MONEY stocks

Putting the Market’s Tumble in Perspective

Specialist Jason Notter works at his post on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, near the close of trading, Friday, Oct. 10, 2014.
Specialist Jason Notter works on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, Friday, Oct. 10, 2014. Stocks continued to fall on Monday. Richard Drew—AP

Investors have some cause for concern — but the recent volatility in the stock market needs to be put into context.

Monday’s late-day selloff left many investors pale, as the Dow suffered another triple-digit loss while the S&P 500 suffered its worst three-day drop since 2011.

Chalk it up to a blitz of bad news — including troubles in the Middle East, the Ebola outbreak, and fears about slowing global growth, particularly in Europe.

But it’s important to put matters in proper perspective.

The major stock market indexes have sunk in recent days, but not by a huge amount.

^SPX Chart

Some stocks have been hit harder — for instance airlines, thanks to fears over the economy and Ebola

^SPX Chart

… and small-company shares, which are more volatile to begin with.

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Still, even with the sell-off, the S&P 500 has gained slightly more over the past 12 months than its historic annual average of 10.1%.

^SPXTR Chart

And while investors are more frightened than before, as measured by the so-called VIX “fear index”…

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… the recent spike in the VIX pales in comparison to investor anxiety in 2011…

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… or in the financial crisis.

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There is one thing investors should worry about — and that’s market valuations.

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The so-called Shiller price/earnings ratio, which compares stock prices to the past 10 years of average corporate profits, is as high as it was heading into the financial crisis. And history shows that when the Shiller P/E, popularized by Nobel Prize winning economist Robert Shiller, is this far above the historic average of around 16, future stock market returns tend to be muted.

Will that be the case this time? Only time will tell.

MONEY Warren Buffett

Warren Buffett Hates Gambling…Unless He’s the House

The Oracle of Omaha has a history of winning bets. Here's a look at some of his past wagers.

Earlier this week, investing sage Warren Buffett made headlines by predicting Hillary Clinton would win the 2016 presidential election. In fact, he added, he’s willing to put some coin behind it. “Hillary’s going to win,” said Buffett, speaking at Fortune’s Most Powerful Women Summit. “I will bet money on it. I will. I don’t do that easily.”

But that’s not quite accurate.

Sure, the Oracle of Omaha has publicly denigrated gambling, including comments to his Berkshire Hathaway shareholders in which he called it a “tax on ignorance” and “socially revolting.” And he even bought a 10-cent slot machine in his home to teach his offspring the evils of casinos. “I… put it on the 3rd floor of my house,” Buffett explained. “I could then give my children any allowance they wanted, as long as it was in dimes, and I’d have it all back by nightfall. I wanted to teach them a good lesson. My slot machine had a terrible payout ratio, by the way.”

But in fact Buffett has a long history of making very public wagers — and a pretty good track record of winning them. Here are a few of his most famous bets.

$550 on College Football

Earlier this year, Buffett placed his first-ever Las Vegas stake, betting $550 that Nebraska would beat Fresno State by more than 12 1/2 points. The Cornhuskers went on to destroy Fresno, 55 to 19, making Buffett (and other gamblers who rushed to copy him) a healthy return.

$1 Million on Index Funds Beating Hedge Funds

Buffett has consistently recommended index funds as the best investment vehicle for most investors, specifically endorsing Vanguard’s funds in a March letter to shareholders. He’s so sure indexes are the way to go that he bet $1 million that the S&P would outperform a “fund of funds” portfolio of hedge funds over 10 years, after fees, costs, and expenses are taken into account. An asset management firm called Protege Partners took the other side of the bet. So far, Buffett is on track for a payday: Fortune reports that, after six years, Buffett’s horse—Vanguard’s Admiral shares—was beating the firm’s five funds by more than 30% at the end of 2013.

