Originally Aired: March 17, 2016
Topic: Burton Malkiel: A Random Walk Down Wall Street Decades of Investment Wisdom
The Lange Money Hour: Where Smart Money Talks
James Lange, CPA/Attorney
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- Guest Introduction: Burton Malkiel
- Are Index Funds the Right Choice for Today?
- Exchange-Traded Funds
- International Markets
- Behavioral Finance
Welcome to The Lange Money Hour: Where Smart Money Talks with expert advice from Jim Lange, Pittsburgh-based CPA, attorney, and retirement and estate planning expert. Jim is also the author of Retire Secure! Pay Taxes Later. To find out more about his book, his practice, Lange Financial Group, and how to secure Jim as a speaker for your next event, visit his website at paytaxeslater.com. Now get ready to talk smart money.
1. Guest Introduction: Burton Malkiel, Author, Professor, Economist
Dan Weinberg: And welcome to The Lange Money Hour. I’m Dan Weinberg, along with CPA and attorney Jim Lange. Tonight, we’re welcoming renowned economist, professor and author Burton Malkiel to the program. Professor Malkiel teaches economics at Princeton University, where he’s a two-time chairman of the economics department. He served as a member of the Council of Economic Advisors and as the president of the American Finance Association. He was the director of the Vanguard Group for twenty-eight years and today is the chief investment officer to financial advisor Wealthfront, Inc. Professor Malkiel has also written numerous books, including his classic finance book, A Random Walk Down Wall Street, which has just been updated for 2016. That book is considered by many to be the very first book to purchase when starting a portfolio. Tonight, Jim and Professor Malkiel will be talking about a wide range of investment issues, specifically focusing on how investors should behave in today’s volatile and scary markets. With that, let’s get started on what promises to be a fascinating hour. Good evening, Jim, and let’s welcome Professor Burton Malkiel.
Jim Lange: Welcome Burt!
Burton Malkiel: Thank you.
Jim Lange: Well, Dan’s introduction doesn’t really give justice to your book, because your book, if it’s not the top financial book in the country, it’s certainly one of them. Forbes magazine says that not more than a half-dozen really good books about investing have been written in the past fifty years, and this is one of them. The LA Times says “Do you want to do well in the stock market? Buy this book. Take what’s left. Put it in index funds.” Barron’s basically is giving a glowing recommendation. The Wall Street Journal, “Talk to ten money experts, and you’re likely to hear ten recommendations for Burton Malkiel’s classic investing book.” All right, so, listeners, this is something that every one of you should have, and I don’t care if you’re twenty-five, if you’re a hundred and five, if you’re retired, you’re thinking about retiring, if you have any money at all, this is one that you don’t even think about, and for anybody here that goes out and buys it and isn’t absolutely delighted, I will personally double your money back. And it’s just a wonderful resource, and again, it’s A Random Walk Down Wall Street: The Time-Tested Strategy for Successful Investingby Burton Malkiel. It’s now in the twelfth or thirteenth edition. This is just the classic. He just updated it for 2016. This is one that you don’t even think about, you absolutely buy. So anyway, Burt, one of the things that you talk about of course is index investing, and I think that you’ve been a proponent of index investing for forty years. But some people say, “Hey, you know, with today’s volatile market and what’s going on and it’s pretty complicated, just buying a set of index funds might not be the best return, and that I might do better actually picking stocks.” How would you respond to somebody who says, “Well yeah, we get the value of index, but maybe not today. Maybe today, we’re better off having an active money manager or even picking the stocks ourselves.”
2. Are Index Funds the Right Choice for Today?
Burton Malkiel: Well, it’s interesting that I think you hear that every year. I remember at the beginning of 2014, there were many articles, “Well, indexing did well last year, but this is a stock pickers market.” And then the data would come in for the year and eighty to ninety percent of the active managers were outperformed by a simple, low-cost, broad based index fund. The same thing was said in 2014, and again, the same thing happened, and the interesting thing was that the few outperformers there were in 2013 weren’t the same ones that outperformed in 2014. Again, 2015, exactly the same thing, and in 2016, in this year, people are saying exactly the same thing, and my guess is that we’ve now got enough evidence on our side to suggest that it will be wrong again. And you know, it’s one thing that I’m even more convinced about than I was in 1973 when I first wrote the book that indexing is a time tested strategy that doesn’t give you average returns, it gives you above average returns, and particularly in what promises to be a low return environment when we have the ten-year treasury in the United States selling to yield one-and-three-quarters percent, actually just over 1.7 percent today, and we have the ten-year treasury in Germany yielding two-tenths of one percent, and short-term rates being negative in many parts of the world. The idea of getting your fees as low as possible and buying the broadest based index fund you can find is, I believe, absolutely the best strategy for all investors, whether they’re individual or institutional.
