ISMS 30: Larry Swedroe – Do You Believe Your Fortune Is in the Stars or Rely on Misleading Information?

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Quick take

In this episode of Investment Strategy Made Simple (ISMS), Andrew gets into part two of his discussion with Larry Swedroe: Ignorance is Bliss. Today, they discuss two chapters of Larry’s book Investment Mistakes Even Smart Investors Make and How to Avoid Them. In this tenth series, they discuss mistake number 18: Do you believe your fortune is in the stars? And mistake number 19: Do you rely on misleading information?

LEARNING: Stop thinking about having your fortune in the stars. Avoid actively managed funds. Be cautious when evaluating claims about fund performance.


“Stop thinking about having your fortune in the stars. Morningstar won’t help you.”

Larry Swedroe


In today’s episode, Andrew continues his discussion with Larry Swedroe, head of financial and economic research at Buckingham Wealth Partners. You can learn more about Larry’s Worst Investment Ever story on Ep645: Beware of Idiosyncratic Risks.

Larry deeply understands the world of academic research and investing, especially risk. Today Andrew and Larry discuss a chapter of Larry’s book Investment Mistakes Even Smart Investors Make and How to Avoid Them. In this tenth series, they discuss mistake number 18: 18: Do you believe your fortune is in the stars? And mistake number 19: Do you rely on misleading information?

Mistake number 18: Do you believe your fortune is in the stars?

According to Larry, people are still relying heavily on Morningstar ratings. When Morningstar increases its rating, cash tends to flow in, and money flows out when it lowers its rating. Morningstar’s ratings, similar to film critics’ ratings, are widely used by investors to determine fund performance and which funds to invest in.

However, these ratings are not a reliable way to choose your investment. Even Morningstar eventually reported in a study that they found that the fund’s expense ratio was a better predictor than Morningstar’s ratings. According to Larry, that’s precisely what you would expect if markets are efficient, which means that good stock pickers can’t exploit the market.

So, people who rely on Morningstar ratings are just fooling themselves. There’s no informational value in Morningstar’s rating system.

Larry says that investors are best served by simply avoiding actively managed funds. Choose the asset classes you want to invest in, then do some research. Look for low-cost funds/instruments that give you the most exposure per unit of cost. Stop thinking about having your fortune in the stars. Morningstar won’t help you. Neither will an advisor who’s recommending actively managed funds.

Mistake number 19: Do you rely on misleading information?

In this chapter, Larry discusses the issue of misleading information in the investment industry, particularly concerning mutual fund returns, and highlights two biases that distort reported returns.

According to Larry, survivorship bias is where poorly performing funds disappear over time through mergers with better-performing funds. However, the reported performance of the merged funds doesn’t reflect the poor returns of the disappearing funds. This bias leads to an overestimation of average fund returns, as demonstrated by an example from 1986 to 1996, where the disappearance of underperforming funds led to an apparent improvement in overall returns.

Larry mentions a second bias, incubator funds. These are newly created funds that mutual fund families seed with their capital and keep away from public scrutiny. Fund companies often bring public only the fund with the best performance from a group of incubator funds, effectively hiding the underperforming ones. The SEC’s allowance for not reporting the pre-public performance of incubator funds leads to potential distortions in reported returns. Examples of abuse, such as allocating hot initial public offerings (IPOs) to small incubator funds to enhance their returns, further exacerbate this bias.

Larry recommends prohibiting advertising returns before a fund is available to the public. This could help mitigate the potential for biased reporting. Additionally, he advises investors to be cautious when evaluating claims about fund performance and to ensure that reported data doesn’t contain the two biases he’s mentioned.

Did you miss out on previous mistakes? Check them out:

About Larry Swedroe

Larry Swedroe is head of financial and economic research at Buckingham Wealth Partners. Since joining the firm in 1996, Larry has spent his time, talent, and energy educating investors on the benefits of evidence-based investing with an enthusiasm few can match.

Larry was among the first authors to publish a book that explained the science of investing in layman’s terms, “The Only Guide to a Winning Investment Strategy You’ll Ever Need.” He has authored or co-authored 18 books.

Larry’s dedication to helping others has made him a sought-after national speaker. He has made appearances on national television on various outlets.

