MONEY stocks

Virtual Reality Makes Investing — Yes, Investing — Dangerously Fun

StockCity
StockCity from FidelityLabs

A new virtual reality tool from Fidelity makes navigating the stock market feel like a game—for better or worse.

There’s no question: Strapping on an Oculus Rift virtual reality headset and exploring StockCity, Fidelity’s new tool for investors, is oddly thrilling.

Admittedly, the fun may have more to do with the immersive experience of this 3D technology—with goggles that seamlessly shift your perspective as you tilt your head—than with the subject matter.

But I found it surprisingly easy to buy into the metaphor: As you glide through the virtual city that you’ve designed, buildings represent the stocks or ETFs in your portfolio, the weather represents the day’s market performance, and red and green rooftops tell you whether a stock is down or up for the day. Who wants to be a measly portfolio owner when you can instead be the ruler of a dynamic metropolis—a living, breathing personal economy?

Of course, there are serious limits to the tool in its current form. The height of a building represents its closing price on the previous day and the width the trading volume, which tell you nothing about, say, the stock’s historical performance or valuation—let alone whether it’s actually a good investment.

And, unless you’re a reporter like me or one of the 50,000 developers currently in possession of an Oculus Rift, you’re limited to playing with the less exciting 2D version of the program on your monitor (see a video preview below)—at least until a consumer version of the headset comes out in a few months, priced between $200 and $400.

Those flaws notwithstanding, if this technology makes the “gamification” of investing genuinely fun and appealing, that could be big deal. It could be used to better educate the public about the stock market and investing in general.

But it also raises a big question: Should investing be turned into a game, like fantasy sports?

There are dangers inherent in ostensibly educational games like Fidelity’s existing Beat the Benchmark tool, which teaches investing terms and demonstrates how different asset allocations have performed over various time periods. If you beat your benchmark, after all, what have you learned? A lot of research suggests that winning at investing tends to teach people the wrong lesson.

“Investors think that good returns originate from their investment skills, while for bad returns they blame the market,” writes Thomas Post, a finance professor at Maastricht University in the Netherlands and author of one recent study on the subject.

In reality, great performance in the stock market tends to depend more on luck than skill, even for the most expert investors. That’s why most people are best off putting their money into passive index funds and seldom trading. It also means there’s not a lot of value in watching the real-time performance of your stocks—in any number of dimensions.

MONEY retirement planning

This Simple Strategy Can Help You Build a Successful Retirement Plan

Fox and hedgehog
Bob Elsdale—Getty Images

Should you be smart as a fox or wise as a hedgehog in your retirement planning?

No, it’s not a trick question. Nor a trivial one. Indeed, knowing whether you act more like a fox or a hedgehog can help you improve your approach to retirement planning, making for a more enjoyable pre- and post-career life.

The fox vs. hedgehog debate goes back to a statement attributed to the ancient Greek poet Archilochus: “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” Alluding to that line, the philosopher Isaiah Berlin wrote a famous essay in 1953 titled, “The Fox and The Hedgehog.”

The idea behind the fox-hedgehog comparison is that you can divide people into two groups: hedgehogs, who see the world through the prism of a defining principle or idea, and foxes, who focus more on their experiences and the particulars of a given situation. You could say that hedgehogs are more likely to see the big picture, while foxes get into the weeds.

So what does this have to do with retirement planning?

Well, if you’re a fox, you’re always looking for some type of edge or way to exploit circumstances to your advantage. You track the ups and downs of the stock market with an eye toward getting in before a big upswing or out before a crash. You listen to investment pundits, hoping to score tips on stocks or sectors that are supposedly poised to outperform the market. Chances are you’ve been glancing at what the Dow and the S&P 500 have been doing as you’ve been reading this column.

In your continuing efforts to gain an edge, you’re also constantly on the lookout for exciting new investment opportunities—smart beta ETFs, the Bitcoin Trust, whatever—and revolutionary techniques that can enhance your reitrement-planning efforts. You probably believe that finding the best investments is the single most important thing to do to build a sizeable nest egg, when diligent saving actually trumps savvy investing.

