Walking through the art studio at my son’s high school last year, I was drawn to a piece featuring a blindfolded woman trying to find an apple that she could not see in front of her. My son explained that this was the centerpiece in a series he was doing on “Truth vs. Ignorance.” Ignorance, that is the lack of knowledge and/or insight, is often a contributor to prejudices, biases, and bad decisions, he said.
The piece resonated immediately. No matter what the decision to be made, the solution will almost assuredly be better if the decision is based on truth (knowledge) rather than ignorance. It is hard to make good decisions when you are unaware of—or unwilling to accept—the relevant facts and circumstances. This is certainly true for investment decisions, in part because their consequences have a direct impact on the economic options for the ultimate beneficiary.
All too often, investment professionals are unwilling or unable to pursue and act on knowledge that would lead to better investment outcomes for their clients. The investment management industry tends to emphasize product, and its invariably linked goal of beating the benchmark, over education and counseling. Leaders of tomorrow’s successful investment management organizations, those that will have lasting impact, need to foster a culture that values intellectual curiosity, the pursuit of knowledge, and the courage to communicate freely and openly, especially if the truths uncovered are at odds with conventional wisdom.
Ignorance is often used as a severely pejorative term. It shouldn’t be. Ignorance is merely a lack of knowledge, education, or awareness. By this definition, we must all live with the fact that we are ignorant in many areas, so ignorance in and of itself is not necessarily a problem. I and my colleagues would cheerfully acknowledge our ignorance of the latest innovations in medicine. Accordingly, we routinely seek the advice and counsel of doctors for medical issues. Merely seeking help from random medical professionals is not sufficient, however. I am likely to get better medical advice if I make the effort to learn something about my options, such as the credentials and specialties of the doctors under consideration. The key distinction is knowing when knowledge is necessary and, conversely, when a lack of knowledge is dangerous. As Benjamin Disraeli said, “To be conscious that you are ignorant of the facts is a great step to knowledge.”
While potentially not as serious for one’s health, ignorance in investing can have devastating consequences for individual portfolios and personal wealth. Too often, capital market participants have little knowledge of how markets work, how to make investment decisions, or how to manage their portfolios. For most, the standard operating procedure is to hire a collection of “good” managers in the hope of beating the benchmark. But this practice ignores the reality that alpha, the return attributable to skill, is incredibly scarce.
As an example, in 2010 Burt Malkiel analyzed the 358 equity mutual funds that were in existence in 1970.1 Remarkably, only 119—less than one in three—survived through 2009, with the rest presumably closed because of poor performance. Of the survivors, only five managed to produce net returns more than 2% per annum above the S&P 500. Talk about long odds—that’s less than 1.5% of the starting universe! But many assume that top quartile managers can add value far in excess of 2% per annum. Our own research shows that even with perfect clairvoyance of future profits discounted to today’s price, a portfolio weighted by Clairvoyant Value would produce excess returns of about 6% per annum, a figure routinely “achieved” in shorter term manager rankings, creating an almost irresistible siren’s song. To be sure, alpha may be achieved—but only for a scant few.
So, why do nearly all investors and professional investors continue to pursue returns from active management, an exercise shown to be suboptimal for investment performance? One reason is ignorance—the lack of awareness of, or inability to accept, the well-researched data that may, at first, conflict with standard practice. Too often in our industry, people seek the safety of conventional wisdom.2 Paraphrasing John Maynard Keynes, for most people it is better to fail conventionally than to succeed unconventionally. However, as Surowiecki describes in his book “The Wisdom of Crowds,” groups of people will generally make superior decisions only when the crowd exhibits independent thought and validation of premises and views. Merely mimicking others is not “wise” and can lead to suboptimal outcomes.
The scarcity of alpha is but one of many lessons of history that are ignored in today’s conventional practices. Some of the other more prevalent ones are:
Clients rely on investment professionals to make sound decisions on their behalf, and thus would be better served if we chose truth, not ignorance, in fulfilling our fiduciary duties. And, for the most part, we do. That said, there are many cases where we act “ignorantly,” and one of those is the tendency to become complacent—to discontinue the quest for more knowledge about the decisions we make—or to prefer the conventional wisdom even if the facts do not support conformist thinking. The quest does not have to lead to some world-changing discovery. In our experience, the quest for truth and knowledge brings us back, more times than not, to basic time-tested practices of investment success, such as reducing costs, rebalancing aggressively, being contrarian, and diversifying broadly. These basic tenets can always be sharpened and reinforced by rigorous research and education.
Success in the asset management industry is not guaranteed. It is hard enough to be successful when we are open and curious rather than defensively operating within familiar territory, blindfolded to the panoply of alternatives that are available to us. We are wise to remember that conventional wisdom may not always be “the truth.” The firms that succeed will be those that can take transformational steps to adapt to changes in the industry, take advantage of new and emergent opportunities, and, importantly, educate clients along the way. In such an environment, we see more emphasis on transparent, diversified, low-cost products as the core for most portfolios. We still see a role for higher-fee, alpha-oriented products, but the standards for evaluating their attractiveness will toughen, and many offerings will not be viable in the future. We believe that, increasingly, decision makers will seek more knowledge and insight based on independent thinking before making investment recommendations or taking action.
In the future, the successful investment management firm will be able to add more value to the client relationship than the simple bottom line of excess returns over the benchmark. The quest for insight and education should join—not subsume or downgrade—the quest for alpha.
Further, and potentially more important, we would like to see investment professionals take the lead in helping investors to understand the facts and considerations that are relevant to their investment decisions. At Research Affiliates, we are committed to conducting and publishing research on issues relevant to the investment decision.4 We speak our mind, even if that leaves us seemingly standing alone and apart from conventional wisdom. We encourage investment professionals not to go blindfolded in their search for alpha but to make the effort to understand the alternatives and issues, and make sound decisions.5 The pursuit of knowledge will not always lead to superior performance in the investment industry, but it is far better than making decisions from ignorance.
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1. Burton Malkiel presented these findings at the 2010 Research Affiliates Advisory Panel.
2. It is also possible that people pursue business interests over investment interests, which is a topic for another day.
3. Robert D. Arnott and Peter L. Bernstein, 2002, “What Risk Premium is ‘Normal’?” Financial Analysts Journal, (March/April):64–85.
4. For more information on our research, visit www.researchaffiliates.com.
5. For many, including James R. Vertin, a leader in the move to passive investing, long-time advocate for research and continuing education, and one of my mentors, maintaining one’s knowledge base is both a duty and the prerequisite for practitioners’ involvement in the investment profession.