Logo Background RSS


Why You Can’t Beat The Index!

  • Written by Syndicated Publisher No Comments Comments
    April 6, 2013

    Yesterday’s post on the disconnect between the market and the economy spurred several emails that I actually addressed in this past weekend’s newsletter.

    I have spent much of last week doing interviews on what the push to all-time highs means. In reality, for most individuals, it means very little. That is the crux of this week’s missive which is the disconnect that exists between portfolio performance and index performance.

    The sad commentary is that investors continually do the wrong things emotionally by watching benchmark indexes. However, what they fail to understand is that there are many factors that affect a “market capitalization weighted index” far differently than a “dollar invested portfolio.”

    These misunderstandings lead to emotional decisions to buy and sell at the wrong times; jump from one investment strategy to another as well one advisor to the next. While these actions are great for Wall Street, as money in motion creates fees and commissions, it does little to solve the bulk of the problem with investor’s portfolios which is simply emotional mistakes based on unrealistic expectations.

    The single biggest mistake that investors make is the fallacy of chasing a benchmark index(i.e. the S&P 500) thinking that it is something they must beat.   But why wouldn’t they? This is what they are told day in and out by the media.   It is the mantra that has been drilled into all of us by Wall Street over the last 30 years. However, what we fail to understand is that this is for Wall Street’s benefit and not our own.

    I will cover several of the major reasons why you will NEVER be able to beat the S&P 500 index over long periods of time. It is simply a function of the math.

    Building The Sample Index

    Before I can build a sample index it is critical that you understand how the S&P 500 index is constructed. The following explanation is from Investopedia:

    “The S&P 500 is a U.S. market index that is computed by a weighted average market capitalization.  The first step in this methodology is to compute the market capitalization of each component in the index.

    This is done by taking the number of outstanding shares of each company and multiplying that number by the company’s current share price, or market value. For example, if Apple Computer has roughly 830 million shares outstanding and its current market price is $53.55, the market capitalization for the company is $44.45 billion (830 million x $53.55).

    Next, the market capitalizations for all 500 component stocks are summed to obtain the total market capitalization of the S&P 500, as illustrated in the table below. This market capitalization number will fluctuate as the underlying share prices and outstanding share numbers change.



    In order to understand how the underlying stocks affect the index, the market weight (index weight) needs to be calculated. This is done by dividing the market capitalization of a company on the index by the total market capitalization of the index.

    For example, if Exxon Mobil’s market cap is $367.05 billion and the S&P 500 market cap is $10.64 trillion, this gives Exxon a market weight of roughly 3.45% ($367.05 billion / $10.64 trillion). The larger the market weight of a company, the more impact each 1% change will have on the index.

    For example, if Exxon Mobil were to rise by 20% while all other companies remained unchanged, the S&P 500 would increase in value by 0.6899% (3.45% x 20%). If a similar situation were to happen to The New York Times, it would cause a much smaller, 0.0076% change to the index because of the company’s smaller market weight.”

    Okay, with that baseline understanding let’s create a very simplistic index called the STA Index which is comprised of 5 fictional companies. For simplicity purposes each company has 1000 shares of stock outstanding and all trade at $10 per share. The table on the next page shows the index versus “Your Portfolio” which is a $50,000 investment weighted equivalently.

    I have also labeled each of the six following examples as year 1, 2, etc. so that I can give you a performance chart at the end of this missive.

    In Year 1, our starting point, we divide a $50,000 investment into exactly the same weights and stocks as the STA Index as follows:

    00 STAIndex-Year1-040213

    There are a couple of caveats here.   The first is that by using so few stocks the percentage changes to the index, and subsequently the portfolio, are going to be amplified. However, this only for informational and learning purposes – it is the concept we are after.

    Secondly, there are many other factors, outside of the examples that I will cover today, that have major impacts on performance. Events such as mergers, buyouts and acquisitions affect the index. Your portfolio is impacted by withdrawals and contributions. Also, the example assumes no dividends which would change portfolio performance.

