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Coasting in Retirement Ep 29: Needle vs Haystack: Should I buy Index Funds?  Thumbnail

Coasting in Retirement Ep 29: Needle vs Haystack: Should I buy Index Funds?

Segment 1 (Show Open): 

Good afternoon, everyone! Welcome in. Welcome to Coasting in Retirement! That’s. Right. Thanks for joining us today, we’re excited to have you! Josh Null here, joined by the one and only Michelle Lee Melton…Michelle, how are you doing? We are back again in Coastal College’s recording studio, beautiful downtown Fairhope, ready to put together another a great show for those of you tuning in!

Listeners: Michelle and I are here today to discuss financial topics relevant to those of you in or near retirement, living your best life along our part of the gulf coast. Here’s what we’ve got in store for you today: First segment – deep dive on our topic of the day. 2nd segment - at about 20 minutes past the hour - fan favorite, “Michelle with the News of the Week”. 3rd segment, roughly 40 minutes past the hour,” Josh’s Crystal Ball and…(Michelle:) Big Mouth”. That’s right, big mouth. So buckle up, we’ve got a lot to get to!

Quick background on me for those new to the show. Again, my name is Josh Null, I am a fee-based financial advisor, I hold my FINRA Series 65 securities license, and I am the owner of Gulf Coast Financial Advisors, an independent investment management and financial planning firm with offices in Fairhope and Orange Beach, Alabama. You can find more information on me and Gulf Coast Financial Advisors by visiting our website gulfcoastfa.com, or feel free to give us a call at 251-327-2124. If you missed that, don’t worry, we will repeat our contact info several times throughout the show! Alright, let’s get on with the show:

The title of our today’s episode is “Needle vs Haystack” and is going to be centered around an investment vehicle that many, if not most, of our listeners have probably heard of, but maybe don’t fully understand how they work: index funds. While it may seem that index funds have been around as long as there have been indexes to track, the actual truth is the first index fund – The Vanguard 500 Index Fund – was launched in 1976, when I was a one year old and Michelle was just a newborn. But even though actively mutual funds have been around for decades longer than index funds, this past year index funds caught up with and surpassed actively managed funds, exceeding the total volume of money under management for the first time ever:

Chart: https://www.morningstar.com/funds/recovery-us-fund-flows-was-weak-2023

So why do we call this a needle vs haystack discussion? This stems from a famous quote from the father of index funds, Jack Bogle, who famously said that instead of trying to find the perfect handful of stocks, or needles if you will, it’s much easier for investors to just buy the entire haystack. When Bogle put his theories into play in 1976 with the opening of Vanguard, he touched off an investing revolution that still molds and shapes the entire stock market – as you will see, some will argue for the worst, some will argue that index funds are the best thing to ever happen to retail investors. We’re going to discuss all of this plus how index funds help pave the way for exchange traded funds, called ETFs, and how these different types of “passive” investment vehicles have forever altered choices in your investment and retirement accounts, probably way more than you realized. 

But first, Michelle, as someone that has a 403b retirement plan, the public version of a 401k, do you know if you own index funds in your plan? How would you describe an index fund? Very good – so let’s expand on that with a technical definition pulled from Investopedia: An index fund is a type of mutual fund or exchange-traded fund (ETF) with a portfolio constructed to match or track the components of a financial market index, such as the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index (S&P 500). An index mutual fund provides broad market exposure, low operating expenses, and low portfolio turnover. Listeners, pay attention to the last line of our definition: these funds follow their benchmark index regardless of the state of the markets. That means up AND down. (https://www.investopedia.com/terms/i/indexfund.asp)

OK, so we understand that not everyone listening lives in nerdville with me and just automatically understands what all these terms mean, so let’s start with the most important piece of an index fund: the market indexes being tracked. Investors should note that there is an index, and a corresponding index fund, for nearly every financial market in existence. We’re talking…thousands of indexes. So, for sake of brevity, let’s list some of more well-known US indexes: 

  • S&P 500 
  • Wilshire 5000 Total Market Index, which is the largest U.S. equities index
  • Bloomberg U.S. Aggregate Bond Index, which follows the total bond market
  • Nasdaq Composite Index, made up of 3,000 stocks listed on the Nasdaq exchange
  • Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJIA), consisting of 30 large-cap companies