Jim Lange: Well, that is the story and the recommendations of your book, and consistently for forty years, and you’re saying that even forty years later, with all the studies that you have done, all the books that you have come out with, obviously having access to the top financial minds in the country (and you’re certainly one of them), you are still convinced that a broad based low-cost index is the way to go. Is that correct?
Burton Malkiel: That is correct. One of the reasons that I update the book is partly because there are new instruments all the time. I mean, for example, the ETF revolution is something that I have paid a lot of attention to in the newest edition of the book, and you have to keep asking yourself, ‘Okay, you’ve made a particular prediction, you’ve said that this was the best advice, was it?’ And I am pleased to say that the answer is it indeed was good advice and I think continues to be.
Jim Lange: So, history has certainly vindicated you, and I think that you have some pretty compelling proof in your book, that is that the advice that you were giving forty years ago, twenty years ago, ten years ago, five years ago, had people listened to you, you have some pretty startling numbers about how much better off they would be. You just mentioned ETFs as one of the more popular investment vehicles that was not around forty years ago or twenty years ago or even ten years ago. Could you tell our listeners your opinion about ETFs in general, and what they should be looking for or avoiding?
Burton Malkiel: Sure. What the ETF is is basically an index fund that trades like a stock. One of the most popular ETFs is SPY, which is an index fund that trades basically the Standard and Poor’s 500 index. That’s a fine one to have, although my own view is that a better ETF is what I would call a Total Stock Market Index, that is it includes all of the stocks, not simply the five hundred largest, but also a number of so-called ‘mid cap stocks’ and ‘small cap stocks,’ and that ETF, one of the best ones, trades under the ticker symbol VTI, and the beauty of it is that we’re talking about an expense ratio of five basis points, by which I mean five one-hundredths of one percent. And you know, Jim, one of the things that I like to say is I think all of us who give advice about the stock market need to be reasonably modest about what we know and don’t know, but the one thing that I am absolutely sure about is that the lower the fee that I pay to the purveyor of the investment service, the more there is going to be for me. So, those are the kinds of ETFs that I think are the right ETFs for investors to use. There are, however, a few ETFs that I do think you ought to be somewhat suspicious of, and there are lots of different ETFs, including ones that are really just designed for speculation. I mean, let me give you an example of one that I do not recommend that people use, and that’s one that is designed to give you three times the upside of the S&P 500, or three times the downside of the S&P 500. These are basically instruments that will allow you to speculate. They don’t even do what they are supposed to in that something that will give you three times the upside of the S&P will do it for one day, but if you hold it for a month, you don’t get three times the upside of the S&P 500. So, they don’t even do what they’re supposed to do, and they’re basically speculative instruments rather than investing instruments. So, basically, I recommend ETFs, but not all ETFs, basically the broad based index funds, including those such as VTI, which give you the whole stock market and give it to you at rock bottom expenses.
Jim Lange: Well, can we pick up on that idea of the whole stock market? Because let’s say that you’re one of our listeners, and let’s say that you’re savvy, or at least you think you’re savvy, and they say, “Okay, we get it. Burton Malkiel is one of the top guys in the country.” And by the way, the book that I am going to recommend to everybody, and don’t even think about it, and I will personally double your money back if you’re not completely satisfied, A Random Walk Down Wall Street: The Time-Tested Strategy for Successful Investingby Burton Malkiel. You can get it at Amazon. You can get it digitally or you can get it in hardcopy. I’m still old fashioned. I buy the hard copy and I underline and it’s all marked up. But let’s say that people say, “Okay, I get it. So, Burt’s this expert and he says ‘Keep your costs down and do it with an index fund.’ And I get his book sold 1.5 million dollars and things like that, but you know, these days, I’m really kind of worried about some of the different possibilities in the market. Things are very, very volatile. I’m a little bit worried about the market in general. Aren’t I just better off instead of getting this broad based, where I have small and international and mid cap and things like that, what if I just stick to the S&P 500? Five hundred large U.S. companies, many of which, if not most of which, I’ve heard of, I know what they do, and just kind of keep it simple and keep my risk down by investing in big well-known companies with good, solid brands.” How would you respond to somebody like that? Let’s just say thinking about that versus even a more broad based index that might have, let’s say, international exposure, for example?
