Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The Weight of Indexing

Even simple is no longer so. And when it comes to index funds, that often suggested answer for everything an investor should do but doesn't, the boringly mundane investment that tracks rather than participates, the it-beats-actively-managed-funds choice of the passively prone, there are now choices. There have been for years in the form of exchange traded funds (ETFs) sold as shares of stock on the open market. But this might be different in ways that deceive rather than simply suggest there are nuances.

Index funds rely on the ability to price securities efficiently. Unfortunately, the markets are not as efficient as they should be with investors often making decisions that make little sense when it comes to determining what a security is worth. And when those bad decisions are made, other investors follow. But that flaw can be overlooked in favor of the low fees (no trading means no costs unless the index changes), low turnover (no trading means the portfolio stays intact) and good diversification (spread out across a wide swath of the market).

Yet if it were only that simple. Those low fees can vary wildly over various index funds and those same index funds may appear to be the same. Buy an S&P 500 index fund you so often hear experts suggest and although they make no effort to hide the average-ness of this investment, in fact, heralding its mundaneness as the very reason you should buy it, that isn't enough.

Traditional index fund are market weighted. This simply means that these funds have holdings that are based on the amount of investor dollars each holds or the company's capitalization. The top 10 companies in an index fund often make up the lion's share of the invested index (20%). So if a market swing like the one that happened in 2008 occur, the whole index stumbles, brought down by the behemoths at the top. That can be problem and it can impact the investor's interpretation of average.

So enter the revamped index fund. The "alternate-index" fund hopes to realign the weighting in these funds to equal, offering the investor an equal share of every stock in the top 500. That means that the largest stock would only get 0.2% of the invested dollar while the stock on the cusp, the one that barely has a presence in the weighted index, would also have 0.2%.

These funds hope to keep the image of low cost and low turnover (considered a tax advantage) in place. By equally weighting the fund, the goal is to outperform the weighted index. There are other entrants to the index world, all hoping to take advantage of what is seen as flaws. That's right, in order to sell the idea that one ndex fund is different than the other, you must point out why.

The alternate index fund arena has spawned other types of funds that offer indexed stocks based on the dividends they pay or even the earnings they post, sometimes even as a combination. The chase to out-perform might seem like a worthwhile idea, but the reality is quite different. When you begin to slice these indexes in different fashions, you expose different opportunities for volatility. And keep in mind, this is the stock market we are talking about.

Unlike their weighted brethren, many of the alternative-index funds rebalance more often due to shifts in stock prices. They also benefit over traditional index funds when the marketplace favors the mid-sized and small-cap companies in the index. if the investor is seeing opportunity in smaller more nimble members of the index, the index does better. Quarterly rebalancing shifts the index back to its 0.2% of each strategy but in doing so, sells winners (losing the tax advantage somewhat and increasing turnover during incredibly volatile times).

Are these worth a look? Possibly if you believe the value will remain in the smaller and mid-sized members of the index. If you are anticipating a large-cap rally, the the traditional index fund will prevail. The question is: do downturns such as the most recent one favor one or the other? In terms of raw numbers, yes. When the markets stumble in tandem, the alternative-index funds tend to do worse, even with a mostly short-term record. But even though the fall is equally as difficult to stomach, it is the recovery that most investors focus on. And during a recovery, the alternative-index fund tends to do better.

Just when you thought the index fund was your friend, it turns out that it has a split personality. Does this mean you should avoid index funds? Not at all. In fact, if you do want to own them, I suggest (which is different than advise) you do so in a Roth IRA rather than in a 401(k) type of account. Their tax efficiency is not worth the trouble in a tax-deferred account as long as capital gains taxes remain low.

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