Whatever the index being tracked, “Indexing” is by definition a form of passive fund management. What we mean by that is that instead of a fund portfolio manager actively picking stocks or trying to “time” the market, they instead build a portfolio whose holdings mirror the securities of a particular index. The idea is that by mimicking the index profile—sometimes it’s the stock market as a whole, sometimes it’s a specified segment of it—the fund will also match the performance of its index. By match, we mean – an index fund is neither trying to outperform it’s index, nor underperform – by holding the same securities, at the same percentages as it’s index, it’s trying to match the returns within a margin of error that is a fraction of a fraction of a fraction. Contrast that with actively managed mutual funds, whose stated goal is to outperform whatever benchmark they are using. Just matching the performance of your benchmark in active management means you wasted a lot of time and effort. Or in other words – would Gordon Geiko be satisfied with being average? You get the idea.

Because the index fund managers are simply trying to replicate the performance of their benchmark index, they typically don’t need the services of research analysts and stock pickers, plus they buy and sell their holdings less often, so their overall costs should be relatively low. In contrast, actively managed funds tend to have larger staffs and conduct more transactions, driving up the cost of doing business. The costs of fund management should be reflected in the fund’s expense ratio – for example, cheap index funds can cost just a handful of bps, say 5 bps – that is 5% of 1%—compared to the much higher fees that actively managed funds command, with some north of 100 bps, which in plain English is 1%. 

Lastly, there’s been quite a bit of research around how index funds have generally outperformed actively managed funds, especially over a longer time horizon. Savvy listeners will recognize a bet that famed investor Warren Buffet made back in the early 2000’s against some well know actively managed funds, where his choice of index funds ended up with a greater gain after several years. That said, some of the research blindly supporting index funds has been de-bunked, so for the sake of brevity, let’s all agree on this: by most measures, index funds are a low-cost way for retail investors to gain broad exposure in the stock market, and that as long as you believe in the future of America, or the global economy given whatever index you pick, those funds will eventually make gains over time, with the potential for devastating losses tempered by the diversification built into most of these funds. But they’re not perfect. Also, you will never have all winners at one time, conversely, you will never have all losers at one time.

So, Michelle, with all that said, why wouldn’t just every single retail investor plow ALL their money into index funds? Well, just like with every other investment choice you have, there’s a tradeoff. Remember in our definition of an index fund that the goal is to hold the securities in the nearly exact percentage as the index it tracks? This is called weighting, and it tends to be a self-fulfilling prophecy with the market cap of the largest companies, that is, it makes the rich, richer, or at the very least, the big - even bigger. 

What do I mean by this? Let’s use Microsoft as an example. Right now, Microsoft is about 7% of the total value of the S&P 500. The goal of any S&P 500 index fund would be to have the exact same percentage in Microsoft stock – 7% in this example. OK, fine, the numbers match, but so what, why does this matter? Here’s why - think about it – for every dollar that investors place money into a S&P 500 index fund, about 7% of that is going to purchase Microsoft stock…every time…whether or not Microsoft is a great buy at the moment. This tends to allocate too much capital when a stock in these indexes is on a tear. Take Nvidia lately – with the rapid rise of its stock value, its overall percentage of the indexes that track has dramatically increased lately. Which means millions and millions of dollars are passively flowing into Nvidia and Microsoft stock right now, without regard to future performance. 

This phenomenon works the other way, too. If Microsoft or Nvidia takes a large hit to its stock price, and quickly becomes a smaller percentage of the overall stock market, the corresponding index funds have to sell these positions quickly to get their weighting back in line. Sometimes these volume sell activities can make a bad situation that much worse. Listeners, think about this swinging back and forth, about the billions of dollars that go back and forth every day as stocks rise and fall, especially these huge companies that are part of these indexes, particularly the extreme motions of growth-oriented tech companies. Think there’s any correlation to the fact there’s the most money EVER in passive investments right now AND some of the most historical market volatility? They go hand in hand. 