$30 Million on World Cup Soccer

In a way, gambling of a kind is actually a routine part of Buffett’s business—and I’m not talking about his equity investments. One of Berkshire Hathaway’s many revenue streams is selling insurance that protects companies in the event that they have to pay out large cash prizes. For example, Bloomberg reports that in 2010 Berkshire insured an Omaha-based business that agreed to pay one of its clients if the French soccer team won the World Cup. If France wins, Buffett explained at the time, “I think we’re going to lose 30 million bucks or something like that.” But once again the Oracle of Omaha came out on top: Les Bleu were knocked out by South Africa in the group stage.

$1 Billion on March Madness

Thanks to Buffett, NCAA basketball got a lot more interesting this year. In January, the investor teamed up with Quicken Loans to offer a $1 billion prize to anyone who submitted a perfect March Madness bracket. The odds of Buffet losing? According to math site Orgtheory.net, the likelihood of correctly filling out a 64 team bracket randomly is less than 1 in 9 quintillion. But, because March Madness predictions do involve some level of skill, the true odds are difficult to determine. “There is no perfect math…There are no true odds, no one really knows,” Buffett told CNN. That said, he still liked his chances. “I don’t want to say it’s impossible, but it’s basically impossible,” admitted Buffett.

Buffett ultimately won his bet, collecting an undisclosed insurance premium from Quicken chairman Dan Gilbert (“Dan says it is too much and I say it’s too little,” he joked), but it was a close one. In March, ABC News reported that one man, Brad Binder, had in fact filled out a perfect NCAA bracket—he just hadn’t entered it into Buffett’s contest. “I wish I could give you a better reason why I didn’t enter other than I was rushed and heading to work,” Binder told ABC. “Obviously, I didn’t think I’d be where I am now.”

So is Buffett really a gambler after all? Not so much. Other than the Vegas wager, all of Buffett’s other bets gave the Berkshire chairman hugely favorable odds, or involved an industry where his expertise is unmatched. Buffett would probably agree that gambling isn’t really so bad — if you’re the house.

MONEY Bitcoin

Why Bitcoin Fans Don’t Believe in Bad News

People attend a Bitcoin conference on at the Javits Center April 7, 2014 in New York City.
Andrew Burton—Getty Images

Bitcoin might be doing poorly, but for the currency's online proponents, it's always time to buy. Here's the reason behind their optimism.

Updated—Friday, October 10

Last weekend, Bitcoin crashed. The dollar value of a single Bitcoin began to decline on electronic markets starting on Friday and by Sunday afternoon had fallen 14%, to $290.

It recovered a bit in the days that followed, but the slide appears to part of a broader trend: At the Thursday price of about $350, the digital currency has lost almost 70% of its value since its all-time high of $1,147 in December 2013. At the New York Times, Paul Krugman used the roller coaster weekend as an occasion to once again call Bitcoin a long con.

But among the Bitcoin faithful, the sun never stopped shining. On Reddit’s Bitcoin discussion board, for example, home to almost 140,000 enthusiasts of the electronic currency, the price drop was framed as good news. “The good old days are back! Massive walls, manipulation and a true financial wild west – I love it” chirped one of Monday’s most popular posts.

“Who else is enjoying the firesale?” asked another popular participant who claimed to be “picking up tons of cheap bit coin.”

How to explain the eternal optimism? Is it possible that Bitcoin’s most dedicated fans are simply more tuned in to the currency’s long-term potential than the broader market and therefore have a more favorable view of its true value?

Sure, it’s possible — but Meir Statman, a professor at Santa Clara University specializing in behavioral finance, has a more plausible explanation for the findings: Confirmation bias. In short, he says, Bitcoin communities tend to be echo chambers of optimism, giving their members a false impression of the currency’s true value. “What you hear, really, is what you want to hear; what is easy for you to believe: That bitcoin is going to take over and banks are a thing of the past,” explains Statman. “And when you have people who reinforce it, people are not looking for the truth, they are looking for views that are going to support their prior beliefs driven by ideology and self interest and so-on.”

