The Deceptive Nature of Indices
An essential part of the business of investing involves figuring out how well you are doing. In some respects, the best benchmark for how well you are doing should be personalized to you. How conservative are you? What kind of income needs do you have? How old are you? While the case remains strong for everyone to have a personal benchmark to compare against their investment portfolios, in practice many people simply default to market indexes.
I’ve talked a little about market indexes before. They are poorly understood products, designed to give an impression about the overall health and direction of the economy and can serve as a guide to investment decisions. Large benchmarks, like the S&P 500, the TSX, or the FTSE 100, can tell us a great deal about the sentiment of investors (large and small) and what the expected direction of an economy may be.
But because these tools are usually poorly understood, they can contribute to as much confusion as they do clarity. For instance, the Dow Jones uses a highly confusing set of maths to determine performance. Last year General Electric lost about 50% of its market capitalization, while at the same time Boeing increased its market capitalization by 50%, but their impact on the Dow Jones was dramatically different. Boeing had an outsized positive contribution while General Electric had a much smaller negative impact.
The S&P 500 currently is one of the best preforming markets in 2018. Compared to most global indexes, the S&P 500 is ahead of Germany’s DAX, Britain’s FTSE 100 and FTSE 250, Japan’s Nikkei and Canada’s TSX. Yet if you are looking at your US focused investments, you might be surprised to see your own mutual funds lagging the index this year. If you were to ask an ETF provider or discount financial advisor why that is they would likely default to the answer “fees”, but they’d be wrong.
This year is an excellent example of the old joke about Bill Gates walking into a bar and making each patron, on average, a millionaire. While the overall index has been performing quite well, the deeper story is about how a handful of companies are actually driving those returns, while the broader market has begun to languish. Of the 11 sectors in the S&P 500, only two are up, technology and consumer discretionary, while a further 6 were down for the year. In fact the companies driving most of the gains are: Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Alphabet (Google), Netflix and Microsoft. The 80 stocks in the consumer discretionary space not in that list have done almost nothing at all.
What does this portend for the future? There is a lot to be concerned about. The narrowing of market returns is not a good sign (although there have been some good results in terms of earnings), and it tends to warp investment goals. Investors demand that mutual fund returns keep up with their index, often forcing portfolio managers to buy more of a stock that they may not wish to have. In the world of Exchange Traded Funds (or ETFs), they participate in a positive feedback loop, pulling in money and buying more of the same stocks that are already driving the performance.
In all, indexes remain a useful tool to gage relative performance, but like with all things a little knowledge can be deceptive. The S&P 500 remains a strong performing index this year, but its health isn’t good. Healthy markets need broad based growth, and investors would be wise to know the details behind the stories of market growth before they excitedly commit money to superficially good performance.