If you’re a hedgehog, on the other hand, you’re probably more apt to believe that successful retirement planning comes down to following a few simple principles: saving regularly (preferably by putting your savings on autopilot), making the most of tax-advantaged accounts whenever you can and, to the extent possible these days, not pulling the trigger on retirement until you feel you have a large enough nest egg to give you a good margin of safety on withdrawals (as opposed to relying on some investing black-magic that’s supposed to help you squeeze more out of your assets).

As for new products and cutting-edge strategies, the hedgehog views them with more than a little skepticism and is more likely to see them as a gimmick or distraction than a can’t-miss opportunity. As a hedgehog, you believe it’s unlikely that the Next Big Thing can significantly improve on time-honored strategies like looking for ways to save a bit more, reining in investment costs and building a basic stocks-bonds portfolio that you rebalance periodically. So you’re more likely to pass on the latest fad, knowing that in the financial world, fads come along pretty frequently, and often leave disappointment in their wake.

Full disclosure: I’m primarily in the hedgehog camp. Thirty years of writing about retirement planning and investing has convinced me that true innovation is pretty rare, and that “sophisticated” strategies is often another way of saying “expensive” strategies. I believe that if you get the Big Things right—you save regularly, invest sensibly, set reasonable expectations and monitor your progress—you don’t have to resort to fancy techniques that too often have the potential to blow up on you.

That said, while we may live in a digital world, we humans are not digital. We’re analog. No one is solely a fox or a hedgehog. We may be more one than the other, but we have elements of both. And I think that whether you consider yourself mostly a fox or a hedgehog, you can learn from the other.

If you’re primarily a fox, for example, you might occasionally want to pull back and take a big-picture look at your retirement planning. You want to be sure that have a sound basic strategy in place and that you’re not undermining it by chasing every new product or approach that comes along. To help you improve your focus, you’ll probably want to cultivate some of the hedgehog’s skepticism.

Conversely, if you’re a hedgehog, you want to be careful that you don’t let your wariness about The New New Thing completely shut you off to the possibility of innovative approaches that may improve your planning and your retirement prospects. Truly transformative products, services and strategies may be rare, but they do come along.

ETFs have helped many investors lower investment expenses and their tax bills. New tools that can help you decide when to claim Social Security—which you can find in RDR’s Retirement Toolbox—really do have the potential for dramatically improving many people’s standard of living in retirement. You don’t want your “hedgehoggish” tendency to view the world from 30,000 feet make you overlook something at ground level that that may prove helpful to your planning. To prevent that from happening, try to think like the fox sometimes.

So the next time you’re contemplating your retirement planning, be sure to think like a hedgehog and make sure you’ve got a good overall retirement plan in place. Then make like a fox and see whether there’s anything worthwhile new or interesting that might help you improve your plan, even if incrementally.

Doing this will help you see from both fox’s perspective and the hedgehog’s. And you’ll reap the benefits of thinking, shall we say, like a hedgefox.

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MONEY Ask the Expert

Knowing How Many — or Few — Funds to Own

Investing illustration
Robert A. Di Ieso, Jr.

Q: I have an $800,000 portfolio. How many mutual funds should I own? — Lynn

A: The optimal number of funds will vary depending on your time horizon, tolerance for risk, and exactly what kinds of funds you choose.

That said, if you’re looking to build and manage a diversified portfolio of exchange-traded funds (ETFs) or index mutual funds on your own, a good number is either six or 10, says Bill Valentine, president of Valentine Ventures, a Bend, Ore.-based wealth management firm. This is true, he says, whether you have $800,000 or a more modest portfolio.

Anything more than that many funds will “do nothing for diversification,” Valentine says, and will only add cost and complexity to your strategy.

Let’s start by discussing the whole notion of diversification. To get the best balance of risk and reward, you’ll want to invest in lots of securities across many different asset classes. Investing in ETFs or index mutual funds takes care of the first critical point of diversification since most such funds are composed of hundreds of different securities.