This explanation would seem to be supported by a recent study of Bitcoin users by researchers at the University of Illinois, who found that those who participated in online Bitcoin communities were far more bullish about the currency’s future price than other Bitcoin holders. When asked about the long term value of Bitcoin (which the survey defined as the coin’s price in early 2019), users who talked about Bitcoin on various online platforms produced estimates 68% higher than those who did not.

Screen Shot 2014-10-08 at 10.11.02 AM
An r/Bitcoin user asks (and receives) reassurance following a December, 2013 price crash.

Of course, that’s not a phenomenon unique to Bitcoin or online forums. “There is a similar finding about communities where people describe their investment success more generally, because people tend to brag about their success and not brag about their losses” the professor warns. “If you are not careful, all you hear is that people are making tons of money.”

Statman suggests yet another psychological explanation for the behavior of the Bitcoin community, noting that many people who invest in Bitcoin — and other alternative assets like gold — do so in part because it fits their broader global outlook and ideology. “It is fair to say that lots of the people who invest in gold invest in a view of the world: That the United States is going down, bad things are going to happen, inflation is going to rise,” Statman says.

That makes hard truths particularly difficult to accept, he says. After all, divesting from a stock is easy. Divesting from a world view, well, that’s a lot more painful.

Statman advises investors of all types to avoid confirmation bias and “ideological” investing by talking to people with different perspectives. For example, he jokes, Bitcoin buyers should have asked his opinion of the currency before last weekend. His take: “I think it’s a scam.”

After being contacted by Bitcoin advocates, Statman clarified his position to MONEY. “My initial thought when I heard about Bitcoin from my students is that is a scam. I know now that the technology of Bitcoin might prove useful but I am puzzled by the rush to it.”

MONEY stocks

How to Stay Calm in a Rollercoaster Market

Man in business suit in hammock
PeopleImages.com—Getty Images

After a five-year bull market, investors worry that a big drop is right around the corner. Here are some ways advisers ease clients' fears.

Market swings are top-of-mind for people who still can’t relax, five years after the 2008-2009 stock market meltdown. Investors worry that the five-year bull market in stocks could suddenly turn.

Clients of financial advisers worry about market swings even more than they fear running out of money in retirement, according to a Russell Investments survey.

The reason? Many investors can’t erase memories of 2008, said Scott E. Couto, president of Fidelity Financial Advisor Solutions. The Dow Jones Industrial Average dropped 54% between October 2007 and March 2009. After that dive, the market has risen 133% from March 9, 2009 to Sept. 29, 2014.

“Losing hurts worse than winning feels good,” Couto said. Many older investors are particularly cautious because they are taking retirement distributions, or will need to do so soon.

Relaxation Strategies

Advisers can ease clients’ fears by describing market swings in a long-term context, Couto said. For example, advisers can share statistics with clients to show how long it typically takes for markets to rebound after a downturn, and how stocks have yielded decent long-term returns, despite fluctuations.

Other strategies include holding the equivalent of a “Back to School” night for advisers to tell clients what to expect for the year, said John Anderson, a consultant for SEI Advisor Network in Oaks, Pa., who counsels advisers on running their practices.

Advisers can also prepare clients for future risk, Anderson said. For example, advisers could show estimates of how much money clients would lose if the S&P 500 stock index dropped 20%, 30%, or 40%. That could prompt clients to switch to less volatile investments or at least assess their risks.

That type of groundwork is part of every first meeting with new clients for Robert Schmansky, a financial advisor in Livonia, Mich. Most clients, as a result, never ask about market fluctuations, Schmansky said.

Schmansky’s strategy uses stocks to maximize growth, while balancing portfolios with less volatile assets such as Treasury Inflation-Protected Securities (TIPS) and short-term bonds.

The approach eases clients’ minds because they know that part of their portfolio is safe from market swings and always available for income, he said.