Burton Malkiel: Well, I think the answer is there’s nothing wrong with buying an S&P 500 index fund, and if one is more comfortable doing that, it is not something that I would disagree with. But the reason for branching out is that while it’s true you probably take on a bit more risk, you are likely to also take on the possibility of getting a higher rate of return. For example, let’s just stick to the United States for the moment. What we know over history is that small cap stocks, smaller companies, more entrepreneurial companies, have produced a somewhat higher rate of return than the large cap companies have. There is data compiled by a company called Ibbotson Associates that suggests that over the years from 1926 through 2015, small cap stocks have given investors a rate of return a couple of percentage points higher than the rate of return on large cap stocks, and in an environment that we are in now, that probably is an environment of somewhat lower rates of return than we have had in the past. To be sure, the small cap stocks are somewhat more volatile, and, you know, if you can’t sleep at night with them, fine. I don’t say that everyone necessarily has to do that, but for those who can take a bit more risk, you are likely to have a somewhat higher rate of return with a broader based index fund than you will with a narrower one.
Now, I think the same thing is also true of diversifying internationally. After all, the United States capital markets are less than half of the capital markets all over the world, and while the rest of the world tends to be somewhat more volatile and a little bit riskier, there’s no question about the fact that the growth in the rest of the world, particularly in the emerging markets of the world, is likely to be a good bit higher than in the United States. If you use the estimates, for example, of the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, you would find that their estimates of world growth are generally somewhat higher than the estimates for the United States, in large part because the emerging economies of the world are growing faster than the developed world. They tend to have younger populations, they tend to have an expanding middle class, and certainly longer run opportunities for growth that are larger than the ones in the United States. To be sure, they’re much more volatile, you are adding a degree of risk, and, you know, for those…I think it was J.P. Morgan who said, “Gee, I’m worried about some of those stocks. I can’t sleep at night. What should I do?” And he said, “Well, sell down to the sleeping point. If you can’t stand the heat, okay. Get out of the kitchen.” But for those who can accept the day to day volatility, which is going to be greater in emerging markets, then I think that over the long pull, you will have a higher rate of return and a broadly diversified portfolio will take some of the sting out, some of the risk out, of having some of these very volatile emerging markets in your portfolio.
Jim Lange: Well, I would agree with that. In our own practice, we have a slightly different approach. Rather than buying a broad based index, we buy multiple indexes, and we will have what we would call ‘buckets.’ For example, the international, or the international small bucket, or the small cap bucket, that would be a bucket that we weren’t planning to spend for at least ten years. So, we would have a more conservative bucket, and by the way, even cash, CDs and fixed income for, let’s call it, the first year, the first two years, of cash flow, then a different bucket that might be more moderate, and then the more aggressive out into the future, and then we would also have different tax strategies. So, for example, the longer runs buckets, if you will, we would probably have in Roth IRAs and Roth IRA conversions. But I don’t think that that’s inconsistent with what you’re saying.