The other problem with your classic index fund is that there is no downside protection, that is, if the broad market is down, so will be your index fund. There’s a direct correlation, particularly with equities, and again, in times of historic volatility, seeing what was probably presented to you as a simple, boring investment – it’s just an index fund, man! -  seeing them jump up and down drastically can be unnerving.

But no matter the pros or cons, anyone in my industry would agree on this: passive investing is here to stay, and the fact is, most, if not all, of you listening own some type of index fund. In fact, whereas historically you would have owned an index mutual fund, a Vanguard, or a Fidelity, Schwab, etc., many investors now will hold exchange traded funds, or ETFs, as their index fund of choice. Index funds walked so ETFs could run- while the index fund was born in 1976, making it about 47/48 years old, the first ETF – the “Spider” SPDR S&P 500 ETF (SPY), which tracks the S&P 500, was established in 1993, and just celebrated it’s 30th birthday this past year.

Let’s close our segment by defining an ETF: An ETF is a type of pooled investment security that can be bought and sold much like an individual stock. What do I mean by pooled? That’s when multiple investors combine their money to buy securities, typically in bulk. The main difference between an ETF and a mutual fund is that though a mutual fund is also a pooled investment, it trades only once a day after the stock market closes, whereas an ETF’s price will fluctuate throughout the day. An ETF can be structured to track anything from the price of an individual commodity to a large and diverse collection of securities. ETFs can even be designed to track specific investment strategies. Lastly, ETFs are also considered more tax efficient than mutual funds, something we will explore more in one of our future episodes. 

So, Michelle, what did you learn about index funds today? Well, here’s my primary takeaway: the days of stockbrokers and hot shot traders are waning, and part of this demise can be directly attributed to the rise of index funds and passive investing. Investment management is slowly becoming a commodity that differs little to little among most financial advisors. Now, I think our investment management offering at GCFA is unique, and we’ll devote an entire episode to describing it in the future. For now, with momentum clearly favoring passive investing, my opinion is that for most of you all in or near retirement, the real value that someone like me, a fee-based financial planner, brings to the table is the actual financial planning process. I would argue it's just as important as the investment management piece. Not that the investment mgt piece isn’t significant – a good planner should have a solid investment process, and I can’t wait to share ours with you all in one of our future episodes. But being able to tie together your entire financial picture, from investments, to properties, debt, income, etc 

One that note, at GCFA we approach our financial and retirement planning exercises with the goal of educating and enlightening our clients, and there’s never any pressure to make quick decisions or do business with us until you’re comfortable. You can set up an appointment by calling 251-327-2124, or you can reach us through our website gulfcoastfa.com. One our site, you can choose to send us a direct message, or click on the blue button in the upper right-hand corner to set up a 15-minute introductory phone call. Or do all 3!

Alright folks, coming up next - There’s always a lot going on in the world! Particularly the world of finance, investments and money. Every week Michelle and I scour the interwebs for helpful financial articles related to our topic of the day, especially articles that pertain to those in or near retirement. Join us after the break to hear Michelle and I discuss this week’s relevant headlines in our “Michelle with the News of the Week” segment. Stay tuned!

 Segment 2 - Michelle with the News of the Week:

Josh: “Welcome back to Coasting in Retirement, your host Josh Null here! As we discussed before the break, every week Michelle and I scour the interwebs for helpful financial articles related to our topic of the day, especially articles that pertain to those of you in or near retirement. Our job is to help you all understand how these headlines impact you, especially when it comes to your money! Note – if you want to read our referenced articles yourself, we also include the links on our show transcript, which you can find on our website gulfcoastfa.com under the podcast tab every Monday after the show airs on Sunday. So, without further adieu, here’s “Michelle with the news of the week!”:

1. Michelle: Alright Josh, let’s kick it off with an article from MorningStar titled “Nobody Likes Index Funds – Except Investors”. This article is written by an obvious fan of index funds, naming them and something called a “Target Date Fund” as the 2 best mutual fund inventions ever. I had obviously heard of index funds, but until I read this article, I didn’t realize that there was a political divide over them! Now Josh, we intentionally don’t discuss politics or religion on this show, but I must say the fact that this article mentioned a white paper floating out on the interwebs titled "The Silent Road to Serfdom: Why Passive Investing Is Worse than Marxism” did catch my attention. What the heck? How has something called “passive” result in aggressive words from both sides of the political divide?  