Larry is a prolific writer, regularly contributing to multiple outlets, including AlphaArchitect, Advisor Perspectives, and Wealth Management.


Read full transcript

Andrew Stotz 00:00
Hey, fellow risk takers this is your worst podcast hosts Andrew Stotz, from a Stotz Academy and today, I'm continuing my discussions with Larry swedroe, who is head of financial and economic research at Buckingham wealth partners, you can learn more about his story, and episode 645. Now, Larry deeply understands the world of academic research about investing, especially risk. And today we're going to discuss a few chapters from his book investment mistakes even smart investors make and how to avoid them. Part one of the book we've already been through, and that's understanding and controlling human behavior, and how that is important determinant of investment performance. And now we're starting or continuing into part two, ignorance is bliss. And Mistake number 18. And 19 is what we are covering Mistake number 18. Is do you believe you're fortunate in the stars? And Mistake number 19? Do you rely on Miss leading information? Larry, take it away?

Larry Swedroe 01:01
Yeah, let's start with the Morningstar one. It's kind of an interesting problem that investors face today. Because unlike in the 1950s, let's say, when we had 1000s of stocks, and about 100 mutual funds, today, you have about 3700, I think stocks in the US on the exchanges, and you have a multiple of that in mutual funds. So how do people go about choosing funds? Well, we know from the evidence and cash flows, that people even today rely heavily on Morningstar ratings, probably not as much as they did when I wrote my first books. Now, 25 years ago, when Morningstar was viewed as kind of like, you know, the Guru's out there. And, you know, everyone advertise to how many star ratings that you couldn't pick up a newspaper or a magazine. Without that show it, you don't see that so much anymore, because maybe people have learned what I wrote about in my book, but we do know, still, from the last studies that I've seen, when Morningstar increases the rating, then cash tends to flow in and when they lower rating than cash flows out. And so we know people even today rely, you know, on Morningstar to make their investment decisions in terms of choosing which funds, but my guess is probably not as heavily as I mentioned, as they would have 1520 years ago. So now the question is, does it work? Right? Well, even Morningstar eventually reported in a study that they found that the expense ratio of the fun was a better predictor than Morningstar is on ratings. And that's really kind of what exactly what you would expect if markets are efficient, which means that good stock pickers can't are not likely to be able to exploit the market. And that means that dumb or naive stock pickers are not likely to get exploited, because the collective wisdom of the market gets it about right. So if you just rank by expenses, you're likely to show the lower expense funds tend to perform better, and the high expense funds tend to perform worse. And that's exactly what the research shows. So people who rely, even today on Morningstar ratings are really just fooling themselves. There's no informational value in Morningstar, his rating system.

Andrew Stotz 04:01
This is, you know, kind of distressing sometimes when you think about well, first of all, all the money that goes into creating Morningstar ratings, number one, but number two, what's a person to do? Write that? I thought that I could rely on this. Okay, so maybe you run a, you're looking you're looking at using these? And you say, okay, Larry, I understand a five star rating funds not going to do that well in the future. But, hey, come on. What I'm going to do is telling my clients only look at four and five star funds, right? Because maybe, okay, it's gonna go out of favor down to four, but it's gonna come back and therefore, you know, is there any way to gain this thing?

