In a classic episode of the TV show Seinfeld, Jerry and his friends invoke the term “bizarro” to describe an odd, alternate version of their own world. This term — bizarro — actually originated in the 1960s, in Superman comics, and it has entered popular usage to refer to any situation which seems strangely upside down.
For the past several years, the investment world has been experiencing its own bizarro era. Specifically, Warren Buffett, arguably the world’s most successful investor, has gone on record — repeatedly — advocating that individual investors do precisely the opposite of what he himself has been doing for his entire career.
Buffett, whose success picking stocks is legendary, now recommends that individuals avoid stock-picking entirely and instead put their money into low-cost index funds — that is, mutual funds that hold, more or less, every stock. And, significantly, Buffett doesn’t exclude himself from this advice; he has instructed the manager of his own family’s trust to do the very same thing.
How should we understand this change in Buffett’s thinking? Why has he changed his mind so completely?
I attribute the change to one thing: the Internet. In Buffett’s early days, investing was genuinely hard work. Indeed, Buffett’s mentor, Benjamin Graham, was able to outpace his competitors, in large part, by simply outworking them. In 1926, for example, he spent several days sifting through papers in the records room of the Interstate Commerce Commission in Washington. Why? Because he was interested in railroad companies and wanted to access data that was available only on paper and only in that one office. With the information that he learned there, Graham made a fortune for his hedge fund investors.
But today, with the Internet, and other data services such as Bloomberg, it’s much harder for any one investor to really outsmart another. Yes, it is still possible, and some fund managers still deliver notable success, but in general, the evidence is clear: you would be better off flipping a coin than trying to pick a fund that will do any better than a simple, low-cost index fund. Indeed, the latest results from the research firm Morningstar, confirm that you would be far better off with a coin toss: over the past ten years, a mere 16 percent of mutual funds have been able to “beat the market.”
As a result of this data, the single best piece of advice I offer to individual investors is to heed Buffett’s admonition: recognize that, since the advent of the Internet, the investment universe has changed completely. But unlike Seinfeld’s bizarro world, this change does not look temporary. The Internet isn’t going away, and as a result, the investment world today is a much more level playing field. For that reason, I completely agree with Warren Buffett: It is no longer worthwhile to pay big fees to investment managers who believe that they can beat the market in the same way that Graham and Buffett were able to years ago. Instead, I believe that an intelligent selection of low-cost index funds is the best path to success in today’s world.