Burton Malkiel: Not inconsistent at all, and these are, I think, very important points. First of all, it is in fact true that stocks, and particularly some of the more volatile international stocks, are less risky for those who have long holding periods, and to the extent that we are talking about a young person saving for retirement, who’s going to be investing for twenty-thirty-forty years, this also will take a lot of the sting out of the very short-term volatility, which, admittedly, is a good bit higher for some of these riskier markets. And in terms of your point about buckets, you are absolutely right. I have always said, and it’s just very clear in my book, that if you’ve got money for Junior’s college tuition next year, you don’t put it stocks at all. I say you go to one of the internet banks and you buy a one-year CD. You’ll get only one-and-a-quarter percent interest, but you’ll get it government guaranteed because you have the CD in a deposit that is insured by the U.S. government, and that’s the only way to invest that money. So, that bucket, absolutely. For the known expenditures, one or two years in the future, that’s the thing that you do, and what I’m talking about is your long-run retirement money that might well be in an IRA or a Roth IRA, and that also brings up the point that you not only want to minimize expenses, but you want to minimize taxes as well, and for people of moderate means who can qualify for it, the Roth IRA is a wonderful thing to do, where you don’t get an immediate tax deduction, but all of your money compounds without paying taxes, and when you finally do spend it in retirement, it’s all tax-free.
Jim Lange: We are here with Burt Malkiel, the author of really one of the classic top two or three financial books of all time. I think I gave a few testimonials for it before. I will also repeat my offer: if anybody buys it, and this not only includes the Pittsburgh area, but I know that we also have an internet audience, if anybody buys it and isn’t completely delighted, I will personally double back your money, and the name of the book is A Random Walk Down Wall Street: The Time-Tested Strategy for Successful Investing. This is one of the classics. The Wall Street Journal says, “Talk to ten money experts, and you’re likely to hear ten recommendations for Burton Malkiel’s classic investing books.” Forbes says that “Not more than a half-dozen good books about investing have been written in the past fifty years. This is one of them.” We’ve already heard some great information about index investing and keeping costs down, but before we went to the break, Burt mentioned keeping taxes down, and Burt, I understand that you are involved with a company that does attempt to do that, and that you are the chief investment officer for a group called Wealthfront. Could you tell us a little bit about what Wealthfront does?
Burton Malkiel: Sure. We are what is called an ‘automated investment advisor’ in that what we will do is what a general investment advisor will do, is put together a portfolio for you. We use, of course, index funds. We use ETFs. We rebalance them so that we keep the risk of your portfolio consistent with the risk that you are comfortable assuming. And because we do it in an automated way, we charge only one quarter of one percent maximum, and we, in fact, do the first ten thousand dollars for free. So, we think there are two advantages of that. One is a typical investment advisor will charge you one percent, two percent, or even three percent for managing your portfolio, and we do it at a very low rate, and secondly, we are unconflicted. One of the problems with using, say, an investment advisor, I won’t mention the broker’s name, but if you, say, get a wrap account at one of the leading brokers, they’ll probably charge you three percent, and they are conflicted because if they put you into a mutual fund, they’re more likely to put you into an actively managed mutual fund on which they get an extra commission for selling that fund to you. And so, we are unconflicted, and we charge rock bottom expenses, and again, as I had told you earlier, Jim, the one thing I’m sure about is the lower fee that you pay, the more money there is going to be for you.
Now, the other thing that we do, and we’re able to do it very efficiently because we do it in an automated way, is to take advantage of what we call ‘tax loss harvesting.’ And what that will do is when you’ve got some really tough markets, and I think every investor knows, the last year or so has not been a super pleasant year for investors. At least, what we can do is take advantage of the tax losses to reduce our income taxes. Now, what that means is this: let’s think of a period, such as a recent period, when the U.S. stock market had its correction and went down ten-twelve-fifteen percent. What we will do and do this in an automated fashion is we will, let’s say, sell one exchange traded fund, on which we have a loss, to realize that loss and buy an equivalent, but not exactly the same, ETF to keep our position in the market, but which enables us to take the loss for tax purposes. And as long as you don’t buy back the same ETF, you can’t do that because that’s what’s called a ‘wash sale,’ and not allowed for tax purposes, but if you buy a somewhat different one that tracks an equivalent but not the identical index, you can then take the tax loss, and at least you get some advantage from the decline in the market while keeping your position. So, we believe that last year at Wealthfront, we probably gave people between one and two percent extra after-tax return from being very clever about, in an automated way, taking whatever tax loss was available. And again, that’s something that sophisticated investment advisors generally have done for their wealthy clients, but we will do this now for individuals and do it at a very low fee. So, again, you know, control the things that you can control. Nobody can control what the stock market’s going to do, but you can keep your fees low, and to the extent that you are in a bad market, at least get the advantages of taking the tax losses you can and lowering your income tax to the maximum extent you can. And up to a certain amount, these tax losses can be taken right on your income tax return and will lower the taxes that you have to pay, and at least what you do then is in the taxable part of your portfolio, you get the government to at least subsidize some of your losses.