Larry Swedroe 04:46
Well, first of all, again, you have to ask yourself logically, unfortunately, most people don't do this because they don't take the time to read books like mine or John Vogel's or William Bernstein stuff so They learned the evidence. But I think we did discuss this in one of the prior episodes. There are major consulting firms that consult with the largest investors in the world, like California's public retirement, pension retirement system. And, you know, many of the global sovereign wealth funds even. These are firms like Goldman Sachs. And there are many other, you know, leading consulting firms that people rely on. And the evidence shows that the pension plans that hire them, to help them choose, the managers that they recommend, go on to out Sorry, go on the ones that they hire, right to replace someone they're firing, the ones that they hired, go on to underperform, the very ones they fired. So they were better off never changing in the first place. But they would have been even better off just investing in index funds. So if these large pension plan consultants who, you know, people like Russell, which has a huge consulting business in, you know, probably 100, civilians, you know, doing that they have really smart people, you know, engaged and they do 1000s of in depth entities, you could be sure they've got massive computer databases, to help them analyze and think about every kind of way to massage those numbers. Right. So they don't look at just one or two years, how consistent the fund is, you know, anything you could think of you could be sure they thought up right. And they found persistently. So why does somebody think that Morningstar, you know, who doesn't have the resources that the stock pension plans is likely to do any better, Morningstar produces it, my guess is because they know itself. So people buy it, so they keep producing it. But there really is no value in it. And investors are best served by simply avoiding actively managed funds, choose the asset classes are factors that you want to invest in, and then do a little research, look for ones that are low costs, and give you the most exposure per unit of costs to those factors or asset classes. So it doesn't mean you're necessarily going to choose the cheapest fun, because for example, you may want to invest in small value stocks, I'm just gonna make this up. But let's say you decide to choose Vanguard small value fund, well, it might logically be the cheapest, certainly, among the cheapest things, something like eight basis points, but it's really not small cap, and it's not very valued. If you look at their median market cap, and their P E ratios are more willing to pay, say 25 basis points for Avantis, a small value fund, because it's much smaller, and much deeper value. And I believe that will far more than make up for the extra 18 basis points in expenses. Because the premiums and small value stocks have been about roughly let's call it two or 3% a year. So if you can get 20 basis, or 20% more exposure, just to pick a number that gives you 60 basis points in gain versus the 17 or 18 basis points. You may not I'm not saying that's the math, but that's the math that I do when I look to see which is the best vehicle to choose from. And, you know, and how you trade matters as well or your patient trade or do you get caught up in index rebalancing. And you know, the high frequency traders are going to trade ahead of you if you're a pure replicator. So I try to avoid all funds and pure replicators. For that reason, you can avoid that. And you want to look for funds that trade patiently to avoid the market impact costs we talked about. So but generally just stop thinking about having your fortune in the stars. Morningstar won't help you. Neither will an advisor who's recommending actively managed funds, they're not likely to help you eat

Andrew Stotz 09:46
well. So I have one little simple, easy question right at the end of this little one, which is so why does Morningstar exist?

Larry Swedroe 09:55
Well, Morningstar does produce lots of good information I use it all the time to compare mutual funds to look at their valuation metrics, how much exposure they have to various factors that you have performance data you can look at. They've got a good team of people who do good research or read a lot of their work. So I think Morningstar is a very good organization. I just don't use their star ratings. I use them for other things that they are good at.

Andrew Stotz 10:30
That's a great point, you know, they do provide a great service, when I want to compare funds, for sure. Definitely helps. And as you say, some of the research they do is very, you know, excellent, you know, research. So it's just really a matter of, you just can't put your faith in the stars. You know, that's just not the way to build a portfolio.

Larry Swedroe 10:52
Yeah, fair. Have a lot of good people. Christine Benz, Jeffery PTAC. John Rockenfeller, you know, I read pretty much everything that they write. So, you know, Morningstar is a good organization. Just ignore their star ratings.

Andrew Stotz 11:09
There you go. So now, let's look at Mistake number 19. I found this one, you know, fascinating, and it's do you rely on misleading information? Tell us a little bit more about this one.

