The Growing Case Against ETFs

That’s the title of a Marketwatch article by mutual fund columnist Chuck Jaffe.  I have to admit that usually I like his columns.  But columns like this make me nuts!  (See also The $ Value of Patience for an earlier rant on a similar topic.)

Here’s the thesis in a nutshell:

…safe driving comes down to a mix of equipment and personnel.

The same can be said for mutual funds and exchange-traded funds, and while there is growing consensus that ETFs are the better vehicle, there’s growing evidence that the people using them may not be so skilled behind the wheel.

The article goes on to point out that newsletters with model portfolios of mutual funds and ETFs have disparate results.

Over the last 12 months, the average model portfolio of traditional funds—as tracked by Hulbert Financial Digest—was up 20.9%, a full three points better than the average ETF portfolio put together by the same advisers and newsletter editors. The discrepancy narrows to two full percentage points over the last decade, and Hulbert noted he was only looking at advisers who run portfolios on both sides of the aisle.

Hulbert posited that if you give one manager both vehicles, the advantages of the better structure should show up in performance.

It didn’t.

Hulbert—who noted that the performance differences are “persistent” — speculated “that ETFs’ advantages are encouraging counterproductive behavior.” Effectively, he bought into Bogle’s argument and suggested that if you give an investor a trading vehicle, they will trade it more often.

Does it make any sense to blame the vehicle for the poor driving?  (Not to mention that DALBAR data make it abundantly clear that mutual fund drivers frequently put themselves in the ditch.)  Would it make sense to run a headline like “The Growing Case Against Stocks” because stocks can be traded?

Mutual funds, ETFs, and other investment products exist to fulfill specific needs.  Obviously not every product is right for every investor, but there are thousands of good products that will help investors meet their goals.  When that doesn’t happen, it’s usually investor behavior that’s to blame.  (And you’re not under any obligation to invest in a particular product.  If you don’t understand it, or you get the sinking feeling that your advisor doesn’t either, you should probably run the other way.)

Investors engage in counterproductive behavior all the time, period.  It’s not a matter of encouraging it or not.  It happens in every investment vehicle and the problem is almost always the driver.  In fact, advisors that can help manage counterproductive investor behavior are worth their weight in gold.   We’re not going to solve problems involving investor behavior by blaming the product.

A certain amount of common sense has to be applied to investing, just like it does in any other sphere of life.  I know that people try to sue McDonald’s for “making” them fat or put a cup of coffee between their legs and then sue the drive-thru that served it when they get burned, but whose responsibility is that really?  We all know the answer to that.

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