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Index investing explained and why you should index invest. The pros and cons of index investing, its alternatives explained.

With so many personal finance bloggers and newspaper columnists out there these days touting the benefits of index investing with low-cost ETFs it’s fairly likely you have come across the term at some point. Basically, it is a deceivingly simply investing method that allows investors to set up the equities portion of their investment portfolio in about five minutes, and then forget about it. In addition to this ease-of-use factor, this low-maintenance style of investing will actually beat out traditional mutual funds the vast majority of the time (at least 95% by most estimates).  With index ETFs now being so cheap to buy and sell (FREE with my Questrade discount brokerage account) So what is this magic investment called an index fund?

Investing Time Pictures, Images and Photos

An index fund is like a mutual fund in that it takes your investment dollars and spreads them out over multiple companies. Where a mutual fund will hire an “expert,” or a team of them, to pick specific companies to invest your money in, an index fund will do nothing more than invest your money equally across the whole market it is tracking.  There are now index funds that will spread your investment dollars out across the entire world market, or ones that will follow a certain stock exchange such as the NYSE, or the TSX. In other words, an index fund is a way to lock in your investment return at exactly the market average minus relatively small investment fees.

So Just How Good Are These Investment Experts?

It initially appears ridiculous to believe that the vast majority of investment experts that work in Toronto and New York cannot do better than the market average; however, the statistics don’t lie. A recent study that appeared in the New York Times looked at 452 domestic mutual funds (taken from the Morningstar database) and their performance over the last 20 years. When compared to the Standard & Poor 500-stock index (more commonly known as the S&P 500), only 13 of these mutual funds beat the average returns of the index once their fees and tax disadvantages were taken into consideration.  Those numbers are worth repeating: only 13 out of 452!

When Did The Definition of Expert Become Below Average?

There are a few factors responsible for this eye-popping statistic. One of the primary reasons many mutual funds do poorly is because their managers are extremely well paid and are slaves to the most recent quarterly reports. The tried-and-true method for being able to cash huge paycheques for as long as possible is to simply try and mimic the index itself. If an investment manager follows this strategy, they know that they will never have a period of time where they are too far below the average, and consequently they will get to keep their jobs and their yachts. The next question one might ask is, “If so many managers are just trying to be average, why do mutual funds almost always return less investment income to investors than index funds do?” That answer is actually fairly straight forward, it’s a little thing called management fees. You see those yachts that the Wall Street-types have are paid for with the dollars you invested in their mutual fund, and the subsequent returns they produced. There are all kinds of different fee structures, but 2% is fairly average in the USA, and some hedge funds with big name managers charge well over 10%. Canada actually has the absolute highest mutual fund management fees in the world – yay, we’re number one! (Y&T’s note: HA, we’re finally #1 in something!  No more underdog status!) So to recap, if most managers are simply aiming to get average results, and then charging you 2%+ to do just that, then of course they are going to give investors a much lower (2% a year makes a huge difference over long-term investing periods) rate of return than they otherwise would have gotten.

The other consideration this study focused on was the tax inefficiency associated with many of these mutual funds. Without going into too much excruciatingly boring detail, it is generally accepted that because stocks are being bought and sold constantly withinmutual funds, there are all kinds of taxes and expenses incurred that wouldn’t be under most index investing plans. When your returns are constantly being limited because of fees and taxes, they cannot compound over time, and like Einstein says, “The mostpowerful force in the universe is compound interest.” That’s from the guy that created the atomic bomb! While the study concedes that owning mutual funds within a tax-advantaged account would have allowed a few more funds to slip into the “beat the index” category, the overall results would be very similar. The article goes on to state that it would be nearly impossible to predict which funds would beat the index ahead of time, so it is effectively useless to try using past results.