Even so, a single fund focused on a single asset class won’t provide you adequate diversification. Likewise, investing in six funds that all hold, say, large blue chip U.S. companies won’t improve returns, and may even detract from them.

“It’s important to blend asset classes than don’t act too similarly to each other, otherwise you’ll lose the benefit of diversification,” says Valentine.

If you’re young and have a long time horizon, you may not own bonds in your portfolio. Valentine says you’ll still want to spread your bets across six primary investment classes.

They include U.S. large cap stocks, U.S. small cap stocks, foreign developed-market stocks (shares of companies based in Europe and Japan), and foreign emerging-market stocks (shares of companies based in faster-growing economies such as like China and India).

And to diversify your equities, you’ll also want to consider owning a small amount in commodities and real estate investment trusts, or REITs.

Exactly how you slice the pie will depend on your specific time horizon and risk tolerance. Note: Valentine is not a proponent of owning bonds if you’re young, but most advisers recommend a small allocation to fixed income, even in a relatively aggressive portfolio.

Now, if you own bonds as part of your mix, you may want to add as many as four fixed-income funds to that mix.

Valentine recommends bond funds that give you exposure to: the broad U.S. fixed-income market (reflecting high-quality corporate and government debt), U.S. high yield bonds (which expose you to higher-yielding but lower-quality corporate debt), U.S. inflation-protected securities (to safeguard your holdings against rising consumer prices), and foreign bonds.

Again, the exact percentages will vary based on the specifics of your situation.

MONEY

Most Financial Research Is Probably Wrong, Say Financial Researchers

Throwing crumpled paper in wastebasket
Southern Stock—Getty Images

And if that's right, the problem isn't just academic. It means you are probably paying too much for your mutual funds.

In the 1990s, when I first stated writing about investing, the stars of the show on Wall Street were mutual fund managers. Now more investors know fund managers add costs without consistently beating the market. So humans picking stocks by hand are out, and quantitative systems are in.

The hot new mutual funds and exchange-traded funds are scientific—or at least, science-y. Sales materials come with dense footnotes, reference mysterious four- and five-factor models and Greek-letter statistical measures like “beta,” and name-drop professors at Yale, MIT and Chicago. The funds are often built on academic research showing that if you consistently favor a particular kind of stock—say, small companies, or less volatile ones—you can expect better long-run performance.

As I wrote earlier this year, some academic quants even think they’ve found stock-return patterns that can help explain why Warren Buffett has done so spectacularly well.

But there’s also new research that bluntly argues that most such studies are probably wrong. If you invest in anything other than a plain-vanilla index fund, this should rattle you a bit.

Financial economists Campbell Harvey, Yan Liu, and Heqing Zhu, in a working paper posted this week by the National Bureau of Economic Research, count up the economic studies claiming to have discovered a clue that could have helped predict the asset returns. Given how hard it is supposed to be to get an edge on the market, the sheer number is astounding: The economists list over 300 discoveries, over 200 of which came out in the past decade alone. And this is an incomplete list, focused on publications appearing in top journals or written by respected academics. Harvey, Liu, and Zhu weren’t going after a bunch of junk studies.

So how can they say so many of these findings are likely to be false?

To be clear, the paper doesn’t go through 300 articles and find mistakes. Instead, it argues that, statistically speaking, the high number of studies is itself a good reason to be more suspicious of any one them. This is a little mind-bending—more research is good, right?—but it helps to start with a simple fact: There’s always some randomness in the world. Whether you are running a scientific lab study or looking at reams of data about past market returns, some of the correlations and patterns you’ll see are just going to be the result of luck, not a real effect. Here’s a very simple example of a spurious pattern from my Buffett story: You could have beaten the market since 1993 just by buying stocks with tickers beginning with the letters W, A, R, R, E, and N.

Winning with Warren NEW

Researchers try to clean this up by setting a high bar for the statistical significance of their findings. So, for example, they may decide only to accept as true a result that’s so strong there’s only a 5% or smaller chance it could happen randomly.