Such strategies have grown more popular since the 2008 crisis, said Couto. Some advisers now pitch “outcome-oriented” investing that focuses on clients’ objectives, such as having a certain dollar amount for retirement or putting kids through college, instead of returns. The adviser may speak of dividing assets into “buckets,” each designed for certain objectives, such as achieving growth, hedging against inflation, or preserving capital.

Some advisers go even broader when adding investments to clients’ portfolios. They may include commodities, such as gold or timber, which could move in a different direction from stocks, or market-neutral funds that claim to do well regardless of the direction of the market. Couto cautions, though, that the risks and fees associated with some such strategies may overwhelm the benefits.

He suggests advisers build stability into portfolios by adding less-volatile bonds, shares of dividend-paying companies and quality big companies with market values over $5 billion.

More importantly, having conversations about risk and volatility can separate the great advisers from the average ones, says Couto. “One of the best things advisers can do is help clients understand their long term objectivesand stay focused on their ‘personal economy,'” he says.

MONEY Markets

Why the Smartest People Aren’t the Best Investors

woman with head in a book
Image Source—Getty Images

The four most important words in investing are, "I have no idea."

In his book The Quest of the Simple Life, William Dawson tells the story of an exam at a 19th century London prep school. One question asked was, “Give some account of the life of Mary, the mother of our Lord.”

Dawson wrote, “One bright youth responded, ‘At this point it may not be out of place to give a list of the kings of Israel.'”

This was a common problem at prep schools. Students were not trained to think. They were taught to recite specific facts and formulas. Anything requiring creative thinking left them dumbfounded. To them, there was basically no world outside of the facts they had memorized. Faced with any question, they responded, often absurdly, with the only facts they knew, Dawson wrote.

I had dinner earlier this week with the portfolio manager of an endowment fund. We talked about a problem in finance: Some of the smartest people we know are abysmally bad investors. Not just average, but abjectly terrible.

We agreed that the cause of this quirk was the same problem faced by 19th century prep-schoolers.

The smartest people we know are geniuses at fields where you can memorize facts and formulas. But any problem requiring squishier, creative thinking is unchartered territory. When faced with these problems, they inject the only thing they know: the facts and formulas they were taught to memorize.

These people are textbook geniuses, but they don’t know the limits of their intelligence. Or even the context of their intelligence. And that’s just as bad as being stupid.

There are economists — very smart ones — who said there was a 100% chance we’d have a recession in 2011. There are brilliant investors who have been certain since 2009 that the market is inches away from collapse.

They made these predictions because they are trained math geniuses who created statistical models showing that these events were certain to occur.

But there is an infinite amount of stuff in finance that can’t be answered with math, facts, or formulas. There are things we can’t measure, and things we can’t understand, ever. Herd behavior, future trivia, and psychology aren’t things we can predict today. It’s just insanity and chaos.

That’s not acceptable to you if you’ve been trained to measure things with facts and formulas. Just like the prep school student, there is no world outside of the facts you’ve been trained to memorize. So you try to predict human behavior with standard deviation, or the decisions of a despotic dictator with a bell curve. And you fail, virtually every time.

Realizing the limits of your intelligence one of the most important skills in finance. P.J.O’Rourke described economics as “an entire scientific discipline of not knowing what you’re talking about,” which is pretty accurate. When you pretend you know something you don’t, your perception of risk becomes warped. You take risks you didn’t think existed. You face events you didn’t think could occur. Understanding what you don’t know, and what you can’t know, is way more important than the stuff you actually know.

In that sense, the four most important words in investing are probably, “I have no idea.”

I have no idea what the market will do next.

I have no idea if we’ll have a recession this year.

I have no idea when interest rates will rise.

I have no idea what the Fed will do next.

Neither do you.

The sooner you admit that, the better.