Larry Swedroe 11:21
Yeah. So this is really an interesting one. I point out in my book, I see if I will give a so we get the numbers. Correct here. There was. You gotta remember now the book is a little bit older. So here's a study was done by Lipper analytics. Now, they've reported that the then existing 568 funds in that year, earn 13.4%. Okay, 1996 comes along. So 10 years later, the funds that, quote They reported existed in 1986, those returns have magically improved the 14.7%. Now how can that happen, their returns are unchanged should be the same. The problem is about 7% of the mutual fund universe disappears every year, almost certainly, because of poor performance, and then cash leaves. And then they can't, the fund isn't large enough to cover the expenses that's needed to operate. So you have a problem, when you look at data and rankings, how a fund ranked for the last 10 years may look better. That's lots of debt funds, you know, gone from the data now. So that's a problem that at least people should be aware of. There's a mutual fund graveyard in the sky, as I call it, all those lousy returns get buried, and fun families don't report them. So you know, use the CSA for Shearson Lehman, right. And they would say we have, you know, 50 of our 55 funds get four or five stars, they didn't tell you that another 15 funds. They close when it disappeared and never worked for five star funds, or warrant when they fold it. This is true of lots of fun families. So you get misleading information. But the worst abuse, that It shocks me that the SEC allows us is your fun family XYZ. And you decide, you know, we know there's this hot theme called AI. And we know people want to invest in it. So what we're going to do is take some of our money. And we'll put $500,000 in five different funds that we will run in an incubator or lab. It's real money. And it's running as a live fun. And then after a year or two years, and they have five different managers, or maybe they have the same manager running five different funds, right? And then they say, All right, let's throw out the returns of the four bad ones, or the ones that didn't do and we'll just take public. They were the one that had the best returns, and then report that as if that was live. I mean, that's just unbelievable that that's a lab. If something's not public yet and you can invest in these incubated funds should not be allowed in the databases. The sound things happened, by the way in hedge fund data bases, but I think now the better ones at least scrubbed for that and will only report funds from the day they start giving you the data. You can't say, well, we've had the Fund for three years. Here's the data. No, you're only giving it us today. So we'll start counting that data today. So that eliminates that incubator bias.

Andrew Stotz 15:18
And you think this is still going on? Well,

Larry Swedroe 15:20
as far as I know, maybe the rules may have changed. But as far as I know, incubated? Well, we know it did go on when I wrote the book. Yeah. Isn't that all along?

Andrew Stotz 15:30
I mean, if they were smart, they just set up 100 funds, randomly select the content, and then pick the five that performed the best and then put a name on it and put a fund manager in charge of instead look at his performance. Well,

Larry Swedroe 15:43
that's basically what was happening. They would, you know, one or two or three, you know, not just one, but they pick two or three funds, might have even been the same manager might have been different managers. And they run them for a year or two, and then take them public, whichever is the best.

Andrew Stotz 16:01
And I think the thing that's even more prevalent is the idea of the disappearing funds. Like just knowing that there's, as you say, this graveyard. So your list 7%.

Larry Swedroe 16:12
Think about, we have lots of roughly 10,000 mutual funds out there. I mean, 700 are disappearing every year, if there are that many, if it's 5000. Today, it's still 350 are disappearing, how many ETFs that get created disappear. My favorite is I wrote a piece about Jim Cramer, I've written about him a few times, why people listen to them is beyond me. When his track record there, we have published papers, showing he doesn't add any value whatsoever. He may be entertaining, that's, you know, maybe your taste, there's some value there. There could be value there, but it doesn't mean you should follow his advice. So one guy got the brilliant idea to put out to Jim Cramer ETFs. One would buy the stocks he recommended the other would short it that just came out a few months ago, one of them has already folded to can you guess which one

to buy one.

Larry Swedroe 17:20
That's right. The other one, my guesses will probably fold because he doesn't add or subtract. He just, you know, churns accounts, and you end up losing money by training on his advice.

Andrew Stotz 17:34
You do all of this great summaries of research. And in order for a good academic paper to be a solid paper, it's got to account for survivorship bias as an example, and I know that the crisp data relative to stocks is very good at survivorship bias, you know, a giant

Larry Swedroe 17:53
mutual fund data now, that's what Bayes Does, does eliminate that survivorship bias?

Andrew Stotz 18:02
And are there any academic reports that academic research that doesn't adjust for this? I mean, like, everybody knows this now, survivorship bias is fully accounted for now.

Larry Swedroe 18:14
I don't see it in any academic papers where you might find is in industry publications, right?

Andrew Stotz 18:22
Where someone just hasn't, you know, taken it on board, because they don't really know what they're talking about.

Larry Swedroe 18:27
No, they know what they're talking about. But they know if they reported correctly, they won't have a story to tell or won't be as good as story?