As Harvey and Liu explain in another paper (and one that’s easier for a layperson to follow), that’s fine if you are just asking one question about one set of data. But if you keep going back again and again with new tests, you increase your chances of turning up a random result. So maybe first you look to see if stocks of a given size outperform, then at stocks with a certain price relative to earnings, or price to asset value, or price compared to the previous month’s price… and so on, and so on. The more you look, the more likely you are to find something, whether or not there’s anything there.

There are huge financial and career incentives to find an edge in the stock market, and cheap computing and bigger databases have made it easy to go hunting, so people are running a lot of tests now. Given that, Harvery, Liu, and Zhu argue we have to set a higher statistical bar to believe that a pattern that pops up in stock returns is evidence of something real. Do that, and the evidence for some popular research-based strategies—including investing in small-cap stocks—doesn’t look as strong anymore. Some others, like one form of value investing, still pass the stricter standard. But the problem is likely worse than it looks. The long list of experiments the economists are looking at here is just what’s seen the light of day. Who knows how many tests were done that didn’t get published, because they didn’t show interesting results?

These “multiple-testing” and “publication-bias” problems aren’t just in finance. They’re worrying people who look at medical research. And those TED-talk-ready psychology studies. And the way government and businesses are trying to harness insights from “Big Data.”

If you’re an investor, the first takeaway is obviously to be more skeptical of fund companies bearing academic studies. But it also bolsters the case against the old-fashioned, non-quant fund managers. Think of each person running a mutual fund as performing a test of one rough hypothesis about how to predict stock returns. Now consider that there are about 10,000 mutual funds. Given those numbers, write Campbell and Liu, “if managers were randomly choosing strategies, you would expect at least 300 of them to have five consecutive years of outperformance.” So even when you see a fund manager with an impressively consistent record, you may be seeing luck, not skill or insight.

And if you buy funds that have already had lucky strategies, you’ll likely find that you got in just in time for luck to run out.

MONEY Ask the Expert

Can I Ladder Bonds Using ETFs?

Investing illustration
Robert A. Di Ieso, Jr.

Q: I’ve heard that there are bond ETF’s that hold securities that mature on the same date. Can they be used to create a bond ladder?

A: Bond ladders are a time-tested tool for investors looking to lock in predictable streams of income. The idea is to buy bonds that mature at regular intervals. In a simple ladder, for instance, you might divide your fixed-income money evenly among securities maturing in, say, one, two, three, four and five years.

Not only does this approach spread your bets, it is particularly useful now that interest rates are expected to rise.

Why? Rising rates are a threat to bond investors. That’s because when market rates rise, the price of older, lower-yielding bonds in your portfolio fall, eating into your total returns.

However, investors who create a ladder of bonds with different maturities need not worry about short-term fluctuations in bond prices. As long as they hold all the securities in their ladder to maturity, investors will get their fixed payments and principal back (assuming a borrower doesn’t default) no matter what rates do. What’s more, as one batch of bonds comes due every year, investors will be able to reinvest that money into new, higher yielding bonds, thereby benefitting from rising rates.

“A bond ladder makes all the sense in the world right now,” says Ken Hoffman, and managing director with HighTower Advisors. “If you know what you’re doing, you can create a ladder that provides you with the interest payments and maturity that you need.”

Here’s the rub: Putting together a diversified bond ladder requires some serious dough. At a minimum, you’ll need about $10,000 to buy a single bond, and ideally you’d want more than one bond on each “rung,” or maturity date. “I typically don’t recommend a bond ladder unless someone has $500,000 to invest,” says Hoffman, adding that you can construct a ladder with Treasury, corporate, municipal bonds, and so on.

Why not turn to bond funds? Regular bond funds own hundreds of different securities that mature at different dates and that aren’t necessarily meant to be held to maturity. Therefore, it’s impossible to ladder with regular funds.

