Corporate 401(k) plan sponsors pick bad funds for their plans, according to a 2006 study. Then the participants in the plans compound the problem, again picking funds headed for a fall.
Why? Because though the Securities and Exchange Commission mandates that funds put in any piece of marketing the disclaimer that past performance is not indicative of future results, it seems no one believes them.
He starts with the example of Albert Pujols. Pujols had a fantastic rookie year with the St. Louis Cardinals. Then he tacked on eight more, to rack up, Swedroe writes, the greatest first nine years of any batter in the history of baseball. No one would attribute 9 out-of-sight years to luck. Any general manager would have snapped up Pujols given the chance.
Similarly, a business looking to fill a management post looks at how each candidate has performed in previous roles. If you need surgery, you go to the surgeon who’s done many, many successful operation.
In most walks of life, past performance is indicative of future results.
So it’s logical we’d think that would also hold true for fund managers. Unfortunately, according to this study, we’re wrong. The research conducted by Edwin J. Elton and Martin J. Gruber of New York University, and Christopher R. Blake of Fordham University, examined 43 401(k) plans from 1994 through 1999. Over those five years the 401(k) plans added 215 new fund options for participants and dropped 45 funds from their plans.
The authors found that the funds added had a strong track record, and those dropped had poor recent performance. The new funds promptly underperformed those that had been given the heave-ho. Swedroe writes:
When a plan deleted a fund and replaced it with a fund with identical objectives, the deleted funds outperformed…by about 2.5 percent per year over the next three years
The funds investors — i.e. us — have to choose from are a bad lot, but we manage to make things even worse, the academics found, by repeating plan manager’s mistake and constantly chasing yesterday’s good performance. Rather than stick to an asset allocation plan and rebalance it periodically, we pour new cash into last quarter’s top performers.
(P.S. There’s a big price paid for all this. In their abstract of the study the three authors note: “We find that, for 62% of the plans, the types of choices offered are inadequate, and that over a 20-year period this makes a difference in terminal wealth of over 300%.)
Swedroe is an avowed fan of indexing as the most effective method of investing for individuals. No one should be surprised that this book is an attempt to convince investors of the wisdom of doing less. But whether you’re sold on this philosophy or not, there are interesting connections drawn in this book between how we behave in most of our daily lives and how we behave when we put on our investor hat.
In an early chapter, he contrasts a child’s method of learning how to ride a tricycle without banging into a wall with investor’s moth-like attraction to stock picking. In another, he compares driver’s dubious self-confident assessment of their own skills to investors’ inflated opinion of themselves. In a 1965 study by two psychologists, 2/3 of drivers said they were at least as competent as usual, though all had ended their last trip in an ambulance. Police reports indicated almost 70% of them were directly responsible for their accidents.
The conceit of this book, and its predecessor, Wise Investing Made Simple, is that it’s true-life stories (often horror stories) that really stick in people’s minds.
In this book, Swedroe uses story telling in an attempt to convince investors to get out of their own way, and ends the chapter on 401(k)s with the well-known quote from comic character Pogo, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”