    Lastly, and most importantly, none of the examples today include the significant impacts to portfolio performance over time which comes from taxes, fees, commissions and other expenses. These factors alone can account for a bulk of the underperformance over the long term but are often ignored by investors trying to chase some random benchmark index.

    The Status Quo

    In the second year of our example – we assume that nothing exceptional, other than just normal price appreciation or depreciation. The table below shows the impact of price changes on both the STA Index and Your Portfolio.

    00 STAIndex-Year2-040213

    Not surprisingly, since both the index and the portfolio are directly affected by price changes – the performance between the two is identical. However, in the real world such a “stagnant”situation rarely exists over a twelve month period.

    Share Buybacks & Bankruptcy

    Since the end of the last recession corporations have become major buyers of their own stock pushing such actions to record levels. Stock buybacks are typically viewed as a good thing by Wall Street analysts supposedly because it is a sign that the “company believes” in itself, however, nothing could be further from the truth.

    The reality is that stock buy backs are a tool used to artificially inflate bottom line earnings per share which, ultimately, drives share prices higher. Let me show you an example.

    International Business Machines (IBM) is one of the sole reasons why the Dow Jones Industrial Average is at its present level. Since 2009 the price of IBM has risen from the mid-70’s to $215 presently.   It is impressive performance to say the least.

    Since IBM’s stock price has soared, its SALES, which is what happens at the top line of the income statement, MUST HAVE SOARED also – right? Wrong.   Take a look at the chart below:


    While earnings per share has risen by roughly 75% – sales per share has been basically flat line since before the recession. This, of course, begs the question – how did earnings per share rise so sharply while sales have remained flat. The answer lies directly at the heart of why there is such a large disconnect between the stock market and the “real” economy.

    IBM is just one example of MANY companies. In order to increase earnings per share they have engaged in massive layoffs, cost cutting, productivity increases AND STOCK BUYBACKS. Look at the right hand side of the chart above to witness the decline in shares outstanding.

    Importantly, while SALES have appeared to be flat line – it is indeed worse. Sales Per Shareare boosted by lower shares outstanding. Even with the boost from a decline in outstanding shares – sales over the last 5 years were only able to grow by a meager 1.13%.   That is hardly the type of growth needed to justify a 150% increase in price during that same time frame.

    The importance of SALES cannot be overlooked. The dollar amount of sales, or topline revenue, is extremely difficult to fudge or manipulate. However, bottom line earnings are regularly manipulated by accounting gimmickry, cost cutting and share buybacks to enhance results in order to boost share prices and meet “Wall Street Expectations.”

    Let me show you a simple mathematical example.

    The first table and chart below show sales for a hypothetical company over a 5 year period. The sales are stagnant at $10,000 a year.

    Look at what happens to Sales/Share and Earnings/Share as the amount of outstanding stock is reduced.

    00 STAIndex-EPS-1-040213

    If you were only looking at the two charts you would assume that this stock was growing strongly. In reality it did not grow AT ALL over a 5-year period.

    Let’s look at the same example but this time let’s reduce sales and earnings for the company at the same time we are buying back stock.

    00 STAIndex-EPS-2-040213

    As you can see – once again if you only looked at the charts of Sales/Share and Earnings/Share, the latter being the main focus of Wall Street, you would have been lured into thinking this was a strongly growing company. However, in reality, sales and earnings were deteriorating but masked by the reduction in outstanding shares. Stock buybacks DO NOT show faith in the company by the executives but rather a LACK of better ideas for which to use capital for.

    Importantly, for our overall example, the reduction in outstanding shares ALSO reduces market capitalization.

    Let’s go back to our original STA Index and portfolio example.

    In year 3 we have THREE events that occur which impact both the index and our portfolio.

    1. Company DEF buys back 50% of their outstanding shares
    2. Company MNO files for bankruptcy.
    3. Each company experiences a change in share price.

    The table below shows the impact of these three events on the index and the portfolio.

    00 STAIndex-Year3-040213

    Notice that the share buyback and the bankruptcy combined cause market capitalization of the index to collapse by almost 18%. However, the dollar loss to your portfolio is roughly only 9%.