This is where exchanged-traded funds that hold bonds with the same maturity come in. Two big ETF providers, Guggenheim and BlackRock’s iShares, now offer so-called defined-maturity or target-date ETFs that can be used to build a bond ladder using Treasury, corporate, high-yield or municipal bonds.

Like traditional ETFs, they charge low expense ratios, hold a basket of securities, and trade like stocks. What makes them unique is that the portfolios are made of up a diversified group of bonds maturing at the same time. When those underlying securities come due, target-maturity ETFs liquidate and distribute their assets back to shareholders — much like an individual bond would.

Using Guggenheim BulletShares, for example, you could build a corporate bond ladder with 10 funds maturing every year from 2015 through 2024.

ETFs aren’t a perfect proxy. The coupon rate — or regular interest payment — and the final distribution rate aren’t nearly as predictable as they are with individual bonds. Still, for investors who want the benefits of a ladder but with more liquidity, more diversification, and lower minimums, they’re worth a closer look.

Do you have a personal finance question for our experts? Write toAskTheExpert@moneymail.com.

MONEY mutual funds

The Incredible Shrinking Mutual Fund Manager

Adding machine with miniature financial managers
Zachary Zavislak—Prop Styling by Linda Keil

Index funds are winning big, but there’s still a small place for stock pros in your portfolio.

A generation ago, “actively managed” mutual funds—that is, portfolios run by traditional stock and bond pickers—weren’t just the norm; the managers themselves were larger-than-life figures such as Peter Lynch, John Neff, and Bill Gross.

Today you might not be able to name many of the pros who invest on your behalf, with perhaps the exception of Gross—though not for stellar recent performance, but rather due to the public spat between the “bond king” and Pimco, the firm that Gross put on the map.

This is to be expected. Over the past year, nearly 70% of the new money invested in mutual and exchange-traded funds has gone into index portfolios, like Vanguard Total Stock Market Index, now the biggest fund in the world.

Such funds aren’t really managed at all. They don’t try to pick and choose the “best” investments, but rather hold all the securities in a market benchmark like the S&P 500.

Individual investors aren’t the only ones rethinking their approach. The influential California Public Employees’ Retirement System recently indicated that it intends to embrace more indexing in its $295 billion portfolio.

Why? Countless studies show that forces are stacked against the fund pros, which explains their poor performance (see chart). Over the past five years only two in 10 funds that invest in blue-chip U.S. stocks and three in 10 foreign funds beat their benchmarks.

That doesn’t mean that fund managers no longer have a place in your portfolio. Some — like those in the MONEY 50, our recommended list of funds and ETFs—have beaten the odds. Yet even those managers should play a limited role in your strategy.

Build your portfolio’s foundation with index funds

It’s not that professional investors are all lousy at their jobs. A study of more than 3,000 actively managed stock funds from 1979 to 2011 found that managers on average generated risk-adjusted returns that were actually better than their benchmarks. Trouble is, that’s before factoring in fees.

“There is indeed skill, but the average extra return managers generate is not enough to offset the average extra fees that come with active management,” says Lubos Pastor, a professor at the University of Chicago Booth School of Management, who co-wrote the study.

So use low-cost index funds and ETFs for the core part of your portfolio: your long-term stakes in U.S. and foreign equities and some bonds. While the average actively managed stock fund sports an annual expense ratio of 1.4% of assets, many index funds charge between 0.10% and 0.40%.

Rick Ferri, founder of the advisory firm Portfolio Solutions, suggests indexing at least 75% of your money. “Betting on the passive horse means you might not win every year,” he says, “but you know you are going to at least place.”

 

Index advantage

You can add managers to your core — but only the right kinds

“A low-cost actively managed fund can be as good as or better than an index,” says John Rekenthaler, vice president of research at Morningstar. He compared Vanguard’s low-fee actively managed portfolios in various categories with the firm’s index funds. All funds — both active and index — had total returns that ranked in the top 50% of their category for the past 15 years. But Vanguard’s active U.S. stock funds, international stock funds, and allocation funds actually had better returns than the index funds in those categories.