Efficient Market Theory

The whole idea of index investing springs from something called efficient market theory.  What this theory basically claims is that the market is perfectly efficient. This means that if you invest for long enough and make enough trades you are almost guaranteed to return average results. It takes the whole idea of a competitive market to its logical conclusion: that whatever the price of a company currently is, that is almost exactly what it is probably worth. For investors, the logical conclusion is that you stand almost no hope of “beating the market” long-term. If you can’t control what the market will return, the only thing left to control is the fees you pay; therefore, logic dictates that those who pay the lowest fees will come out ahead over time, and probably sooner rather than later.

Criticism of Index Investing

There are definitely some holes in efficient market theory. Anyone who has looked at the stock markets at all over the last five years can tell you that there is no way they are perfectly logical. Now more than ever, markets can go soaring or fall through the basement due to a rumour, or a slightly lower-than-expected quarterly report. Many index investing converts have modified the theory to claim that while short-term markets may fluctuate illogically, in the long-term stock prices will average out because market fundamentals will ultimately bring a stock back to where it is supposed to be. Another relevant criticism is that the more people that are out there index investing, the less rational the market will become by definition. What supposedly makes the market completely efficient is the fact that there are people out there pouring over every little press release and balance sheet to determine the true value of companies. If people stop doing that, then the market ceases to be perfectly efficient. Finally, studies show that while index investors almost always do better over the long-term, talented traders (the guys who run hedge funds) do substantially better in range-bound markets where the overall index stays more-or-less the same, but certain sectors or stocks will go up or down considerably. Most people believe this will describe North American and European markets for the next few years.

Is Index Investing For You?

No matter what study you look at, or what statistics someone will try to show you, there is little doubt that the average investor would be far better off in index funds than in mutual funds or picking their own stocks. Banks and investment managers will pull out all the convincing lingo and hard sales pitches they have in their arsenal to get you to invest in one of their house mutual funds that will funnel 2-3% of your money into their coffers. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that if a Canadian were to invest with the popular TD E-series of index funds (note: I receive no compensation from TD, or any other bank, these are just the lowest-fee index funds in Canada) with management fees of .3%-.5%, they will be much better off than with an average mutual fund that is returning the same amount (or less) and then taking 2%+ in management fees off the top.

That being said, there is substantial evidence out there that someone who is willing to do their homework and stay on top of their own investments can beat the index by picking their own stocks. There are mutual funds and hedge funds that routinely beat the index, but take out most of the profit in fees. If you can pick investments at their level, you will beat the market (keeping in mind that it is their job and they are likely obsessed with it).  There is also a body of evidence that shows that when you only look at hedge funds, and mutual funds that deviate substantially from the usual companies (in other words, the mutual fund managers that are secretly just trying to cash cheques while matching the average), you can find one that will consistently beat the average for you. This is fairly controversial, and at best, difficult to do.

For most people, the bottom line is that they don’t want to look at their investment portfolio daily, or worry about short-term market volatility. They should just focus on making sure their asset allocation is appropriate for their risk tolerance and investment window. Index investing is by far the easiest and best way of doing this. It isn’t sexy, and you won’t sound cutting-edge at the water cooler, but you will almost always win out in the long run!

Readers: Do you Index Invest?  Or do you like being sexy and sound cutting-edge at the water cooler when talking about what hot stock you’ve just bought?  Or – do you go the opposite way and instead opt for the uber-simple way to construct a basic index portfolio through a robo advisor?

Article comments


I currently am looking at quarterly vs bi-annual buy-ins. Tough to beat the $5 per trade with quest trade.

young says:

@T.M.- So you Questrade too? Yeah, quarterly & bi annual is pretty good, though do you end up rebalancing your portfolio to maintain the alotted % to each ETF in your entire ETF portfolio? Just curious 🙂 I’ve been lazy at doing that myself, honestly.

I had heard that the E-series funds were a royal PITA to deal with, but I have to admit to using low cost ETFs and not actually having any direct dealings with them myself. I know they are well reviewed in theory, but several people have had problems with their execution.