Jim Lange: Well, I will tell you, as a CPA who has thirty-five years of experience, and we actually do this…now, we do it manually for our clients, and I think that the savings of one percent, two percent, not every year, but that’s not a fantastically unrealistic amount of money that can be saved with doing tax loss harvesting. The fact that you are doing it, in effect, in an automated way, and you’re doing it and doing the asset allocation for basically twenty-five basis points is really a pretty phenomenal deal. So, you are the chief investment officer, and the group is called Wealthfront. Could you give our listeners a contact for Wealthfront in the event that they are interested?
Burton Malkiel: Well, again, you don’t call them up. The reason that the fees are so low is it’s all done automatedly, and you go to Wealthfront.com and you’ll get the information. So basically, again, this is a computer service, and go to Wealthfront.com and take it from there.
Jim Lange: And this, frankly, makes a lot of sense. I think it might make a lot of sense for a lot of people, but particularly for a young investor who might not have the minimum for a traditional investment advisor, or even if you do and you want to keep your fees low like Burt is recommending, and you want the advantage of the tax loss harvesting. You want the advantage of a well-balanced and well-diversified portfolio with automatic rebalancing. This might be a great idea.
We are here with Burt Malkiel, the author of A Random Walk Down Wall Street, one of the top finance books, literally, of all time. Forbes magazine says that “Not more than a half-dozen really good books about investing have been written in the past fifty years. This is one of them.” The Wall Street Journal says, “Talk to ten money experts, and you’re likely to hear ten recommendations for Burton Malkiel’s classic investing books.” There’s a whole slew of very powerful testimonials for this book, and I’ve personally made my offer to double the price if you buy it and you are not completely delighted.
Anyway, before the break, we said that we were going to talk about behavioral finance, but Burt wanted to make a point about international and emerging market investing. Now, I know a lot of our listeners, you know, they’re raising their eyebrows and they’re saying, “International? Are you crazy? What’s going on with China right now and with ISIS and all these problems overseas? It’s bad enough, the volatility in the United States. Why don’t I just stick to the United States and not get into these crazy emerging market countries where the politics are unstable and who knows what’s going to happen?” How would you answer somebody who is very reluctant to go into those markets for those reasons?
Burton Malkiel: Sure. You know, Warren Buffett, who’s arguably one of the legendary great investors, has an expression that one thing you should do is to be wary about investing when everybody’s optimistic, and generally the best times to buy are when everyone is extraordinarily worried, and as I’ve already said, Jim, the emerging markets are slowing down, but they’re still growing faster than the United States. China had been growing at ten percent a year. Last year, it was seven percent. This year, their goals are six-and-a-half percent, and it could be even lower than that, but remember, we’re growing at two percent in the U.S. So, the growth is there. But also, because of the great fear, the valuations really are much lower in the rest of the world than they are in the United States. One good way of looking at stock valuations is with what’s called the ‘cyclically adjusted price earnings multiple.’ That is, it’s not the price divided by the last twelve month’s earnings, but rather the price divided by long-run earnings, and one way to do this is to average earnings over the last five or ten years, and this is called the cyclically adjusted price earnings multiple. It’s sometimes called the CAPE. Sometimes, it’s called the Shiller price earnings multiple because it was one of the things popularized by Bob Shiller in his book Irrational Exuberance. And when you look at this, you find that for the U.S. market, the CAPE is about twenty-four, and it’s well above average because average is seventeen or so. So, you know, our stock market is not ridiculously overpriced. I don’t think anyone can say that, but it’s not cheap. But if you look around the world, the CAPE is nineteen or twenty in Japan, it’s fourteen or fifteen in Europe, and in the emerging markets where there is the most worry, “Oh my god, China is slowing down. It’s collapsing,” the CAPEs for the emerging markets are nine or ten. So, again, the point is, it’s not that there isn’t a lot of risk there, but there’s no doubt in my mind that not only is growth in the emerging markets likely to be considerably higher than in the developed markets, but also the valuations are a good bit lower. So, it’s one thing to keep in mind. The other thing to keep in mind about economic growth, one of the major factors in the growth of any national economy is the age structure of its population, and we’re aging in the United States. We’re getting older and older. There are more retired people relative to people of working age population, and this is particularly true in Europe, which is aging even more rapidly than in the United States, and it’s especially true in Japan, where soon there will be more non-workers than there are workers. The places in the world with the young populations are in the emerging markets. Those are the ones that are likely to be the fastest growers in the current century. And again, it’s something to keep in mind. Growth is likely to be higher and valuations, because of all the fear, are considerably lower. Don’t go crazy, but again, having a bit of one’s portfolio in these markets, I believe, is a very good idea for most investors who can stand the risk and who have a long investment horizon.