Examples of cheaper-than-average actively managed funds with a solid record in the MONEY 50 include Vanguard International Growth and Dodge & Cox International. Their annual fees are 0.48% and 0.64%, among the lowest for international equity portfolios. Even better, both are team-managed, which offers you protection in case one of the managers switches jobs or retires.

Treat active funds like specialty investments

There are some niche categories of investments where index funds themselves are costly to run and may not be that diversified. For those reasons, Ferri recommends you skip the index options for municipal or high-yield bond funds.

Also, there may be instances when you’d be willing to pay for unique strategies. FPA Crescent, with an expense ratio of 1.14%, mostly owns stocks. But lead manager Steve Romick is also willing to go to corporate bonds, preferred shares, or even cash if he sees better value.

That kind of flexibility makes it hard to use the fund for the bulk of your holdings. Still, in the past 15 years the fund’s 10% annual return doubled the S&P 500’s gains. And those are the kinds of big results you hope for when taking a chance on a fund manager.

MONEY stocks

WATCH: What’s the Point of Investing?

In this installment of Tips from the Pros, financial advisers explain why you need to invest at all.

MONEY 401(k)

3 Things to Know About Your 401(k)’s Escape Hatch

ladder leading to a bright blue sky
Alamy

More and more 401(k)s offer a formerly rare option—a brokerage window. That's raising questions from Washington regulators. Here's what you should watch out for.

While 401(k)s are known for their limited menu of options, more and more plans have been adding an escape hatch—or more precisely, a window. Known as a “brokerage window,” this plan feature gives you access to a brokerage account, which allows you to invest in wide variety of funds that aren’t part of of your plan’s regular menu. Some 401(k)s also allow you to trade stocks and exchange-traded funds, including those that target exotic assets such as real estate.

No question, brokerage windows can be a useful tool for some investors. But these windows carry extra costs, and given the increased investing options, you also face a higher risk that you’ll end up with a bad investment. All of which raises concerns that many employees may not fully understand what they’re getting into with these accounts. Earlier this week the U.S. Labor Department, which has been fighting a long-running battle to make retirement plans cheaper and safer for investors, asked 401(k) plan providers for information about brokerage windows.

You may wonder if a brokerage window is something you should use in your 401(k). To help you decide, here are answers to three key questions:

How common are brokerage windows?

Not long ago these features were rare. As recently as 2003, just 14% of large plans included offered a brokerage window, according to benefits company Aon Hewitt. But they’ve grown steadily more popular over the past decade, with about 40% of plans offering this option as of 2013. Interestingly, the growth has taken place even as more 401(k)s have opted to take investment decisions out of workers’ hands by automatically enrolling them in all-in-one investments like target-date funds.

Those two trends aren’t necessarily at odds. Experts say companies often add brokerage windows in response to a small but vocal minority of investors, who, rightly or wrongly, believe they can boost returns by actively picking investments. But overall just 5.6% of 401(k) investors opt for a window when it is offered. The group that is most likely use a brokerage window: males earning more than $100,000, about 9% of whom take advantage of the feature, according to Hewitt. (Not surprisingly, this group also tends to have the corporate clout to persuade HR to provide this option.) By contrast, only about 4% of high-earning women use a window.

When can brokerage windows make sense for the rest of us?

That depends in part on whether the other offerings in your 401(k) meet your needs. If you want an all-index portfolio, for example, a brokerage window may come in handy. Granted, more plans have added low-cost index funds, especially if you work for a large or mid-sized company. Today about 95% of large employers offer a large-company stock index fund, such as one that tracks the S&P 500, according to Hewitt.

Workers at small companies are less likely to enjoy the same access, however. These index funds are on the menu only about 65% of the time in plans with fewer than 50 participants, according to the Plan Sponsor Council of America, a trade group.

Moreover, even in large plans investors seeking to diversify beyond the broad stock and bond market can find themselves out of luck. Only about 25% of plans offer a fund that invests in REITS. And only about two in five offer a specialty bond fund, such as one that holds TIPS.