In my mind the main advantage large index funds have over dividend-payers is that they get to capture a lot of growth from small companies. The Russell 2000 index for example will usually outpace the S&P over a long enough time period. Does anyone have any relevant long-term comparison charts on this? I couldn’t find any, but I seem to remember that small-cap stocks averaged 13% ROI overtime (in the USA), and that the average over the last 200 years for the whole market was about 10%.

young says:

@T.M- For me, the drawback of using ETFs is having to pay the regular commission to trade them. How often do you “top up” your ETFs, TM? I like the idea of contributing monthly and the eseries are great because I can do this and not really have to worry about them. I have a few ETFs and I top them up whenever I get some extra $ but this is probably resulting in once a year top up.

SavingMentor says:

Don’t worry schultzer, that happens to all of us around here. It’s a bug that she hasn’t managed to squash yet I believe.

young says:

@SavingMentor- LOL That’s because after almost 2 years, I”m still a codex NEWB! I think it has to do with the original theme or something. My apologies to all!

schultzter says:

Hmmm, sorry Young. I hit reply but it added my response to the end the comments.

schultzter says:

For example:
RBC Canadian Index Fund, Series: A, Fund Code: RBF556
Series: A MER %: 0.71

That’s probably double the MER of the equivalent TD E-Series fund, and although you can do all your transactions online they’re still sending paper confirmations and quarterly statements. Other RBC accounts have switched to PDF’s so every now and then I bug them about the mutual funds too (and of course they promise great things are coming, stay tuned…).

I just got so fed up with TD, and being told I can’t talk to anyone because E-Series funds are dealt with via e-mail but every reply I got told me to contact a qualified mutual fund representative at my local branch!

young says:

@schultzter- Excellent! Thanks! I’ll definitely keep these in mind. I do have some banking with RBC and may add on to this. 0.71% is still better than 3.2% in my opinion. I’m still getting my paper statements for our mortgage from RBC and they keep asking me to switch. I still love my paper statements for record keeping. Just like OLD TWITTER, I’m going to try and keep paper statements around as long as possible.
Very true about e-series. I had a PAIN trying to get money out from my RRSPs for my HBP down payment.

Great post!

Absolutely I index invest, but for my RRSP only.

Everything else is dividend-paying stocks. I love those. It’s not that sexy to own a bank stock, but it pays me well 🙂

young says:

@My Own Advisor- What about TFSA’s? What are you doing for your TFSA’s mark? I think bank stocks are sexy. Especially if they give you dividends and pay you well! 😉

SavingMentor says:

I find these numbers to be surprising. I know that mutual funds do poorly often times when compared to ETFs but I thought the number would have been a fair bit higher than 13!

Although, one thing you need to be very careful of is comparing apples to apples. Those mutual funds on Morningstar are not all 100% equities. You can’t expect a fixed income ETF to compare well to an equities index in most cases.

young says:

@SavingMentor- Hey, don’t doubt Teacher Man, he does his research! 😉 About comparing equities index and fixed income ETF, very true Saving Mentor.

Leigh says:

I index invest! I really have zero interest in picking individual stocks, so this works quite well for me. It also seems, so far, that it is far less complicated than picking individual stocks myself.

young says:

@Leigh- Yeah, as time goes by, the more I just want to plunk money down into index invest. I’m finding I can’t be bothered to research and pick individual stocks. My strategy going forward is to just pick dividend stocks and invest in my TD e-series.

schultzter says:

One thing you should mention about the E-Series funds from TD is that you have to have an E-series account with TD Bank. You can’t buy them from any bank or brokerage, this is a serious limitation!

I found that Royal Bank and Altamira both had some very good alternatives to TD’s E-Series. Not to mention the ETF’s that are out there too. And those are all available from any brokerage.

young says:

@schultzter- Yes! Great point, I missed that when reading through the article. And as we all know, it can be a PITA to get an e-series account set up with TD bank. I wasn’t aware of alternatives to TD banks e-series. What are the Royal Bank and Altamira funds called? Are they delivered online as well?