Josh: I know, right? So before we get into the division of index funds, you mentioned something called Target Date Funds. We’re going to be discussing these types of investments on a later episode, let’s just define them quickly, because I believe that they are definitely an off-shoot of index funds. Target date funds, or TDFs for short, are kind of like a small, self-contained diversified portfolio – they mix equities and fixed income into one fund that is designed to take have more risk the further someone is from their retirement date, gradually getting more conservative as the investor nears retirement. I would say that many of you all listening to this show, if you have a 401k at work, is invested in some type of target date fund. You can check by looking for a number at the end of the fund, say 2030, or 2035, 2050, etc. That year is supposed to be the year you aim to retire, and the target date fund will re-balance to get more conservative as you get closer to that date. 

Speaking of conservative Michelle, you right, index funds have critics along political lines, although in this case neither political side a huge fan, at least among the most vocal critics. Those on the left say that index funds decrease competition and lead to cartel-like decisions among competitors. The right says that company profits are held back because index funds tend to promote ESG values, that is, environmental, social, and governance principles. To be honest with you and the listeners, maybe it’s because I ignore most news, particularly political news, I’m not sure I agree with either of these points. I think, and we touched on this in our opening segment, that what investors need to watch out for with index funds is that if you over-rely on them, you’ll just end up being average at best, and for those of you in or near retirement, some index funds are going to have you way over-weighted in stocks with heavy volatility. On that note, we have a program we use at GCFA called “Riskalyze” that will perform an MRI on your holding and not only tell you how your money is invested, but will give you a risk score, which we can compare to your actual risk tolerance. 251-327-2124 if you want a free analysis, pls just let me know you’re calling from the show. What’s next? 


2. Michelle: Next up, an article from Money.com titled “Are Index Funds Actually Bad for Investors?” This article makes the case that index funds lead investors to move money from bonds into stocks, and while this makes the price of stocks go up, the argument is that this is a bad thing for investors because unless the fundamentals of those companies improve along with the stock price, the result is that “expected returns” will fall. In other words, individual investors end up paying more for a stock whose intrinsic value hasn't changed. The article even points to research that market returns that everyday investors do earn from investing in index funds are lower than the returns they would get from the market if index funds didn't exist at all. This sounds like a very different position from our first article, so what’s your opinion Josh?

Josh: So the first article was certainly pro-index funds, this article is a little more balanced and probably more along my line of thinking. As with every other investment choice you make, the tools you use need to have a defined purpose and an expected outcome. At the end of the day, index funds are often used by guys and gals like me to help balance out an investment portfolio. I don’t nor do I recommending using index funds exclusively, mind you, but the appeal of just raw passive investment is typically low fees, built-in diversification and the expectation of decent returns over the long term. But just being 100% passive, especially if you are trying to achieve certain goals in retirement, is not seeing the whole picture. 

While we do have pre-built investment portfolio options at GCFA, things we can plug and play with, what we typically do for our pre-retirees and retirees is to provide a custom strategy built just for their situation. As I’ve said many times on this show, there is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to retirement planning, and that includes blind use of index funds. 


3. Michelle: So when you told me the title of this episode was “Needle vs Haystack” I wondered if you had come up with that investing comparison all on your own, and come to find out, nope, you were just parroting a phrase made famous by index fund pioneer Jack Bogle. And I also learned that when I did a search on the interwebs, I was able to find an article titled “How to Invest: Forget the Needle, Buy the Haystack” from a site we haven’t referenced before, The Fair Observer. As opposed to our first 2 articles, this article leans heavy into statistics to lay out the pros and cons of index funds. The article talks about one potential downfall, something we’ve discussed on this show many times, the fact that the “magnificent seven” stocks are currently a very large percentage of the S&P 500, and for index fund investors, this means that they are going to be heavily invested in technology stocks precisely when the sector commands historically high valuations. Again, so much debate over something that is considered a very vanilla investment choice – who knew!? What’s your thoughts on the article, Josh?

