffer over the long run, not active management fees. remember as well that passive investing does not protect retail investors from themselves. I have done the same analyses with passive portfolios — the results are the same, proportionate to volatility.
I know buy-and-hold gets a bad rap, and it is not deserved. Take a few of my pieces from the past:
If you are a retail investor, the best thing you can do is set an asset allocation between risky and safe assets. If you want a spit-in-the-wind estimate use 120 minus your age for the percentage in risky assets, and the rest in safe assets. Rebalance to those percentages yearly. If you do that, you will not get caught in the cycle of greed and panic, and you will benefit from the madness of strangers who get greedy and panic with abandon. (Why 120? End of the mortality table. 😉 Take it from an investment actuary. 😉 We’re the best-kept secret in the financial markets. 😀 )
Okay, gotta close this off. This is not the last of this series. I will do more dollar-weighted returns. As far as retail investing goes, it is the most important issue. Period.