Check back every Tuesday and Friday for Morgan Housel’s columns. Contact Morgan Housel at mhousel@fool.com. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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MONEY Investing

Kickstarter Backers Are Investors, and It’s Time They Got Used To It

iStock

Many Kickstarter users still don't quite understand what they're getting into, or why the site is predicated on risk.

It’s been a rough September for Kickstarter. After a three-week period during which two major projects—each of which had raised more than $500,000 on the site—failed spectacularly, the crowdfunding platform has begun to look a little less like a harmless way for underdog visionaries to fund their passion projects and a little more like a casino. It hasn’t helped that a handful of Kickstarter scams and con men were exposed in recent months.

Recently, Kickstarter appeared to respond to the bad press by revising its terms of service. The new document does a better job of laying out the responsibilities creators have to their backers. No scamming, do your best, try to make it up to people if you fail, and so on. But that move likely won’t fix the deeper problem: That most of the site’s users believe that their donations entitle them to some kind of tangible reward, be it a smart watch or a bamboo beer koozie. In reality, nothing of the sort is guaranteed. That’s because Kickstarter backers aren’t customers making a purchase. They’re investors. And like all investments, Kickstarter projects have a chance of going bust.

To an extent, the confusion is understandable. Kickstarter calls itself “a new way to fund creative projects,” which sounds a lot more innocuous than “Craigslist for angel investing” — even though the latter may be closer to the truth. Backers generally have limited information about the people they are supporting. And once a project is funded, they’re on their own when it comes to enforcing contracts with a creators — to the extent that such contracts even exist. In the event that a scammer takes everyone’s money and runs, Kickstarter won’t offer a refund or even chip in for legal fees. But at least in those cases there’s a clear basis for taking legal action (fraud); when money is squandered in a more conventional way — through bad business decisions — funders have no recourse at all.

However, before anyone deletes their Kickstarter app or swears off crowdfunding for good, it’s worth pointing out that you may have staked your retirement on a similar system: The stock market. Equity ownership, after all, comes with startlingly few guarantees. If Tim Cook decides tomorrow to spend all of Apple’s capital on a strategic Cheetos reserve, there’s really not much the average investor (without a controlling stake in the company) can do about it other than sell off the stock. Sure, the stock market does have additional important protections: greater transparency; legally empowered and (theoretically) independent boards of directors; dedicated regulators and watchdogs, and more. But in both cases investors take on a large amount of risk.

Does that make Kickstarter a bad deal? Not at all. In fact, the risky nature of Kickstarter is arguably the very thing that makes it worth using. Project creators offer something to backers — even if it’s just early access to their product — as a reward for taking a chance on a risky idea.

But it’s important to remember why the maker of that sweet felt iPhone case is giving you priority treatment: Things could all go south. And if they do, you’re the one who’ll take the hit.

MONEY Impact Investing

How to Change the World—and Make Some Money Too

Young adults flock to investments that promote social good. This was a hot topic at a big ideas festival over the weekend and is front and center with financial firms.

Social investing has come of age, driven by a new generation that is redefining the notion of acceptable returns. These new investors still want to make money, of course. But they are also insisting on measurable social good.

Millennials make up a big portion of this new breed, and their influence will only grow as they age and accumulate wealth. The total market for social investments is now around $500 billion and growing at 20% a year. As millennials’ earning power grows and they inherit $30 trillion over the next 30 years, investing for social good stands to attract trillions more.

So what began in the 1980s as a passive movement to avoid the stocks of companies that sell things like tobacco and firearms has broadened into what is known as impact investing, a proactive campaign to funnel money into green technologies and social endeavors that produce measurable good. Clean energy and climate change are popular issues. But so is, say, reducing the recidivist rate of lawbreakers leaving prison.

Impact investing was a hot topic this weekend at The Nantucket Project, an annual ideas festival that aims to change the world. Jackie VanderBrug, an analyst at U.S. Trust, noted that 79% of millennials would be willing to take higher risks with their portfolio if they knew it would drive positive social change. Based on data from Merrill Lynch, that compares to about half of boomers with a social investing screen and even fewer of the oldest generation. VanderBrug also noted that women of all ages, an increasing economic force, tend to favor these strategies.