    This reduction in market capitalization of Company DEF did nothing to change the price or number of shares owned on a dollar basis in your portfolio.   However, the collapse in the stock of Company MNO as it filed for bankruptcy resulted in a significant loss of investor principal.

    Substitution Effect

    This brings us to the “substitution effect.”   This is something that is rarely talked about to investors who are chided to chase the financial markets at their own peril.

    When a company such as GM, AIG, Enron, Worldcom, and a host of others in history, goes bankrupt they are swapped out of the index for another company. The index is then reweighted for the “substitution.”   The table below shows the impact of the substitution on the index and your portfolio.

    00 STAIndex-Year4-040213

    The substitution immediately provides a positive push to the index due to the boost in market capitalization. However, your personal investment portfolio does not see such a positive effect. On a dollar weighted basis the bankrupt company still weighs on the value of the total portfolio.

    In order for you to get your portfolio back into alignment with the STA Index the stock of MNO Company must be sold and then replaced with PQR.

    The Replacement Effect

    The replacement of a stock in your actual portfolio is confronted by a problem. Since there is no cash in the portfolio, other than what was raised by the sell of MNO – only 100 shares of PQR can be purchased as shown in the table below.

    As with each year previously I have also included changes in price for each individual company other than PQR so that the substitution and replacement were done at the same price for example purposes.

    00 STAIndex-Year5-040213

    Note: Yes, I could have rebalanced the portfolio to raise cash to purchase more shares of PQR, however, we have NOT rebalanced the index. Therefore, using just available cash is the appropriate measure.

    If you take a look at the Year 4 table above you will see that both the index and your portfolio declined by $1000 in total between year 4 and 5. However, the decline of the index was -2.7% versus only -1.96% for your portfolio. This is specifically due to the fact that your portfolio is $4000 less than the index at this point.

    What About Performance?

    Tom Dorsey once wrote;

    “Comparison is the cause of more unhappiness in the world than anything else. Perhaps it is inevitable that human beings as social animals have an urge to compare themselves with one another. Maybe it is just because we are all terminally insecure in some cosmic sense. Social comparison comes in many different guises. ‘Keeping up with the Joneses,’ is one well-known way.

    If your boss gave you a Mercedes as a yearly bonus, you would be thrilled—right up until you found out everyone else in the office got two cars. Then you are ticked. But really, are you deprived for getting a Mercedes? Isn’t that enough?

    Comparison-created unhappiness and insecurity is pervasive, judging from the amount of spam touting various enlargement procedures for males and females. The basic principle seems to be that whatever we have is enough, until we see someone else who has more. Whatever the reason, comparison in financial markets can lead to remarkably bad decisions.

    Comparison in the financial arena is the main reason clients have trouble patiently sitting on their hands, letting whatever process they are comfortable with work for them. They get waylaid by some comparison along the way and lose their focus. If you tell a client that they made 12% on their account, they are very pleased. If you subsequently inform them that ‘everyone else’ made 14%, you have made them upset. The whole financial services industry, as it is constructed now, is predicated on making people upset so they will move their money around in a frenzy. Money in motion creates fees and commissions. The creation of more and more benchmarks and style boxes is nothing more than the creation of more things to COMPARE to, allowing clients to stay in a perpetual state of outrage.”

    This could not be more to the point than anything that we have discussed today. Comparison of your performance to an index is the most useless, and potentially dangerous, thing that you can do as an investor.

    The issues of stock buybacks, the “substitution effect”, taxes, expenses and fees all lead to underperformance of the index.  In a recent article a study found that only 1 in 4 mutual fund managers outperform the market index over long periods of time.  Of those that outperformed the average outperformance was .12% before fees and expenses.  However, the fees and expenses were larger than the level of outperformance.  This, of course, does not also include the tax impact on gains and income.

    The problem with chasing performance, of course, is that once you fall behind you take on MORE risk to try and make up the difference.  This leads, ultimately, to bigger mistakes that cost investors dearly.