Josh: So this is an article for those of you listening that like to know how the sausage is made. If you’re a regular listener of the show, then you’ll recognize the “magnificent seven ” reference that Michelle just made, no, not the western movie staring Yul Brynner, but a list of companies - Alphabet (Google), Meta (FB), Nvidia, Tesla, Microsoft, Apple and Amazon – that have driven most of the growth in the stock market the past few years. It means that if you own an index fund, at least one that tracks one of the big US based indexes, then you undoubtedly have some type of position in these companies, and if you’re an investor with a heavy dose of index funds in your portfolio, you may be surprised at how high a percentage your positions in these companies comprise of your overall portfolio value. As the values of these companies go back and forth, so does your index fund. 

And as this article details, this top heavy weighting in index funds isn’t new. Between 1995 and 2022, only ten stocks (just 2% of 500 companies) accounted for at least one-fifth of the performance of the S&P 500. In some years, the top ten stocks provided more than 100% of index performance. This means if we exclude these ten stocks, the S&P 500 would have had a negative return over this time period. That is fascinating. Even more fascinating is that Monster energy drinks outperformed everyone, including apple. 


4. Michelle: Alright, last article for the day Josh, coming to you from CNBC Business with an absurdly long title: “The first ETF is 30 years old this week. It launched a revolution in low-cost investing”. Even though this article is about 1 year old, I thought it was useful to include because it gave a solid and concise history of ETFs. And no political drama like our first 3 articles. According to the author, ETF assets are doubling roughly every five years, apparently there were only about 80 ETFs in the year 2000 but by January 2023 that number had grown to over 2,700, and that’s just the U.S. The article makes the case that while the mutual fund industry is still significantly larger than the ETF industry, the growth rate is much higher with ETFs and the gap is closing. I’m curious about your stance on ETFs, plus do you agree with the quote in the article that ETFs are “the one product regulators trust because of its transparency.”?

Josh: I think the rise of ETFs since I graduated high school is just incredible – I know Jack Bogle did not invent ETFs, but his index funds were the evolutionary step that eventually led to ETFs - more people may know Warren Buffet or Steve Jobs but I would argue Bogle’s impact on retail investors is way more significant than just about anybody in the modern era of investing. So let’s describe a couple of areas where many people think ETFs are superior to actively managed mutual funds: ETFs can be traded all day long, just like a stock, with a constantly updated price vs waiting until after market close on a mutual fund, most ETF’s have no minimum investment threshold, most ETFs have lower fees than their equivalent mutual fund and there is a built in tax efficiency in ETFs that mutual funds don’t have. The transparency quote revolves around the fact that some actively managed mutual funds keep their holdings close to the vest – probably for competitive reasons – while ETF’s tend to be a little easier to figure out what is contained in them. On top of that, trading custodial platforms like Charles Schwab will let investors and advisors trade stocks and ETFs with no transaction fees. Lastly, there are some very cool things going on right now with “actively” managed ETFs – we don’t have time to discuss now but I promise the listeners they’ll get an earful soon.

That said, as the bad guy in the Incredibles super hero cartoon movie said, “if everyone’s special, then no one is special” and as we’ve discussed during this episode, going full tilt into all passive income leaves you both exposed to no better than average returns and probably more volatility than most retirees would like to see in their investment portfolio, so as with everything, there is a…balance. If you would like to discuss how to find that balance, give us a call at 251-327-2124…


Josh: Michelle, great job as always with the headlines, these are all important pieces of information that impacts those in or near retirement! Listeners – if you have questions around the topics in our headlines of the week, or questions related to your investment strategy or financial plan, why don’t you give us a call at 251-327-2124 to have a conversation or set up an appointment, or you can reach out to use via our contact page on our website gulfcoastfa.com.

Alright folks, coming up next : Josh’s Crystal Ball and Big Mouth. What have been some of my predictions? Have I been right? Was I ever wrong? How wrong? What do I think is going to affect investors in the near future? We talk about all of these things and poke a little fun at my big mouth. Stay tuned! 