But even if a window allows you to diversify, you need to consider the additional costs. About 60% of plans that offer a brokerage window charge an annual maintenance fee for using it, according to Hewitt. The average amount of the fee was $94. And investors who use the window typically also pay trading commissions, just like they do at a regular brokerage.

Where does that leave me?

Before you decide to opt for a brokerage window, check to see if the fees outweigh the potential benefits. Here are some back-of-the-envelope calculations to get you started:

If you have, say, $200,000 socked away for retirement, paying an extra $100 a year to access a brokerage window works out to a modest additional fee of 0.05%. While the brokerage commission would increase that somewhat, you can minimize the damage by trading just once a quarter or once a year.

If your plan includes only actively managed mutual funds with annual investment fees in the neighborhood of 1%, the brokerage window could allow you to access ETFs charging as little as 0.1%. That means you could end up paying something like 0.15% instead of 1%.

If your plan has low-cost broad market index funds, however, a brokerage window offers less value. Say you want to add more more specialized investment options, such as a REIT or emerging market fund. Even if you have $200,000 in your 401(k), you’ll probably only invest a small amount in these more exotic investments—perhaps $5,000 or $10,000. So a $100 brokerage fee would increase your overall costs on that slice of your portfolio to 1% to 2%. Plus, you’ll pay brokerage commissions and fund investment fees. In that case, better to leave the escape hatch shut.

MONEY stocks

Here’s How to Make Money on Our Graying Population

With the fastest-growing segment of the global population aged 60 and over, biotech, medical devices, drugs and health care services all make for a durable investing strategy.

For health care, gray is the new black.

The fastest-growing segment of the global population is aged 60 and over, according to the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs. That slice of humanity is expected to increase by 45% by 2050.

The surge in the older population has contributed to a wave of new product introductions in biotechnology, medical devices and pharmaceuticals, and expansion of health care services.

In addition, health care is a remarkably durable sector for investors, soldiering on despite periodic market downturns, like the one seen last week when the S&P 500 index had its worst week since 2012.

Overall, there’s a bounty of money being spent on healthcare that’s unlikely to be impacted by other economic trends.

One of the best ways to own the biggest players in the health care industry is through the Vanguard Health Care ETF, which holds global giants like Johnson & Johnson JOHNSON & JOHNSON JNJ 0.3536% , Pfizer PFIZER INC. PFE 0.0329% , and Merck MERCK & CO. INC. MRK 0.4715% .

Charging 0.14% in annual management expenses, the Vanguard fund, which is almost entirely invested in U.S.-based stocks, gained 20% for the 12 months through Aug. 1, compared with 15% for the S&P 500 Total Return Index. Long-term, the Vanguard fund has been a solid performer, averaging 10.5% annually for the decade through Aug. 1. That compares with an average 7% return for the MSCI World NR stock index.

For more non-U.S. exposure, consider the iShares Global Healthcare ETF, which charges 0.48% for annual expenses.

The iShares fund has about 60% of its portfolio in North American stocks, with the remainder in European and Asian-based companies such as Novartis, Roche Holding, and GlaxoSmithKline GLAXOSMITHKLINE PLC GSK 0.0431% . The fund gained 19% over the 12 months through Aug. 1.

For a more focused play on leading-edge biotech and genomic companies, the First Trust NYSE Arca Biotech Index ETF samples some of the hottest companies in that sub-sector. Holdings include industry leaders Gilead Sciences GILEAD SCIENCES INC. GILD -0.0099% , Biogen Idec BIOGEN IDEC INC. BIIB 1.4878% , and InterMune .

The First Trust fund was up nearly 25% for the 12 months through Aug. 1; it charges 0.60% in annual expenses.

Good Valuations Available

Since most institutional portfolio managers have seen the merits of health care stocks for years, there are probably few bargains available, although some sectors are pricier than others. Biotech stocks, in particular, are in high demand, although they experienced a sell-off earlier this year.