    As you can see in the table and chart below – the index performed substantially better than the dollar weighted portfolio. This is the reality that the majority of investors live with today. This is also why investors are not rushing back into the market after having their suffered two previous major declines.

    The major learning point is that chasing a “benchmark index” is a mistake because of the following reasons:

    1) The index contains no cash

    2) It has no life expectancy requirements – but you do.

    3) It does not have to compensate for distributions to meet living requirements – but you do.

    4) It requires you to take on excess risk (potential for loss) in order to obtain equivalent performance – this is fine on the way up, but not on the way down.

    5) It has no taxes, costs or other expenses associated with it – but you do.

    6) It has the ability to substitute at no penalty – but you don’t.

    7) It benefits from share buybacks – but you don’t.

    You get the idea.  As we stated yesterday:

    “Suppressed wage growth, layoffs, cost-cutting, productivity increases, accounting gimmickry and stock buybacks have been the primary factors in surging profitability. However, these actions are finite in nature and inevitably it will come down to topline revenue growth. However, since consumer incomes have been cannibalized by suppressed wages and interest rates – there is nowhere left to generate further sales gains from in excess of population growth.

    So, while the markets have surged to “all-time highs” – for the majority of Americans who have little, or no, vested interest in the financial markets their view is markedly different. While the mainstream analysts and economists keep hoping with each passing year that this will be the year the economy comes roaring back – the reality is that all the stimulus and financial support available from the Fed, and the government, can’t put a broken financial transmission system back together again. Eventually, the current disconnect between the economy and the markets will merge. My bet is that such a convergence is not likely to be a pleasant one.”


    In order to win the long term investing game your portfolio should be built around the things that matter most to you.

    – Capital preservation

    – A rate of return sufficient to keep pace with the rate of inflation.

    – Expectations based on realistic objectives.  (The market does not compound at 8%, 6% or 4%)

    – Higher rates of return require an exponential increase in the underlying risk profile.  This tends to not work out well.

    – You can replace lost capital – but you can’t replace lost time.  Time is a precious commodity that you cannot afford to waste.

    – Portfolios are time-frame specific.  If you have a 5-years to retirement but build a portfolio with a 20-year time horizon (taking on more risk) the results will likely be disastrous.

    The index is a mythical creature, like the Unicorn, and chasing it takes your focus off of what is most important – your money and your specific goals.  Investing is not a competition and there are horrid consequences for treating it as such.

    Currently, there is little margin for error.  It is very likely, due to the ongoing interventions by the Fed, the market could continue to rally through April and potentially into May.   There are stark similarities between the current advance and the first five months of 2012.

    However, we are getting ever closer to a breakdown in the market which will likely be larger and more vicious than you can currently imagine.  When that will occur – I honestly do NOT have a clue. The Fed’s interventions can keep the market pushing higher longer than we can rationally expect.  What I do know, and I know this with absolute clarity, is that a correction will come.  When the correction occurs we need to be ready to act.  Such a correction, as with all corrections and crashes, will be a buying opportunity – the only question will be from where?

    Images: Flickr (licence attribution)

    About The Author

    Lance Roberts – Host of Streettalk Live

    lance robertsAfter having been in the investing world for more than 25 years from private banking and investment management to private and venture capital; Lance has pretty much “been there and done that” at one point or another. His common sense approach has appealed to audiences for over a decade and continues to grow each and every week.

    Lance is also the Chief Editor of the X-Report, a weekly subscriber based-newsletter that is distributed nationwide. The newsletter covers economic, political and market topics as they relate to the management portfolios. A daily financial blog, audio and video’s also keep members informed of the day’s events and how it impacts your money.

    Lance’s investment strategies and knowledge have been featured on Fox 26, CNBC, Fox Business News and Fox News. He has been quoted by a litany of publications from the Wall Street Journal, Reuters, The Washington Post all the way to TheStreet.com as well as on several of the nation’s biggest financial blogs such as the Pragmatic Capitalist, Zero Hedge and Seeking Alpha.