Speaking at the conference, Randy Komisar, a partner at the venture capital powerhouse Kleiner Perkins Caufield Byers and author of The Monk and the Riddle, said, “This generation is the most different of any since the 1960s.” He believes millennials are chipping away at previous generations’ affinity for growth and profits at any cost. Young people embrace the idea that you work not just for money but also for experience, satisfaction and joy.

Komisar noted the rise of B corporations like Patagonia and Ben and Jerry’s. These are for-profit enterprises that number 1,115 in 35 countries and 121 industries. Since 2007, the nonprofit B Lab has been certifying the formal mission of companies like these to place environment, community and employees on equal footing with profits. There are many more uncertified “Benefit” corporations. Since 2010, 41 states have passed or begun working on legislation giving socially conscious Benefit corporations special standing. Legally, they are held to a higher standard of community good, but they have cover from certain types of shareholder lawsuits.

Both types of B corporations acknowledge that their social mission gives them an important advantage hiring young adults, who in surveys show they place especially high value on the chance to make a social impact through work. “If your company offers something that’s more purposeful than just a job, younger generations are going to choose that every time,” Blake Jones, chief executive of Namasté Solar, a Boulder, Colo., solar-technology installer and B Corp. told The Wall Street Journal.

Industries that do not address the wider concerns of millennials will increasingly become marginalized. The financial analyst Meredith Whitney, who rose to prominence calling the subprime mortgage disaster, told the gathering in Nantucket that financial services firms have been among the slowest to consider sustainability issues—“and that’s why I think they are in trouble.”

Yet banks may be starting to come along. Bank of America clients have about $8 billion invested along sustainability lines, the bank says. And its Merrill Lynch arm has been a leading explorer of “green” bonds, which raise money for specific causes and pay investors a rate of return based on whether the funded programs hit certain measures of achievement.

Late last year, Merrill raised $13.5 million for New York State and Social Finance for a program to help formerly incarcerated individuals adjust to life outside prison. How well the bonds perform depends on employment and recidivism rates and other measures taken over five and a half years. The firm is now looking into a similar bond issue to fund programs for returning war veterans.

For now, green bonds are aimed at institutional investors, especially those charitable foundations willing to risk losses in their effort to change the world. The J.P.Morgan 2014 Impact Investor Survey found that about half of institutions investing this way are okay with below-average returns.

Young people saving for retirement and faced with a crumbling pension system can’t really afford the tradeoff, at least not on a large scale. That’s partly why they want their job or company to have a higher purpose. But ultimately some version of green bonds, perhaps with a more certain return, will be open to individuals for the simple reason that four out of five young adults want it that way.

MONEY Ask the Expert

When You Do—and Don’t—Need a Pro to Manage Your Money

Investing illustration
Robert A. Di Ieso Jr.

Q: “At what net worth should I consider getting a money manager?”

A: There is no magic number for when you need help. Similarly, you don’t have to wait for your net worth to hit a certain mark to seek out the services of a pro.

“As soon as you have enough money that it’s keeping you up at night wondering what to do, then that may be when you need to find some help,” says Deena Katz, a certified financial adviser and associate professor of personal financial planning at Texas Tech University. “But that number will be different for everyone. Some people will feel it at $100,000, others at a million.”

Determining whether you need a money manager basically boils down to the questions you have about your money and whether you’re able to find the answers yourself and then follow through.

If your financial situation is complex—say you also manage your small business—or if you simply don’t have the time to dedicate to understanding and managing your own investments, paying an adviser to help you look after your funds could be worthwhile, says Christine Benz, director of personal finance at Morningstar.

You may also want to get investment help if you’re paralyzed by fear or know you’re prone to chasing hot funds, panic selling, or overreacting to market swings. A pro can act as a coach and help you keep your emotions in check, says Benz.