Andrew Stotz 18:37
Well, I think that's a great breakdown on these two mistakes and things to look out for. It always keeps coming back to the point that you make over and over again, which is that, you know, low costs passive. And I would add in what I've learned from you is exposure, low costs, exposure, factor exposure, funds sometimes can work where you can construct a portfolio of that. But for the average person that doesn't even have the capacity to do all that low costs, broad base

Larry Swedroe 19:14
index, nothing wrong with a good starting point being just a US total market fund with Vanguard and an international total market fund with Vanguard, and that'll give you broad exposure owning 10s of 1000s of different stocks all around the globe. And that's at least a good starting point. It'll be low costs tax efficient. Now, you'll only have exposure to this one factor called Market beta. And there are periods when market beta does poorly long periods were small and value stocks. In a more profitable quality will do far better, but the reverse is also true. But on average, if you tilt your two portfolio to these factors that we wrote about in my book with Andrew Burke and your complete guide to factor Based Investing. On average history says you are highly likely to come out ahead, if you can stay disciplined and stay the course, through the periods, like 2017 through 20. When those factors, all of them pretty much did poorly. But you know, everything goes through long periods of poor performance, the best example that I have to give people always try to remind them, there are three periods where the s&p 500 under full on T bills for at least 13 years, from 29 to 43, is 15 years. So you took all that risk live for the depression, dried down as high as like 90%, your loss, how to stick with it, and you still underperform treasury bills whose yields were really low, because of we had a depression and deflation. Again, from 66, to 80, to underperform T bills, and just recently from 2000, to 12. So that's 45 of the now 94 year period, that's almost half of the time. That means in the other periods, it did got great returns, but only if you were able to stay the course through those really bad time. So there is no cure. And a lot of people say, Well, you know, you just saw on the market, you're more likely to stay disciplined, you don't have this tracking error. i There may be some truth to it. But I think that people will make that case vastly overstate that, because you'd have to wait 15 years, 13 years, 17 years, and still stay disciplined. Let me give you one last great example. 1969 through 2008, that's 40 years, US large growth stocks and us small growth stocks, underperform long term treasury bonds. So for the long term investors saying, Hey, I've got long term, I'm going to just buy longer term bonds, get that term premium over T bills, you were 40 years, you were waiting, and you didn't get a equity risk premium. So you know, I'm not a as big a fan, as lot but it is still, you know, a worthy, you know, option for people to consider at least get started learn about markets. And then you can decide whether you want to tilt to these other factors that history suggests, tend to provide better returns over the long term. And that puts the odds in your favor.

Andrew Stotz 23:00
And would it be correct to say that if you own a broad base market cap weighted index fund, that owns every stock in the market, that you are, in fact exposed to all the different factors? It's not just market, but it's just that exposure? Is market cap weighted exposure?

Larry Swedroe 23:22
No, that's correct. That's wrong. That's what's incorrect. That's where people go wrong. Because what happens is when you own the market, you own let's say, small stocks and light stocks. Okay, so the small cap factor is the return on small caps, minus the return on large caps. Okay, so I'm just making this up. But let's say large caps have got you 10% a year in small caps 12. So you got a 2% premium there. The problem is, when you think about a factor loading, the small caps in your portfolio gives you a positive exposure to the small cap factor, but the large stocks give you negative exposure to that factor. And the simple math says By definition, you end up with a zero loading the best way anyone can see that you and I have talked before about the website portfolio And if you put in Vanguards total stock market fund, or even the s&p 500, you'll find that it'll be virtually zero exposure to small cap. And the same thing is true with value stocks, because while the value stocks in the portfolio, which are about 20% by market cap is offset by the growth stocks you want in the portfolio, which gives you negative exposure to the value effect, and therefore you have no net exposure. That's why I tell people, when you own the market, you have exposure to only one factor market data. And that that could be your decision that that's the portfolio you want to own. It's not what I own. And over the long term, it definitely has not been the most efficient. But if that helps you have the most discipline, I always tell people, having the portfolio that you will stick with through thick and thin is far more important than choosing, quote, The Perfect portfolio.

Andrew Stotz 25:37
So does that mean that the optimum factor strategy? Let's say that, you know, some of the best guys are doing out there is to create a long short strategy going long, small cap, in short, large cap and then providing the difference between those two? Isn't that fun to investors? Is that what it is? Or is it just so that's

Larry Swedroe 26:04
why the small cap now, so that's an interesting strategy. If you're a long value and short growth, then you have no net exposure to market data. All you get is the exposure to the factors. Now that factor exposure might generate a return of say 3% a year. Wow, that's not great return, right? And small versus large might be 2%. Or maybe less, would that be pure

Andrew Stotz 26:35
factor exposure?