 Segment 3 – Josh’s Crystal Ball and Big Mouth: 

Welcome back! Your host Josh Null here, along side co-host Michelle. So, I am opinionated, I have strong opinions at times, I would say a radio show host that isn’t probably wouldn’t be very interesting to listen to. And I am paid in my profession to offer professional guidance and opinions to my clients, otherwise what use am I? Sometimes I feel so strongly about something that I talk about it publicly, on the various podcasts and radio shows I’ve had, sometimes I’ll even make predictions, and while I usually proved right, there are times I swing and I miss. Want to hear me eat a little crow? Then let’s get at with Josh’s Crystal Ball and Big Mouth.   Alright Michelle, what’s first?

1. Michelle: Alright Josh, back in June of last year, we did an episode on Meme stocks. One of the stocks we discussed was EV manufacturer Rivian, which at the time had about 25% of the market capitalization of legacy automaker Ford even though it had only delivered a handful of its SUV and trucks to buyers at that time. We used Rivian as an example, not of a bad or good company, but just how out of whack stock market valuations can be compared to the underlying financials, at least in the short run. Rivian did end up delivering over 50,000 vehicles last year, but its stock has still sank over 50% recently because of decreased demand projections and the fact that apparently Rivian lost over $40k on every vehicle it sold last year. As of this recording Rivian will have unveiled it much more affordable R2 vehicles, which most analysts say is crucial to Rivian’s ability to survive. What’s your big mouth got to say now? 

2. Michelle: Well, well, well. If it isn’t your favorite subject, Josh. The Michael Myers of investing – and I guess I means that as a compliment because I’m not sure what’s going to kill it at this point. Yes, I’m talking about crypto, specifically Bitcoin. New listeners, if you want our opinion on crypto, please binge some of previous radio show episodes found on Josh’s website. To sum up, we’ve tried to be fair but both Josh and I have become ever more sceptical the deeper we dived into crypto. With that said, here’s some recent news about crypto Josh: Bitcoin prices broke its previous record this week, rising above $69k, topping its previous peak form November 2021. Crypto bro is estatic. Analysts say that demand from recently approved spot ETFs is fueling much of this demand. Now of course the price of Bitcoin fell over 3% almost immediately after hitting this high, but hay, what’s a little volatility hurt when the future of EVERYTHING is crypto. Just kidding. But I am serious to know what your crystal ball has to say about this because, to be fair, we didn’t see a resurgence like this. 


3. Michelle: Last one Josh. On a recent episode of our show, we detailed how there were nearly $1 trillion in commercial real estate loans maturing this year, and that those loans will undoubtedbly be refinanced into a much higher interest rate environment. You stated that investors should absolutely pay attention to this, particularly with the effects on regional banks. Looks like your crystal ball nailed this one. Over the past several days, a bank called New York Community Bank, or NYCB for short, has experienced a severe decline in the price of it’s stock as well as customer’s pulling over $6 billion in deposits. Apparently the trouble began when NYCB reported a surprise huge 4th quarter loss that was tied to loans, one on an office property and the other a multi-family property deal. And get this Josh: remember one of the banks that failed last year, Signature Bank? Guess who bought a lot of Signature Bank’s assets. Mm-hmm. That’s right - NYCB did. So what’s your crystal ball got to say about all of this? It seems pretty alarming to me. 


Well listeners, I hoped you enjoyed a peak behind the curtain on how I form my opinions and predictions, and more importantly, that I’m willing to admit when I am wrong. Which isn’t very often, but still.  Now, to our listeners that have more questions the various investments and topics we discussed in this segment, we invite you to reach out to us. Call us anytime at 251-327-2124 to make an appointment or find us at on our website at gulfcoastfa.com. 

Folks, that’s it for us this week here at Coasting in Retirement! I want to give a huge thank you to my lovely co-host, Michelle Lee Melton, a thank you to our awesome radio station FM Talk 106.5 out of Mobile, many thanks to the provider of our show music, local band Sloth Racer, huge thank to the show producer, Mr. Chaesare Gray, and as always my sincere appreciation for all of your out there that have been listening and joining us on this journey. We would love to be a part of your journey as well! Until we talk again next Sunday, have a wonderful and productive week. This has been Coasting in Retirement with Josh Null! 


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