On-going money management can be costly, though. You’ll typically pay an annual fee equal to 1% to 1.5% of your total assets under management. And many wealth advisers won’t take on you as a client unless you have a minimum amount of money to invest, typically a quarter to half a million dollars.

Help just when you need it

Luckily, you probably don’t need investment guidance on a continual basis. Most of us are fine DIY-ing it the majority of the time—using simple online asset allocation tools such as Bankrate’s and sticking with broadly diversified stock and bond index funds—and getting an expert second opinion only when we’re getting started or making a big change.

In that case, you can find a financial planner who charges by the hour or per project. “If you do need more long-term help than these advisers are likely to be able to provide, in my experience they’ve always been quick to refer clients to money managers who can,” says Benz. “It’s a good first step to getting a read on how much help you may need.”

For help finding an adviser who charges an hourly or project-based rate, search the Financial Planning Association website or the Garrett Planning Network’s website.

Help that won’t cost you much

If you don’t want to go it alone but want some investment guidance, you have several options, even if you don’t have a big portfolio. One is to keep your money in a low-cost target-date retirement fund, where the manager will adjust your investment mix based on the retirement date you select.

For a more tailored approach, another low-cost route is a “robo-adviser,” says Sheryl Garrett, a certified financial planner and founder of the Garrett Planning Network. Companies like Wealthfront and Betterment offer portfolio advice that’s somewhat personalized via the web and apps. The firms use software to come up with a stock and bond mix based on your investing goal and time horizon. They then put you into low-cost ETFs and rebalance regularly. Annual fees typically run from 0.15% to 0.35% of assets, on top of ETF charges.

Finally, Vanguard has a pilot program called Personal Advisor Services, which charges 0.3% of assets a year for investment management. You must have $100,000 in Vanguard accounts to qualify; the fund company plans to drop that minimum to $50,000 in the near future.

MONEY portfolio strategy

Why Rats, Cats, and Monkeys are Smarter than Investors

Ms. Kleinworth goes short in the Treasury Bond market.
Ms. Kleinworth goes short in the Treasury Bond market. Nora Friedel—RatTraders.com

A performance artist in Austria piles on to the case against "active management" by finding yet another animal that seems to invest better than humans.

An Austrian performance artist claims to be breeding and training rats to be able to beat the investment returns of highly educated and paid professional investors.

The artist, Michael Marcovici, says he trained the rodents to trade in foreign exchange and commodities. He did so by converting market information into sounds and rewarded the rats with food when they predicted price movements correctly and inflicted a small electric shock when they didn’t. (If only hedge fund managers could be compensated in similar fashion.) The rats are placed in a Skinner Box with a speaker, red and green lights, a food dispenser and an electrical floor to deliver the shock.

Marcovici says rats can be trained in three months, are able to learn any segment of the market and “outperform most human traders.” This may seem like an outlandish claim, but this kind of thing isn’t altogether new.

UK’s The Observer held a challenge in 2012 between a “a ginger feline called Orlando,” a pack of schoolchildren and a few wealth and fund managers to see which could produce the biggest returns over the course of the year.

The cat won.

Long before Orlando’s victory, Princeton economist Burton Malkiel wrote that “a blindfolded monkey throwing darts at a newspaper’s financial pages could select a portfolio that would do just as well as one carefully selected by experts,” in his book “A Random Walk Down Wall Street.”

Add this to the overwhelming evidence that largely unmanaged index funds — that simply buy and hold all the securities in a market — often outperform professional stock pickers.

Just this month S&P Dow Jones Indices Versus Active funds scorecard for the first six months of the year, which showed that 60% of actively managed domestic large cap funds underperformed their benchmarks.

That’s in addition to 58% of domestic mid-cap and 73% of small cap funds losing out. If you extend the record out five years, more than “70% of domestic equity managers across all capitalization and style categories failed to deliver higher returns than their respective benchmarks.”

