As you view the damage to your investments, consider this: You can beat the great majority of professionals by using simple strategies that take advantage of low-cost index funds. Index funds track a broad swath of the market, such as big-company stocks, small-company stocks, emerging-markets stocks and so on.
Some of the sharpest minds in the world of finance -— from Nobel Prize–winning professors to Warren Buffett, who is arguably the greatest money manager of our time -- advocate a passive style of investing best accomplished with index funds. The evidence seems to back them up. For example, over the past 15 years through December 31, Standard & Poor's 500-stock index performed better than 66% of mutual fund managers who specialize in stocks of large U.S. companies.
And studies have shown that simply spreading money across different types of assets yields the lion’s share of benefits. So you don’t need to worry, for example, about which small-company stocks, foreign stocks and bonds to own. As long as you hold a broad sampling of each, you’ll have a port-folio that is less volatile than holding any single asset class.
It's worth asking how well you've done with managers who actively buy and sell securities. Some do beat their index. But as Princeton's Burton Malkiel asserts in his classic book, A Random Walk Down Wall Street, there's no good way to "find such skill before it has been demonstrated over time."
Building a simple portfolio based on index funds is, well, simple. But we thought it would be interesting to ask some of the champions of easy, low-cost investing to suggest their own ideas.
We went to three experts with a straightforward request: Construct a balanced, low-cost portfolio, with no more than eight components, for people who are investing for the long term. We weren't rigid about the guidelines; our experts were allowed to use actively managed funds, if they wished, as well as index funds. The experts submitted their portfolios in December 2008, and we began tracking performance on January 1. We will rebalance the portfolios twice a year: on the last day of June and the last day of December.
Burton Malkiel Mix and match
Although for the most part Malkiel recommends passively managed open-end and exchange-traded funds, he also holds stakes in some actively managed funds. (His sample portfolio represents his actual investments.) For instance, he owns Vanguard Capital Opportunity because of his "enormous" respect for the managers at Primecap Management Co., which runs the fund for Vanguard. Malkiel, a former director of the Vanguard Group, says he thinks he can make a small bet on Primecap's expertise because the core of his portfolio is in index funds.
More interesting are his picks of Templeton Dragon and Matthews India, both actively managed. "I believe that of all the places in the world, China and India are the two that will have the highest growth rates," says Malkiel. Templeton Dragon, a closed-end fund that buys stocks of companies based in China and nearby places, is managed by longtime emerging-markets maven Mark Mobius. Although Malkiel isn't sure that Mobius can beat the relevant index, he nonetheless considers him an excellent manager. “If I can buy Mark Mobius at 85 cents on the dollar, I'm happy to do it.” At its February 6 closing price of $17, Templeton Dragon sold for 6% less than the value of its underlying assets.
Malkiel says there aren't many good ways to play India. If a good closed-end India fund were trading at a discount to its net asset value, he'd buy it. For now, he'll take the Matthews fund.
20% Vanguard Total Stock Market ETF (symbol VTI) Tracks a broad index of U.S. companies
20% Vanguard FTSE All-World ex-US ETF (VEU) Tracks a broad index of foreign stocks
20% Vanguard Total Bond Market ETF (BND) Tracks a broad index of high-quality U.S. bonds
10% Vanguard Capital Opportunity (VHCOX) An actively managed fund that focuses on big growth companies
10% Vanguard Emerging Markets ETF (VWO) Tracks an index of stocks of developing nations
10% Templeton Dragon (TDF) Invests in stocks from China and nearby nations
10% Matthews India (MINDX) Invests in stocks from India