Sometimes we don’t give kids enough credit. Yesterday, my first-grader reminded me of this fact. On a trip to CVS, he was looking through the drink cooler when he asked “what’s smartwater?” But, before I could answer, he started with his own commentary. Seeing the price tag — which was more than double that of the regular water next to it — he asked, “Why’s it smart? It’s just water. Is it really going to make me smart?”
This experience made me realize something: As consumers, we are all pretty skilled when it comes to spotting inflated prices and exaggerated marketing claims. My son proved that we have these abilities by the age of seven, if not earlier. But, when it comes to the investment world, unfortunately it is not as easy to make these distinctions. I see at least two reasons for that:
First is the sheer quantity of investments available to consumers: In the United States, there are more than 8,000 mutual funds offered in more than 25,000 individual share classes. This makes it difficult to do effective comparison shopping.
Another reason is that, just like the food industry, the mutual fund industry loves creating new products with magical sounding marketing messages. In fact, and not surprisingly, over the past few years, one of the newest and fastest-growing trends among mutual funds also carries the “smart” label. Specifically, the industry calls these new funds “smart beta.”
What does this mean exactly? To explain, let’s put aside the “smart” for a minute. “Beta” is a basic finance term that has been around for nearly fifty years. It refers to the way in which the price of an investment varies in relation to the movement of the overall market. Stocks with high betas bounce around more than average, while stocks with low betas are very steady. The promise of smart beta, however, is that, owing to their construction, these investments will deliver returns that beat the overall market.
Here’s an example: In contrast to the typical index fund, which holds stocks in proportion to their size, one popular smart beta strategy seeks to hold an equal amount of every stock. Other smart beta strategies seek to capitalize on stock price momentum, on the quality of companies’ financial results or on the level of their dividends.
Will these “smart” funds actually help you earn more in your investment portfolio? In some cases, there is indeed a sound academic basis for the strategy, and it is certainly possible that they could beat the overall market.
But, here’s the thing: The only aspect of these funds that is actually new is the catchy marketing name — and higher price — that some vendors have attached when branding their products as smart beta. The reality is that these kinds of strategies have been around for decades. In fact, way back in 1981, long before the term was coined, an entire mutual fund company was founded on the basis of smart beta. They have a much more mundane name for it, but it’s exactly the same thing. And, investment practitioners who have understood these concepts have always used them in building portfolios. (This includes my firm.)
Confucius once said, “Life is really simple, but we insist on making it complicated.” I doubt he was referring specifically to Wall Street, but he certainly could have been. Smartwater claims to provide “purity you can taste, inspired by the clouds.” Perhaps that’s true, but that lofty promise comes at a price. Personally, I’d rather pay less and get a largely identical product, even if it carries a less trendy label. Similarly, smart beta funds may sound new and smart, but in my opinion, when it comes to your investments, your smartest move is to keep it simple. Yes, the concepts underlying smart beta do have value, but you can attain those benefits without succumbing to faddish labels and inflated prices.