What does this mean for your portfolio? As Morningstar.com’s John Rekenthaler noted in a recent article, active funds may not have much of a future.

Passively managed mutual funds and exchange-traded funds, Rekenthaler points out, enjoyed 68% of the net sales for U.S. ETFs and mutual funds over the past year. That leaves 32% for active funds. Meanwhile, target-date funds account for $30 billion of the $134 billion in inflows for active funds over the past 12 months. Even on this front, passive target date funds sales are growing.

In fact, the only real growth area for actively managed funds are in so-called alternatives that invest in things like currencies and that charge annual fees of close to 2% of assets. That’s a lot of cheese.

You’re generally better off staying clear of professional security pickers.

No, this doesn’t mean you should find a rat, cat, or monkey to manage your 401(k). Instead, go the passive index route and select three basic building block funds from our MONEY 50 selection (like say Vanguard Total Bond Market Index, Schwab Total Stock Market Index and Vanguard Total International Stock Index) and you can achieve basic diversification at a price that won’t make you as poor as a church mouse.

MONEY Investing

Why We Feel So Good About the Markets—and So Bad—at the Same Time

Investor and retirement optimism is at a seven-year high. Yet most people believe their personal income has topped out. What gives?

Investors are feeling better about the markets than at any time since the financial crisis, a new poll shows. But most also believe they have topped out in terms of earning power, and that the Great Recession continues to weigh on their finances.

Buoyed by stronger GDP growth, record high stock prices, and a falling unemployment rate, investors in the third quarter pushed the Wells Fargo/Gallup Investor and Retirement Optimism index to its highest mark since December 2007. Yet 56% of workers expect only inflation-rate pay raises the rest of their career, and half believe they are destined to end up living on Social Security benefits.

“At the macro level, people are feeling pretty good,” says Karen Wimbish, director of Retail Retirement at Wells Fargo. “But at the personal level, the Great Recession left a deeper wound than a lot of us realize.” The average worker believes that wage growth, which has been stagnant for decades, won’t rebound before they retire. This feeling is especially acute among the upper middle class, those making more than $100,000 a year.

The gloom is partly attributable to the national discussion about wage inequality and some evidence that only the top 1% is getting ahead. It may also reflect a sense that the U.S. is losing ground to the faster growing developing world and experiencing an inevitable relative decline in standard of living.

The Federal Reserve has been battling anemic growth for seven years through an aggressive stimulus program that includes rock-bottom short-term interest rates. This week, the two Fed governors most outspoken and critical of this policy confirmed that they would retire next year, essentially putting the Fed all-in on a growth and jobs agenda with diminishing concern over inflation and underscoring the sense of stagnation so many feel.

Most investors polled (58%) said they are doing about as well or worse than five years ago. Similarly, 63% said they are saving about the same or less than five years ago. These figures are essentially unchanged from two years ago, suggesting that investors have not made much financial headway in the recovery. Roughly half said they are still feeling the effects of the recession.

“Is it real?” Wimbish says. “Or is it emotional?” If our prospects are really so dire, how do you explain record high stock prices, strong quarterly growth, a pickup in consumer borrowing, and an improving jobs picture?

Whatever is causing the gloom, one result is that nearly a third of investors continue to shun the stock market. Those with less than $100,000 in assets avoid stocks at twice the rate as those with more than that level of savings. Arguably, those with fewer assets are precisely the ones who need to be in stocks to take advantage of their superior long-run gains and build a nest egg.

They may be worried that they have missed the rally and that it is too late to get in. But the overriding concern—expressed by 60%—is that stocks are just too risky. So as the average stock has more than doubled from the bottom and recovered all its losses, and as those who remained true to their 401(k) contribution plan through thick and thin have become flush with gains, the truly risk averse have lost valuable time. Seeing this now may be part of what makes them so glum.

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