“On the other hand,” Fidelity Investments analyst Eddie Yoon said in a recent report, “some large-cap, stable growth companies across the [health care] sector continue to appear attractive, based on their stable underlying business fundamentals.”

Unlike other sectors such as consumer discretionary that are directly tied to overall economic conditions, health care is often insulated from broader economic trends. When the S&P 500 index dropped 37% in 2008, the Vanguard fund only lost 23%; the First Trust fund was off 18%. While biotech stocks tend to be volatile, the mainstream health care companies are seen as defensive holdings and more immune to broader market pressures and poised for bankable growth.

Long term, the more volatile biotech stocks of today may be tomorrow’s winners. The growing science of genomics will allow biotech companies to customize drugs to a patient’s genetic make-up. Just three years ago it cost $95 million to sequence a human genetic code. Now it costs about $4,000, with the price dropping every year. That will translate into more precise treatments with fewer side effects.

There are several concurrent waves of innovation in health information technology, diagnostics and delivery of services. More patients can be monitored and treated at home with the improvement in information technology. Diseases are being discovered and treated earlier, which means fewer hospitalizations.

In the United States alone, health care spending is buoyed by the $3 trillion spent annually on Medicare patients. While policymakers say this number is unsustainable and must be reined in, that does not change a key fact: Some 10,000 Baby Boomers are turning 65 every day. They will continue to demand the best drugs and treatments.

MONEY ETFs

Invest Like Warren Buffett—Or at Least Like He Did Two Months Ago

A new ETF seeks to mimic the best ideas of billionaires like Warren Buffett and Carl Icahn based on their public holdings. Trouble is, the fund can't copy them in real time.

Mom-and-pop investors hoping to emulate the investment savvy of Wall Street’s wealthiest like Warren Buffett and Carl Icahn will have a new option on Friday when the latest low-cost exchange-traded fund tracking the stock picks of big-name investors begins trading.

The Direxion iBillionaire ETF, set to trade under the ticker “IBLN,” is the latest in a handful of similar ETFs that have come to market in recent years, all packaging the holdings disclosed quarterly by top investment managers into instruments that are more accessible to Main Street investors.

“It democratizes a lot of the information that very wealthy institutional investors have had for a long time,” said Brian Jacobs, president of Direxion Investments, the ETF provider that has partnered with index creator iBillionaire.

At $65 for every $10,000 invested, fees for the new iBillionaire ETF are far lower than the $200 that would be charged by the typical billionaire-run hedge fund, which would also tack on performance fees.

To be sure, the iBillionaire ETF, like the similar Global X Guru ETF launched in 2012, focuses only on the long portion of these billionaire portfolios and does not include day-to-day active management or any shorting of stocks. Furthermore, the practicalities of pulling investment ideas from the quarterly reports filed by these large investors means that the investment ideas often lag by at least 45 days.

The new ETF is based on an index created in November by startup firm iBillionaire. The fund and its underlying index include the 30 top U.S. companies in which a pool of selected billionaire investors have invested the most assets, based on the so-called 13F disclosures the investors must file quarterly with the U.S. Securities and Exchange commission. Top holdings in the index right now include Apple, Micron Technology and Priceline, with about a third of its portfolio in technology stocks.

“Billionaires are more bullish on technology” right now, said Raul Moreno, chief executive officer and co-founder of iBillionaire. “You can see that by their allocation and their strategies.”

The ETF is similar to the GURU ETF and AlphaClone Alternative Alpha ETF, which both launched in 2012. While they had both beat the benchmark S&P 500 index with stellar performances in 2013, they have been more lackluster this year, with GURU up 0.6 percent and ALFA up 0.3%, compared to the S&P 500, up 4.5% through Thursday’s close.

So far, these funds have a niche following – The GURU ETF has amassed about $499 million in assets, while the ALFA ETF has amassed $79 million in assets. So the billionaires being copied need not worry about losing clients to them, said Ben Johnson, an analyst with research firm Morningstar.

For a related story, see:

Inside Warren Buffett’s Brain

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