Larry Swedroe 26:36
Yes, that would be long short, I actually own a fun run by AQR that is a long short factor fund. It is long value, relatively short growth. But it is also long, short, other factors like momentum. So it goes long stocks with positive momentum, short starts with negative momentum, it owns in effect, something they call defensive, which is like quality. So it buys high quality, and shorts junk. Right. And then deals also with something in the literature called the carry trade, which buys high yielding assets, and sells low yielding assets. All of these factors are well, you know, written up in the literature with lots of supporting evidence for them. And now what you get is four different factors that are unique. And they also have them to provide exposure across four different asset classes. So it goes along value in stocks, bonds, commodities, and currencies, it goes long momentum. And so now you get we think and expected return with a premium of about maybe three 4% over a treasury bills with low correlation to everything.

Andrew Stotz 28:00
So that's Thai style, is that what that's called? Yes,

Larry Swedroe 28:04
it's a multi style Long, short portfolio. So if you want exposure to the factors in a long, lonely portfolio, then you get exposure to market beta, and you get the Size value, profitability, quality momentum, depending upon the fund. And that's how I invest. So I own in my equity portfolio, I happen to own only small value funds. But they also not just small value, but they have high amounts of exposure to the profitability or quality factor. They screen out stocks with negative momentum. So something is a growth stock, and it's prices crashing and now it's cheap value stocks, they won't buy in until that negative momentum ceases, because the evidence shows it's likely to continue to keep falling for a while longer. So there again, that's why we don't invest in a pure index fund. That Vanguards small value fund would buy that stock bridge ways fund dimensionals fun Avantis his funds with avoid those stocks until that negative momentum season. So if you want to be long only you want to invest in asset class or factor based funds that are long only. And then you can invest in these other factors. In Long Short funds. If that's something you want exposure to as

Andrew Stotz 29:37
long even a good long short fund is not going to always outperform because sometimes those factors are going to underperform. Even a mix of them could underperform for five or 10 years or 20

Larry Swedroe 29:48
I'd say 10 years. You know, it's certainly possible, but there's no period that I'm aware of where it happened for 10 years, but three, four or five years, certainly over Remember, AQa was fun came out live 2013 did very well in the first few years, then from 17 through 20, I think it did very poorly lost money. And the last three years, it's done spectacular. But a lot of people were there anymore. They watched the first three years and said, Oh, this looks good. I'll buy now. So you didn't get those good returns early, which I got. I then rebalanced and sold some of them, then they did poorly. So I was buying more. And in 2021 of the fund was up like 25% and 2022 is up again, like 25%. And it's doing well again, this year, up something less I look like six or something like that. But, you know, I think that fun over the long term, it's gonna hopefully generate several percent above the T bill rate and give the low correlation to everything else. So 2020 to the while stocks and bonds were getting killed, that fund was up over well over 20%. by another years, the market was way up and things down. But that's what you want in a portfolio. You want things that will perform differently, but you better be able to stay the course and buy more when it does pull.

Andrew Stotz 31:24
Yeah, that's the key to trading, right. Otherwise, you get

Larry Swedroe 31:28
not traded not traded. Asset allocation constant.

Andrew Stotz 31:32
Yep. Fantastic. Well, another great discussion, Larry, I want to thank you for this discussion, to help us create, grow and protect our wealth. As always, it's super valuable for listeners out there who want to keep up with all that Larry is doing and he does quite a bit. You can follow him on Twitter at Larry swedroe. Or at LinkedIn. This is your worst podcast host Andrew Stotz saying I'll see you on the upside.


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About the show & host, Andrew Stotz

Welcome to My Worst Investment Ever podcast hosted by Your Worst Podcast Host, Andrew Stotz, where you will hear stories of loss to keep you winning. In our community, we know that to win in investing you must take the risk, but to win big, you’ve got to reduce it.

Your Worst Podcast Host, Andrew Stotz, Ph.D., CFA, is also the CEO of A. Stotz Investment Research and A. Stotz Academy, which helps people create, grow, measure, and protect their wealth.

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