Jim Lange: Great, and I’ll just reiterate the way that we do that in our office, and certainly the listeners can do that themselves. Rather than, as Burt suggested, which is the simple way, having a broad-based index, we have multiple indexes, and have, in effect, a bucket or a long-term strategy where that is are separate buckets, where you can afford to have the volatility of the investment go up and down because the plan isn’t to touch it for ten-fifteen years, or sometimes even legacy money, and then we were talking a little bit about tax efficiency with Roth IRAs and Roth IRA conversions, which, of course, is one of my big areas. You know, I would not do a Roth IRA conversion for money that you’re going to need in the near term. I would do it for money that’s way down the line.
Burton Malkiel: Absolutely, absolutely.
Jim Lange: Well, the other area that you have written about, which is not in your past editions, at least not to the extent that it is in this edition, is some of the new findings in behavioral finance, and I will personally attest that this might be one of the biggest reasons why investors, even index investors, don’t get the return of the indexes, because of, let’s call it, bad behaviors. So, can you maybe wrap up the show, and how many minutes do we have left, Dan?
Dan Weinberg: A couple more minutes. Three minutes.
Jim Lange: All right. So, we have a couple more minutes, so in a couple minutes, here we have Burton Malkiel, author of A Random Walk Down Wall Street, one of the classic books of all time, with a new edition that I’m going to recommend everybody get, talking about what might be the most important thing, which is behavioral finance. We have three-and-a-half minutes left.
Burton Malkiel: Sure, Jim, and I think this is so important. Mistakes that people make are what really kills them in investing. When you look at investors in general equity funds, the finding that you see is the following: that let’s say that this is an equity fund that over the past twenty years produced an eight percent overall rate of return. And then you ask, “What did individual investors get?” In other words, it’s an eight-and-a-half percent return or an eight percent return if you bought at the beginning, just reinvested your dividends, and then sold at the end. But investors don’t necessarily do that. The problem is that investors put their money into mutual funds when they are very optimistic. More money went into mutual funds at the height of the internet bubble in January, February and March of 2000 than ever before. That turned out to be the top of the market. The money then came out in 2002, and more money came out of equity mutual funds in 2008 when the world was collapsing and where valuations were very low. So, the problem is that a fund may have given an eight percent return over twenty years, but if you went in at the top and then you sold out at the bottom, you didn’t get eight-and-a-half percent or eight percent. You got very, very little. And so, protecting yourself from that, protecting yourself from emotions, staying the course, you know, and in fact, dollar cost averaging where you put money in periodically into your retirement fund, yep, you’re going to buy at the top sometime. But nobody can time the market. You’re also going to buy at the bottom, and you’re going to avoid the temptation to go and buy at the top and sell at the bottom. Boy, if investors could learn that lesson, that would be perhaps the most important lesson that investors can learn, and it’s really just so clear, the finding of behavioral finance, that people tend to do the wrong thing. Take the emotion out, just put money in periodically, and boy, you will have a much better rate of return and much less risk than to go and try to do the market timing that nobody, and I mean nobody, can do properly.
Jim Lange: And we have heard from really one of the top, if not the top, financial experts in the country, Burton Malkiel, the author of a brand new edition of the classic book A Random Walk Down Wall Street: The Time-Tested Strategy for Successful Investing, that I’m going to recommend that everybody who is listening to this show go out and buy it, don’t even think about it.